For young Muslims especially, London is a city like no other. It is a mecca for jobs and education and provides freedom from the prying eyes of family back home. The grand metropolis also beckons as a bastion of religious freedom and as a refuge from corrupt home country politics.
And with roughly 600,000 Muslim residents hailing from all corners of the Islamic world, it's a place where virtually every flavor of Europe's fastest growing religion can be studied and discussed.
That was the world that Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab – the young Nigerian accused of seeking to blow up Northwest Airlines Flight 253 on Christmas –immersed himself in as a student between 2005 and 2008, when the petri dish of political Islam in London was stirring strongly.
For at least a decade sub-cultures of radical thought that promote borderless Islam and an uncompromising return to Sharia law have flourished in Great Britain’s capital – despite some reportedly effective efforts to tamp down extremist views, and despite worries among moderate London Muslims about the trend.
“There are basically two meccas,” argues Egyptian-born Mamoun Fandy of the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London. “There’s a Mecca that Muslims should visit, and the mecca of jihad that is London.”
London's 'problem of assimilation'
Police are still searching a three bedroom apartment in a seven story block close to Oxford Circus in London’s posh West End, which had been rented by Abdulmutallab’s father, a prominent Nigerian banker, and where the young man stayed while studying mechanical engineering and business finance at University College London.
The availability of every kind of message Islam has to offer is part of the London scene. Most mosques have easy byways for students to meet and learn a more intense Koranic view; groups like Hizb ut-Tahrir, which seeks a return to early Islam with all Muslim states under one ruler, post members around mosques on Friday. They offer cards with phone numbers and invitations to study groups that discuss jihad. One of their common Friday hangouts is an East London mosque that Abdulmutallab allegedly attended.
To be sure, it is too early to say what role London may have played in radicalizing the young Nigerian, who attended an elite British international school in Togo prior to arriving in London. His mother is Yemeni, and he spent time in the Gulf. But his four formative years in London coincided with public anger over the Iraq war and the London subway and bus bombing by Islamists in July 2005. Those attacks led to new efforts to deport militant clerics, censor sermons that encourage violence, and to millions spent on integrating resident Muslims. The city picked up the sobriquet “Londonistan” widely at the time.
But there are still young Muslims in London for whom a more demanding and militant strain of faith is a salve. Young Muslims in London are more sophisticated, analysts say, but may keenly feel rejection or alienation from the demanding, secular cosmopolitan world surrounding them. Their grievances, particularly earlier in the decade, are sharpened by the city.
“I’ve felt for a long time that if radical Sharia law comes to the rest of the world it will start on the streets of London,” says a Pakistani expert on militant Islam who asked not to be identified. “Too many clerics today, even moderate ones, don’t talk on Muslim life in a secular state. Young Muslims are smart, raised as British citizens. If they come from abroad, many have great hope and are often disillusioned. They live between worlds, in the cracks. When they go home to their families they are often more radical than their friends.”
“There remains in London a problem of assimilation for outsiders. The society is closed. The city is open, but the people are not,” argues Mr. Fandy.
Student visas for schools that don't exist?
Britain’s Home Secretary, Alan Johnson, told the BBC Monday that Abdulmutallab was on a security watch list, which meant that although he could not come into the UK, he could pass through the country in transit. He added that Abdulmutallab had been refused a fresh British student visa after applying in May to study at a college in Britain which was identified as bogus. “What happened in Britain? This is one of the questions. Was he radicalized in this country?” asked Mr. Johnson.
Agence France-Presse cited family members' claims that Abdulmutallab was a quiet individual who was “radicalized” during his stint in London. The London daily Independent quoted a school friend: "He always did the bare minimum of work and would just show up to classes" and "he always would go off to pray," said Fabrizio Cavallo Marincola. "He was pretty quiet and didn't socialise much or have a girlfriend that I knew of. (...) You would never imagine him pulling off something like this."
Critics of lax border security in the UK point out that more than 42,000 British student visas were issued to Pakistani students between 2004 and 2007 but it was only in 2009 that applications have been checked against an expanded set of terrorist watch lists. A concern is that student visas are being secured to study at educational institutions which don’t exist.
The Pakistani analyst, who has close ties to London mosques, argues that nearly every Pakistani radical he knows in London has gone through a “night club” phase. They try out a “clubbing life” that is ultimately unsatisfying. “They try to experience something like a dream of life in the west. About a year later they show up in the mosque, grow beards and are ‘good Muslims,’” he says.
Many Muslims in the UK complain of the “double standards” of Western policies, particularly as regards the Middle East. British Palestinian Muslims have complained, for example, that when British Jews go to Israel and fight for the Israeli army, they come home as praiseworthy heroes; but when Palestinians go to fight or aid the local struggle, they come home and are considered terrorists.
In July, a determination in London that Al Qaeda threats have diminished lowered the terrorist threat level from severe to substantial, and relaxed measures such as ‘stop and search’ powers. Britain has spent heavily on reconciliation projects – sponsoring ‘moderate’ preachers - aimed at stemming the influence of Islamist messages over young British Muslims. UK campuses remain in the frontline of struggle to prevent the radicalization of students although the British government continues to resist calls to ban Hizb ut-Tahrir, accused of attempting to infiltrate Muslim student societies.