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Abdulmutallab's case suggests a common theme: The influence of the British Empire remains a key factor in the life of nations that emerged from it.
The appeal of radical Islam at British universities was underscored by a 2008 poll by the respected opinion research firm YouGov which showed that a third of Muslim students felt killing in the name of religion could be justified, a similar number supported the creation of the Caliphate, a unitary state for all the Muslim lands. This is one of the key political goals of the Wahabbi/Salafi radicals fighting the Islamic civil war.
Already devout, when he arrived in the U.K. Abdulmutallab would have been drawn into discussions on these subjects. His arrival at University College in 2005 coincided with an intense period of scrutiny of the Muslim community. The London bombings had occurred in July of that year. Police surveillance was up, many young Muslims were angered at the intrusive gaze of the outside world on their lives. The would-be terrorist might have attended any number of mosques where radical preachers or their disciples "teach" the Wahabbi/Salifist brand of Islam followed by Osama bin Laden and the Al Qaeda leadership. He would have heard them exploit the feelings of resentment that many young British Muslims already felt.
Early reports place Abdulmutallab at the East London Mosque in Whitechapel. Last summer, I took part in a forum 50 yards down the road from the mosque organized by Dialogue with Islam, a grassroots organization that brings together leaders from within the British Muslim Community and prominent people from outside to discuss topics of mutual concern. I first hooked up with the founder of the group while reporting on Britain's radical Muslims in 2004.
At the meeting, held just after evening prayers at the East London Mosque, it was amazing to me to see how hardened attitudes had become among those who attended. The topic that evening was whether Afghanistan represented another front in the West's continuing crusade against the Muslims. Within that tight-knit group it was impossible to frame a discussion of Afghanistan within geo-politics as it is viewed from Downing Street, the White House or for that matter Hamid Karzai's presidential palace. The men, bearded, primed with anger, only saw the Afghanistan conflict in terms of religious warfare.
That is what I observed in the public space, what happens in discussions in small groups in the back rooms of mosques and how it might affect a young man trying to find a clear understanding of himself and his identity as a Muslim can only be guessed at.
But something clearly did happen between discussions with college friends and those he made at the mosque because Adbulmutallab ended up traveling to Yemen — yes, a former British colony — to "study" Arabic in 2008. With the American and Pakistani military smothering Al Qaeda activity in the Af-Pak border country, Yemen, the bin Laden family's ancestral homeland, has become a center of Al Qaeda training. It was here that the young man took the final steps to becoming a soldier on the Wahabbi/Salafi side of the war within Islam.
Given the many countries woven together by modern Islam's civil war and the historical connections created by British colonialism, Abdulmutallab is not likely to be the last wannabe Jihadist to pass through London.