The Sunday Times

January 10th, 2010

We must target radicals – before they target us

If the price of freedom is eternal vigilance, the same is true of public safety. The failed airline bomber at Christmas has reminded everyone of that. But vigilance is not the same as constant state surveillance: that would make freedom itself the price of public safety. It is surely obvious that vigilance must be carefully directed and focused — in other words, targeted. Only by careful targeting of the few can we avoid indiscriminate, mass intrusion into the freedom and the privacy of the many.

Yet for many people targeting is almost a dirty word. So is discrimination, even though it actually signifies careful, rational distinction between things, rather than all-purpose injustice (which is pretty much its opposite). After the failure of the young Nigerian terrorist to blow up an aircraft and the failure of the US intelligence services to stop him, almost every suggestion made about how better to deal with terrorism in our midst is met with angry objections.

Take the question of whether Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab — the Christmas bomber — was radicalised at University College London (UCL) or somewhere else. This seems to me to miss all the points. It is admittedly disturbing that Professor Malcolm Grant, the president and provost of UCL, felt able to say that what Abdulmutallab did “came as a complete shock to the UCL community”.

These days any university ought to be very vigilant about its student Islamic society (Isoc). Abdulmutallab was once head of the UCL Isoc and had organised a “war on terror” week that ought to have alerted anyone who took extremism among Muslim students seriously. So, too, should his invitation to a notorious radical preacher to speak to the society.

Even a modest amount of pastoral care would surely have alerted someone at UCL that this lonely Nigerian rich boy was turning, as per the standard casebook model, into an enraged fundamentalist, even though strictly speaking he may not have been chosen for jihad while in London. And he was, after all, known to British intelligence.

Grant’s ignorance is extremely odd. Anybody running a British university, especially one in London, ought to know that Isocs on many British campuses have become centres of radicalism — and not just radicalism, but alarming Islamist hatred, or at least frighteningly illiberal and fundamentalist views. Yet chancellors have been extremely reluctant to acknowledge that. They have ignored or denounced those who have tried to make them face it, in a way that suggests little respect for the academic ideal of keeping a mind open to evidence.

Abdulmutallab, for instance, was the fourth head of a British university Isoc to have been charged with a serious terrorist offence. Post hoc is not necessarily ergo propter hoc — after something doesn’t necessarily mean because of it — but the truth is that British universities are some of the safest, richest waters for Islamist recruiters to swim and fish in.

A study (and YouGov poll) published in 2008 by the Centre for Social Cohesion gives a worrying account of the attitudes of young Muslims on British campuses. Extremist preaching and extremist texts are routinely propagated. The poll found that one in three Muslim university students here believed that killing in the name of their religion could be justified. This figure was almost doubled, to 60%, among students who were active members of Isocs; 40% supported the introduction of sharia into British law and 58% of those active in Isocs supported the idea of a worldwide caliphate. Bad enough, but even worse was the fact that the UK’s Federation of Student Islamic Societies rejected the report entirely, as did the National Union of Students and the higher education minister of the day.

The government is less blind now to these facts, but in this context it is quite remarkable that the provost of UCL and his colleagues should be quite so “completely shocked” by Abdulmutallab’s transformation into a terrorist.

However, whatever the cacophony of denial and wilful ignorance, I do not think it is the role of universities to spy on their students. I share the liberal academic belief that universities are places of freedom of speech and association and students are entitled to say daft things in dodgy groups, as are their teachers. It is that belief, I hope, that prompts vice-chancellors to deny the problem exists. But denial of the facts is a poor strategy to preserve what is good.

What chancellors should be saying is not that Muslim extremism doesn’t exist on campus, or that it doesn’t matter, but that it is not their problem. If spying is to be done — and clearly extremist students must be spied on and already are — let it be done by proper spies, not by academics. Nor should it be done by the police. It must be done by specially trained and highly skilled secret service agents (as it already is). Obviously a university has a duty to report on anyone who breaks the law, but otherwise it is not there to do the life-saving dirty work of intelligence services.

For the secret services to target particular people and groups in this way is infinitely better than for the university to watch and control everybody with constant surveillance. Yet the media today are full of angry protests against targeted vigilance like this. Take passenger profiling and targeted body searches at airports, much discussed last week.

It simply won’t do to say that profiling and targeting don’t work. Of course they are not foolproof and human error is always with us: against stupidity the gods themselves struggle in vain. And of course public safety depends on agencies that defend us working together and of course they may all fail together at times. That may be the price of freedom.

Yet it is perfectly clear that profiling for several risk factors combined must be hugely better than a total lack of discrimination. It’s no counter-argument to say that some terrorists are women, or white, or whatever, and that profiling would have failed to spot them. Maybe so; total success is highly unlikely. But there are some serious risk factors, such as being Muslim and young and much travelled between certain countries, that together are enough to justify extra vigilance. To deny this is to express a different agenda or an indifference to the safety of one’s loved ones. Profiling is part of the acceptable price of public safety.