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Smart Bombers: Do Universities Breed Terrorists?

5 years ago
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LONDON -- In the aftermath of the Christmas Day bombing attempt, our nation is once again grappling with how best to protect itself against terrorist attacks. So far, the U.S. government has been directing its resources towards things like airport security and strengthening the government in Yemen, a new hotbed for al-Qaeda. But it's worth asking whether we'd be better served by focusing on what goes on inside universities.

"What most people say is that people who turn to terror are the underclass, excluded, social detritus of the globalized economy," says Anthony Glees, a professor of political science and director of the Centre for Security and Intelligence at the University of Buckingham. "But a significant number of people convicted of terror offenses or killed in the commission of those offenses are university students or graduates."

In fact, the Centre for Social Cohesion -- a non-partisan think-tank that studies issues related to community cohesion in the U.K. -- puts that number at slightly over one-quarter for this country. According to a forthcoming report by the center, 26.2 percent of those involved in Islamist related terrorism convictions and attacks between 1999 and 2009 in the U.K. were educated at or above university-degree level. As Glees -- who identified extremist organizations on as many as 30 British university campuses in his 2005 book, "When Students Turn to Terror" -- put it, "Not every radical is a violent extremist. But every violent extremist has been a radical."

The idea that terrorists can be well-educated isn't a new one. I moved to London 3½ years ago, the day before a group of "home grown" British terrorists -- at least one of whom attended university here -- was arrested for a "liquid bomb plot" at Heathrow airport. Ten months later, a bunch of doctors tried to blow up Glasgow airport. Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl's executioner -- Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh -- went to the London School of Economics. And it isn't just the U.K. where some students turn to violence. Osama bin Laden also -- and famously -- has a university degree. In a recent article in Slate, Anne Applebaum describes the emergence of an international jihadist elite who are educated, eloquent, cosmopolitan and -- crucially -- often the children of ambitious, Westernized parents.

But ever since it came to light that the so-called "underwear bomber," Nigerian-born Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, was the head of the Islamic Society at University College London (UCL), the idea of universities as a breeding ground for terrorism has gained currency, particularly in Great Britain. Such fears were reinforced by a poll taken last year by the Centre for Social Cohesion, which found that 60 percent of active members of campus Islamic groups believe that killing in the name of religion can be justified.

Not everyone agrees that these fears are well-placed. June Edmunds of Cambridge University's Centre for Development Studies has also conducted research into attitudes of young Muslim populations in the U.K. (albeit with a considerably smaller sample size). She found that the vast majority of those surveyed are actually better integrated into British society than their parents, with a stronger sense of national identity. The students she interviewed were far more concerned with democracy and human rights, she says, and far more likely to join Amnesty International than al-Qaeda.

And outside the U.K.? The conventional wisdom has long been that there is a positive relationship between higher education and the propensity to commit extreme acts of violence. Robert Pape is the director of the Chicago Project on Security and Terrorism and author of "Dying to Win: The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism." In an e-mail message, he noted -- by way of example -- that 54 percent of Palestinian suicide attackers had at least some college education, compared to only a small fraction (less than 15 percent) in Palestinian society more broadly. This finding is echoed in a larger empirical study across a wide range of countries by Princeton economist Alan Krueger, who also found that better educated, more well-to-do individuals are more likely to join groups like Hezbollah and al-Qaeda.

More recently, however, two sociologists -- Diego Gambetta and Stefan Hertog -- discovered that what really matters isn't so much the level of education of would-be terrorists but what they study. According to their research, engineers are four times more likely to pursue violent extremism than their peers in finance, medicine or the sciences. In the West, at least, these scholars found that jihadist organizations actually attract fewer educated individuals, drawing more heavily from the working and middle classes. But there are proportionately even more engineers among their ranks than there are in similar organizations in the Middle East.

Clearly, more empirical work is needed to sort out the international trends. But to the extent that some recruitment for extremist organizations is taking place on university campuses, it's worth asking why it happens and what can be done about it. Or, as Glees put it to me, "I'm interested in the 'ization' part of 'radicalization.' "

The "why" question isn't difficult to answer. Universities are full of young, engaged students with a lot of time on their hands. They are also places where ideas get exchanged and that provide a lot of opportunities for experimentation with different worldviews. According to Glees, DVDs of beheadings and other terrorist acts freely circulate on campuses where extremist organizations exist. Above all, however, universities are places relatively easy for radical groups to visit, and students can frequent off-campus sites where extremist views are showcased. "So if your bag is jihad," said Douglas Murray, director of the Centre for Social Cohesion, "you use this opportunity to . . . create a network through which to access global jihad."

In a forthcoming briefing titled "Islamist Radicalization on U.K. Campuses," Murray's center documents numerous visits by radical Islamic preachers to British campuses since the 7/7 bombings in London. They include some who have spoken in support of the Taliban, warned Muslims not to integrate into Western societies, advocated extreme intolerance towards non-Muslims and called for the destruction of Israel. Anwar al-Awlaki, for example -- the Yemen-based preacher who provided spiritual guidance to both Abdulmutallab and accused Fort Hood assassin Nidal Malik Hasan -- has given several talks at British campuses in the recent past.

But it's not just in the U.K. where campuses facilitate recruitment for jihad. Just a few months ago, five well educated, middle-class young men from Northern Virginia were arrested in Pakistan after allegedly being recruited over the Internet to join al-Qaeda. Students at Virginia Tech have described groups of "traveling Muslim proselytizers" who appear on campus and literally do a door-to-door sales pitch on radical Islam.

What can be done to counteract these trends? Muslim community leaders in the U.S. talk about creating a Web portal offering video explanations of Koranic verses that can be misinterpreted by radicals, as well as setting up an Islamic Peace Corps through which young people could help Muslims in underdeveloped countries. On the more hawkish end of things, there are calls in the U.K. for the government to monitor more carefully who gets visas and for universities to monitor more carefully the political views of their student population. UCL President Malcolm Grant had famously confessed that he had "no idea" of the Christmas Day bomber's political views, adding that there could be no vetting of students' "political, racial or religious background or beliefs." But should there be?

At a minimum, most seem to agree that closer attention needs to be paid to who, exactly, is visiting university campuses. "No one's saying that these campus groups can't exist and invite speakers." says Murray. "But, yes, they should be subject to the same rules and expectations. If a Conservative party association at the UCL were to have invited a KKK-affiliated person who teaches that 'Black people are inferior, sub-human and should be killed and here's how,' that society would not be allowed to continue."

In her article on the emerging jihadist elite, Applebaum advocates meeting these radicals where they live by countering their extremism with well reasoned arguments. Interestingly, the U.K. already has a program -- Prevent -- which is designed to do precisely that. Operating at the community level, its purpose is to dissuade British Muslim youth from becoming radicalized through things like theological sessions, leadership training, rap music performances, sports events and theater tickets, all of which endorse a more moderate civic message. But the program has been roundly criticized for racial profiling (it targets only Muslim youth) and it is also under parliamentary investigation for spying on non-violent Muslim citizens.

Which brings us to civil liberties. There's a fine line between espousing extremist views and advocating violence, but it does exist. It's also the case that trying to encourage moderation can slip easily into suppressing dissent.

But there are lines to be drawn. And what's clear is that we need to start looking at them more closely.

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