What we can’t tell you about the underpants bomber


The story of would-be suicide bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab will not be unfamiliar to readers of this blog. While details of his plot have been extensively covered little is known of the network that surrounded and supported him.

Yet it is clear that such a network exists, providing Abdulmutallab with the succour – both ideological and practical – that led him to the frontlines of al-Qaeda’s war against the West.

Unravelling that web is something British journalists must do with one hand tied behind their backs due to our arcane and restrictive libel laws. There are things that British journalists and think-tanks working on these issues simply cannot say for fear of being subjected to ‘lawfare’.

This is why I am directing readers to the excellent work of Dina Temple-Raston at NPR in the United States. Being free from our legislation she was able to explore these issues last month producing a revealing series on the radicalisation of Abdulmutallab in London. She tells us:

If the seeds of Abdulmutallab’s radicalization were sown when he was growing up in Nigeria, they found a rich soil in which to grow at University College London.


What is less well-known is that it is one of 12 college campuses in Britain that is on an MI5 watch list. MI5 is the British equivalent of the FBI, and its investigators have been concerned for some time that Islamists are using college campuses to radicalize students.

The university and several other campuses, like London Metropolitan University, are considered fertile ground for radical Islam.

That will come as news only to the provost of University College London, Malcolm Grant, who still spouts the party line like a Brezhnev-era apparatchik that there is nothing awry on our campuses.

Dina has reports on a range of issues that many British journalists can’t touch. Fraser Nelson, editor of the Spectator, noted this the day after Abdulmutallab’s failed attack:

I have some advice for CoffeeHousers hungry for the latest evidence about the guy who tried to blow up the Amsterdam-to-Detroit flight: go to the American press and their websites.  They are 100% free to pursue these stories: the press in Britain isn’t.

[…] this is a subject where the British press are not free. You’ll get the confirmed details, and the UK press will work as hard as they can to give you all the rest of the details. But to publish the results of any investigative work is far, far more risky here than in America. The reason for this is the notorious British libel laws, at their most pernicious when used to pursue journalists investigating Islamic terrorism.

My colleague Nick Cohen has also written about the impact of libel laws on our national security here.

Padraig Reidy from Index on Censorship alerts me to the forthcoming ‘Big Libel Gig’ on 14 March 2010. Tickets went on sale yesterday and all funds raised will go to support the Coalition for Libel Reform, established by Index on Censorship, English PEN and Sense About Science.

I would urge all readers of this blog to attend – or at least sign the petition.

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