RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
Londonistan has been one vivid way to describe the cultural crossroads in Britain's capital where would-be terrorists find each other. And it is in the city of London that we pick up the thread of a story we began yesterday, a story about how a young Nigerian came to be accused of trying to blow up a U.S. airplane on Christmas Day. Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab lived a life of privilege in Nigeria, and that continued when he moved to London to attend university.
LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:
The family home was in Regents Park, in a historic building behind wrought-iron gates. Jaguars, Rolls and Mercedes were parked on the street. His friends said they didn't know he lived in such a wealthy neighborhood until they read about it in the papers. And they didn't know about his other life and his apparent contact with suspected terrorists.
From London, Dina Temple-Raston picks up this NPR News investigation called Going Radical.
Unidentified Woman #1: The next station is Goodge Street.
DINA TEMPLE-RASTON: Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab arrived in London in the fall of 2005, and his life largely revolved around two things: his religion and his university's Islamic society.
Unidentified Woman #1: This station is Goodge Street.
TEMPLE-RASTON: His mornings began at the Goodge Street Mosque, and it hardly looks like a mosque at all. It's a storefront, and Abdulmutallab would often stop here to pray on his way to school. After classes, he turned his attention to his responsibilities as president of his university's Islamic society. That meant in addition to leading the opening prayer at the society meetings, he needed to organize a yearly Islamic awareness conference.
Unidentified Man #1: (Singing in foreign language)
TEMPLE-RASTON: That's the opening prayer from this year's conference. This year's program included a lecture on the Prophet Mohammed and another on finding one's life purpose through Islam.
When Abdulmutallab was in charge of the conference in 2006 and 2007, he decided to do things differently. He called his event War on Terror Week. The conference opened with a video: American Airlines Flight 11 plowing into the World Trade Center, followed by images of mujahidin on the battlefield. Then it cut to an interview with a former Guantanamo detainee. His name was Moazzam Begg.
Mr. MOAZZAM BEGG: To be incarcerated in solitary confinement day after day, week after week, month after month and year after year without any recourse to justice...
TEMPLE-RASTON: At the conference, ushers wore orange jumpsuits. They were supposed to look like Guantanamo prisoners.
Mr. BEGG: And to be in a state of limbo is the worst of the tortures. It's worse than being beaten. It's worse than...
TEMPLE-RASTON: Those kinds of stories about Guantanamo had captured Abdulmutallab's attention months before the conference. Intelligence officials say Abdulmutallab contributed to an online chat site called the Islamic Forum. In a March 2006 posting, he mentioned a British journalist, Yvonne Ridley, who was captured and released by the Taliban. The posting is read here by an actor.
Unidentified Man #2: She later on became a Muslim because of how humane she was treated relative to Guantanamo detainees. So I have a link for you. Yvonne Ridley tells her story, and Martin Mubanga, a former Guantanamo detainee, gives his story, too.
TEMPLE-RASTON: Nine months later, Abdulmutallab managed to get Ridley, Mubanga and Begg to be speakers at his conference.
Moazzam Begg may be one of the best-known former Guantanamo detainees. He wrote a book about his experience after his release. He asked me to come and meet him at a coffee shop near parliament.
Begg is not much more than five feet tall. When I arrive, he's eating a strawberry cheesecake and drinking a latte. People who attended the conference say Begg and Abdulmutallab were sitting next to each other. Begg says he doesn't remember him.
Do you remember him?
Mr. BEGG: No, not at all. No.
TEMPLE-RASTON: How did you end up speaking at the conference?
Mr. BEGG: I - it's like this. Since my return, I've spoke at about 500 to 600 conferences around the country and around the world, so it's just part of my speaking tour. And that's what I did.
TEMPLE-RASTON: Begg says he does remember what he talked about at the conference.
Mr. BEGG: I would have talked about - well, inside this tiny prison cell where you have no access to the rest of the world, the one thing that gives you solace is the Quran. The only thing that's familiar to you after they've taken away your clothes and taken away your family and taken away your environment and taken away the very air that you breathe, and the only thing that you can see that is familiar is when you open that book.
TEMPLE-RASTON: When Abdulmutallab started meeting people like Moazzam Begg, he was exposed to vitriolic and very anti-American views.
Mr. BEGG: I can tell you I penned a poem in Guantanamo Bay called "Indictment USA."
TEMPLE-RASTON: Begg recited the poem for me from memory.
Mr. BEGG: The last verses are like this: They suffered an atrocity and want us all to pay, but I wish no proximity to such a USA. Vulgarity is not my style, but still I have to say, this occasion causes me to revile, so f the USA.
Mr. SHIRAZ MAHER (Former Islamist Group Recruiter): In this country, the people who do some of the tours of the universities - Moazzam Begg, Yvonne Ridley -espouse highly reactionary, highly politicized, angry views.
TEMPLE-RASTON: Shiraz Maher used to be a recruiter for an Islamist group in the U.K., and he played on emotion to get young men to sign up.
Mr. MAHER: And you're being wound up constantly with this anger and this frustration and being told that there are all these things, you know, you should do. After a while, some people decide that the political activism in which they're engaged in London isn't enough.
TEMPLE-RASTON: None of this is to suggest that Begg directly radicalized Abdulmutallab. But it is the case that Guantanamo became a huge symbol for the Islamist movement and university students in Britain in 2007, including the school Abdulmutallab attended.
Unidentified Man #3: University College was the original London University back in 1826. Today, it's the biggest college in the London system.
TEMPLE-RASTON: UCL calls itself the global university. Many of its students come from outside the U.K. It's one of 12 U.K. campuses that's on an MI5 watch list. MI5 is the British equivalent to the FBI, and investigators there have been concerned for some time that Islamists are using college campuses to radicalize students.
Mr. DOUGLAS MURRAY (Director, Center for Social Cohesion): My name's Douglas Murray. I'm the director of Center for Social Cohesion.
TEMPLE-RASTON: The Center studies radicalization in Britain.
Mr. MURRAY: People who are jihadi preachers and, indeed, members of terrorist organizations tour U.K. campuses week in and week out, and preach violence with impunity. It's hard, maybe if you're outside Britain - indeed, it's hard for people in Britain to recognize quite how bad this has got.
TEMPLE-RASTON: It wasn't until British officials went back to their files that they found Abdulmutallab had more sinister connections, radical Islamic ties that went beyond Guantanamo and students dressed in orange jumpsuits. U.K. intelligence officials say he had links to suspected terrorists. One is accused of joining a plot to detonate liquid bombs on board passenger planes in 2006. The other is suspected of having long-standing terrorism links. He was arrested in January.
U.S. and U.K. intelligence officials are still piecing together Abdulmutallab's journey from a young man of privilege to a potential jihadist. Right now, Abdulmutallab is in a federal prison cooperating with authorities and living a life not unlike the one he'd been somewhat obsessed with: as a prisoner of the U.S. government, wearing an orange jumpsuit.
Dina Temple-Raston, NPR News.
WERTHEIMER: Tomorrow, we continue our NPR News investigation with Abdulmutallab's next stop: Yemen. Later today on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, we meet a recruiter for radical Islam.
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WERTHEIMER: This is NPR News.