British universities now constitute a greater security threat than radical Mosques and Islamic community centres and need to do far more to monitor on-campus extremism, a security expert has warned.
The risk of higher education institutions being used as a recruitment ground for terrorists was put into focus by reports that one of the plane bomb plot suspects, Waheed Zaman, is head of the Islamic Society at London Metropolitan University.
Professor Anthony Glees, director of the Centre for Intelligence and Security Studies at Brunel University, said the security services would have to do much more, including spying on students and using moderate Muslims to inform on suspicious activity.
He said: “It is inevitable that academics will have to be much more aware of the problem on campuses, rather than just ignoring it as they do now.”
The Association of University Chief Security Officers are to launch a counter-terrorism group early next year that will allow universities to use intelligence form Special Branch and other domestic and international security services.
Professor Glees said universities did not know enough about their students, particularly those that gain a place through the “clearing” process which starts next week. He called for all applicants to receive a face-to-face interview before gaining a place.
Shiraz Maher, a former regional officer for the Yorkshire region of Hizb ut-Tahrir, the radical group the government threatened to ban last year, said vice-chancellors had been “wilfully negligent” about the growing problem. Mr Maher, who has now abandoned his own radical views, said extremist groups typically target lonely and disorientated students when they first arrive. Non-alchoholic social and sporting events are used to offer alternatives to socialising in pubs and clubs and trust is won by being friendly and supportive.
“While the media focus on radical mosques it is universities where the new Muslim middle-class is emerging and where their views are be shaped,” he said.
Universities UK, the umbrella group for higher education institutions, denied they were complacent about tackling campus extremism and said universities regularly consult student groups and work with the police.
“Our guidelines reflect the fact that universities have always been places where free debate and the interchange of ideas have been encouraged and this must be allowed to continue. Nevertheless, universities are also conscious of the need to support and ensure civic safety. We all have a responsibility to be aware of these issues in the current climate, and universities are no different from the wider society in this respect.”