ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
Obviously many questions in the case remain unanswered. Among them: How did this prosperous young Nigerian with an engineering degree from a world-class university allegedly transition from being a devout Muslim to being a would-be suicide bomber?
Well, Vicki Barker reports some answers may be found in the city where Abdulmutallab studied for three years.
VICKI BARKER: His teachers at University College London say Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab was a well-mannered, well-spoken and able student in the chemical engineering department. He was president of the campus Islamic Society for about a year, but never to their knowledge expressed any extremist views. To Anthony Glees, the absence of warning signs is cause for deep concern.
Professor ANTHONY GLEES (Brunel University): What is worrying in the case of University College London is the absence of evidence about it previously.
BARKER: In 2005, Glees, a Brunel University professor, wrote an influential paper about the radicalization of Muslim students at a handful of British institutions. University College London, UCL, was not on the list.
Prof. GLEES: It's not been a site previously associated with al-Qaida inspired attacks. Therefore, we need to be looking not at places we've looked at before, just, but also at places we wouldn't have thought of looking before.
BARKER: Two years ago, the British government quietly launched a program called Prevent. Boldly put, its aim is to stop young British Muslims from becoming terrorists. It includes extra resources for pastoral care to those Muslims deemed most vulnerable. Britain's experience with homegrown Islamist terrorism has suggested these are young men of South Asian or Middle Eastern extraction living well outside mainstream, multicultural Britain.
But Abdulmutallab didn't fit into any of those categories. He was Nigerian. He was rich, living in a posh apartment near London's Harley Street. He was sophisticated, and he'd had the best education money and merit could buy. Sajjan Gohel is with the Asia-Pacific Foundation, a London security think tank.
Mr. SAJJAN GOHEL (Asia-Pacific Foundation, London): In many ways, it is the bright, articulate individuals that are more susceptible to the ideological message that groups like al-Qaida preach. The particular outfit that's been linked to Abdulmutallab, al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, has become quite sophisticated in planning plots that are designed to evade airport security.
BARKER: British investigators are still trying to trace Abdulmutallab's movements here to see if any of the contacts he had at UCL or at the East London mosque he frequented could've brought him to the attention of a terrorist cell.
The British Federation of Islamic Student Societies confirms Abdulmutallab led its UCL chapter between 2006 and 2007, but it insists it's heard nothing to suggest he supported illegal acts. In fact, a spokesman says, during his tenure, the society worked to forge closer ties with student groups of all faiths.
Now, British universities are in the spotlight, accused in some quarters of failing to adequately monitor potential radicals in their midst. But UCL's Provost Malcolm Grant says universities of UCL's stature must do nothing that could compromise academic freedoms and freedom of expression, and they cannot and should not screen incoming students.
Mr. MALCOLM GRANT (Provost, University College London): We admit our students wholly on merit. We make no reference to their political, racial or religious background or belief. That's fundamental to what we do. So, we can't, as it were, vet students in any effective way at that point.
BARKER: Britain's Home Secretary Alan Johnson agrees that the high reputation of Britain's universities rests in large part on freedoms which the authorities do not want to curtail.
Mr. ALAN JOHNSON (British Home Secretary): Yes, there's an issue about radicalization, which is why the Prevent part of our counterterrorism strategy is so important about ensuring young people are not radicalized in this way.
BARKER: The problem with relying on a policy like Prevent is implicit in its very name. How do you know if a program designed to prevent something from happening really works?
For NPR News, I'm Vicki Barker in London.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.