Universities treading on delicate ground when it comes to extremism

London Letter: both men arrested over the murder of Lee Rigby attended the same UK college

Michael Adebowale and Michael Adebolajo, the two men arrested in Woolwich following the brutal killing of Drummer Lee Rigby, both attended the University of Greenwich at different times over the last decade. Both had converted to Islam before they entered the grounds of the former polytechnic, but both, equally, attended meetings on campus organised by the university's Islamic Society, which has hosted a number of radical extremists.

Universities are treading on delicate ground, since they are supposed to be places of learning and free debate, but they have a responsibility to ensure their campuses are not used to foment hate. Trying to define extremism, the Association of Chief Police Officers describes it as “vocal or active opposition to fundamental British values, including democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and mutual respect and tolerance of different faiths and beliefs”.

Last week, just a day before the Rigby killing, Universities UK, which represents more than 130 third-level institutions, unveiled a new website to help universities and students "to tackle violent extremism and radicalisation on campus".

Unchecked extremism
Greenwich rejects charges that extremism is left unchecked, though two years ago leaflets were distributed during fresher's week from one Muslim cleric who has advocated that "every Muslim should be a terrorist".


Meanwhile Dr Khalid Fikri spoke at an event organised by the university’s Islamic society praising Omar Abdel-Rahman, who is now serving a life sentence in a US prison following an FBI investigation into a plot to bomb multiple targets in New York and New Jersey. The new website Safe Campus Communities offers advice to staff and students on how to build a good relationship with the police, how to deal with external speakers and how to manage interfaith relations on campus.

Two years ago, the board of Manchester University was told that a third of all those convicted in the UK of al-Qaeda-associated terrorist offences between 1999 and 2009 were university-educated – though it is not clear how many were taught in the UK.

Three students – Omar Khyam, (London Metropolitan University), Salahuddin Amin (University of Hertfordshire) and Jawad Akbar (Brunel University) – were convicted of conspiracy to cause explosions in 2007. However, the first two had become fascinated by terrorism during holidays to Pakistan rather than because of anything they heard on campus, though Akbar, who was said to be resentful of society, had attended extremist meetings during his time in university.

Meanwhile, the Caldicott inquiry found that Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, who attempted to blow up an aircraft as it prepared to land in Detroit, had not been radicalised during his time as president of the Islamic Society in University College, London.

Instead, it found that the Nigerian son of a wealthy banker had become disillusioned with western society but had then been radicalised and trained in Yemen before he was sent on his way to Detroit with hidden explosives.

Nevertheless, the department of business, innovation and skills has argued that “unambiguous evidence” exists that some extremists deliberately target some universities, warning that up to 40 unnamed institutions were “at particular risk”.

Not everyone agreed with the analysis, with some academics arguing that the authorities have never given credit to third-level institutions for the work that has been done as they try to safeguard freedom of speech while protecting the majority "from those who seek to exploit this freedom".

For the police and MI5, the immediate issue is to make sure extremist preachers are not given platforms in colleges, but, equally, they want colleges to keep a far closer eye on students – a far more uncomfortable idea for academics.

“It is not suggested that any university had a role to play in radicalising any of these individuals, or that conditions were conducive for radicalisation at their [institutions],” says the Association of Chief Police Officers. “However the vulnerability to being radicalised of current and future students could be identified by staff and students with interventions created which could reduce their vulnerability, thereby preventing an act of terror.”

The University of Brighton came up with its own solution in co-operation with Sussex, which assigned one constable to act as university liaison officer and left her there for long enough to build ties.

Over the last four years, PC Donna Bagguley has become an “accepted and trusted uniformed figure by students and staff at each of the five campus sites”.