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Britain Hosts Meeting on Yemen

Sonja Pace | London 26 January 2010

Britain hosts a one-day meeting on Yemen January 27 with foreign ministers and senior officials from the United States, Europe, Gulf nations and elsewhere. The immediate focus is how to deal with the threat of terrorism from Yemen. The meeting was prompted by the alleged attempt by a young Nigerian man to ignite explosives aboard a US airliner on Christmas Day.

Violent extremism in Yemen and how best to combat it is the focus of the meeting here in London. But it was the alleged Christmas Day bombing attempt by the Nigerian Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab that sparked the meeting. Abdulmutallab is charged with trying to blow up a US airliner as it prepared to land in Detroit.

There are more questions than answers about the failed bombing. One is how the young Nigerian, who was on a U.S. terrorism watch list, managed to get a US visa and slip through security.

"Bottom line is this. The US government had sufficient information to uncover this plot and potentially disrupt the Christmas Day attack. But our intelligence community failed to connect these dots," President Obama said.

And there are questions about how a young man from a prominent Nigerian family, who lived and studied abroad, became so radicalized that he wanted to become a suicide bomber.

The trail led in part through London, where Abdulmutallab lived from 2005 to 2009 and attended the prestigious University College London, where he studied engineering.

UCL President Malcolm Grant says Abdulmutallab showed no signs of becoming radicalized while at university. "He, as reported to me by his tutors (teachers), was a quiet, well mannered, industrious young man, not somebody who stood out in any way and certainly not in any way that would give cause for concern," Grant said.

Abdulmutallab's time as president of the campus Islamic Society has also raised questions. He organized discussions that were critical of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

"It's pretty normal activity, actually. I would be disappointed if our student bodies were not organizing controversial conferences and discussions," Grant said. "I mean that is what you should do as a student."

Abdulmutallab's attendance at the East London Mosque and Muslim Center has sparked even more questions.

Assistant Director Shaynul Khan says the young Nigerian may well have prayed there. But he rejects the idea that this played a part in shaping the young man's alleged extremist views.

"We have no way to verify whether he has been here or not," Khan said. He says Abdulmutallab's circle of friends outside the mosque or university could be the source of his alleged extremism. Perhaps someone he met on the Internet.

"One of the dangers of the Internet is that anyone and everybody can post up their interpretation. One of the things that I would always encourage people to do is not rely on the Internet as their source of learning, but rather on individuals who've got the right sets of qualifications in order to represent Islam in the best way it should be," Khan said.

Abdulmutallab's final stop was Yemen, where he was supposedly studying Arabic and where he presumably hooked up with terrorists linked to al-Qaida.

His communication with his family apparently prompted his father to contact the U.S. Embassy in Abuja, expressing fears that his son may have become radicalized.

Radical ideas are not unusual for young people but most don't set out to join a terrorist group, says sociologist Marat Shterin, an expert on religion and violence. "I can quite accept the idea that he was actually an idealist. There is nothing wrong with becoming a radical," Shterin said. "The problem is when this radicalism becomes extremism, violent extremism."

Although the focus of the London conference is Yemen, experts warn that terrorism can spread to and from anywhere - be it Asia, the Middle East, Africa, the Americas or right here in Europe.

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