LONDON, U.K. — Once again, an attempted attack on the U.S. via commercial airliner. Once again there is a British connection. Why does this synergy exist?
Let's start with the obvious: language. If what is still the world's only superpower, America, was a Francophone nation then perhaps France's radical Muslims would be more involved. Same thought applies to Germany or for that matter the Netherlands. You could even add Malaysia and Indonesia and their many different languages to this hypothetical list. If America's native tongue was anyone of these then it is entirely probable that I would be writing about these other countries.
The point is this: The entire Muslim world is in the midst of a civil war. No Muslim under the age of 40 is immune from the struggle going on inside the Umma, the Muslim community.
The radical side in this conflict, practitioners of the Wahabbi/Salafi interpretation of the religion, can be found everywhere from the west coast of Africa to the Philippines. The leader of this side is the network of affiliated ultra-radicals called Al Qaeda. For them, attacks on America are an important recruiting tool. "We are the only ones who take the fight to the infidels on their home territory," is the pitch. They can add that it is American support that allows the Zionist entity to survive. (They never say Israel by name because to do so would convey a degree of legitimacy to the country.)
There is doubtless Al Qaeda recruitment going on in France, Germany and everywhere else there are Muslims in the world.
Now, let's try to understand the British connection. The British Empire is long gone but its social and cultural influence remains a key factor in the life of the nations that emerged from it. This is particularly true in Africa and South Asia where the English language binds nations together. Via the British Commonwealth, ties of immigration, family connections and education to the old "mother country" are very strong.
In earlier attempted attacks on America using planes, the terrorists were drawn from Britain's immigrants from Pakistan. There is a steady stream of back and forth visits from Britain to Pakistan as families reunite, matches are made between brides and grooms from the new country and home villages. Unruly youths are sent back to gain old country values and those who are alienated in Britain seek their true identity through deeper study of Islam in Pakistani madrassas. The encounter with radicalism is possible everywhere along the line. There was also, don't forget, Richard C. Reid, better known as the shoe bomber, who was born a British citizen and made frequent trips to Pakistan.
The case of Abdulmutallab is different in specifics. But the broad point is similar: Nigeria was once part of the British Empire and Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab moved easily back and forth from its culture to his own. The failed bomber comes from a well-to-do Anglophile family who sent him to the British International School in Togo, a kind of Eton for the children of West Africa's upper classes. From there he moved on to University College London, one of Britain's and the world's elite institutions of higher education.
The fact that Abdulmutallab was a child of privilege attending a top university however did not mean he was immune to the internal struggle going on inside his religious community. In London there was plenty of opportunity to be pushed and pulled by all sides. British universities are not as apolitical as their American counterparts. All kinds of radical groups find a hearing in them. And Muslim students are as susceptible to the immature romanticism of revolution as other students who commit acts of violence in support of animal rights and/or Greenpeace-style direct action against oil companies.
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.