Outrage as personal files of undergraduates at Detroit bomb suspect's college handed to US
By Syma Mohammed and Robert Verkaik
Personal information concerning the private lives of almost 1,000 British Muslim university students is to be shared with US intelligence agencies in the wake of the Detroit bomb scare.
The disclosure has outraged Muslim groups and students who are not involved in extremism but have been targeted by police and now fear that their names will appear on international terrorist watch lists. So far, the homes of more than 50 of the students have been visited by police officers, but nobody has been arrested. The case has raised concerns about how the police use the data of innocent people and calls into question the heavy-handed treatment of Muslim students by UK security agencies.
This week, MPs criticised the Government's key policies on countering extremism which they said were alienating Muslim communities.
Last year, The Independent reported on the alleged harassment of young Muslims by the police and security service, MI5, whose officers had tried to recruit them as spies. In the latest case, details of students from University College London (UCL) were handed over to police by the university's student union, after detectives visited the campus in early January 2010 during their continuing investigation into the attempted Christmas Day bombing in Detroit by Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab. Abdulmutallab studied engineering at UCL in 2005-08, and was president of the UCL Islamic Society in 2006-07.
Police had first approached UCL's Islamic Society, which refused to hand over the information. Mojeed Adams-Mogaji, the society's president, said: "I was concerned about what they would do with the data. At another meeting with the Metropolitan Police, they told us they would keep it for seven years and would share the data with other intelligence agencies if requested. Obviously, I'm very concerned with what they plan to do with this information."
Gareth Peirce, the prominent human rights lawyer, advised the Islamic Society during the affair. Last night she described the police's actions as "completely inappropriate".
She said: "You wonder if he [Abdulmutallab] had been a member of a society without the name Islamic on it, then would there have been such an appetite to grab the information. It adds to the fear that the Muslim community is a suspect community. The whole concept of data protection was meant to nail down absolute privacy and here it is being breached without a legal reason being imposed on the university to comply."
Eric Metcalfe, at the Justice student human rights network, said he believed it was another example of "heavy-handed" policing aimed at countering radicalism rather than investigating alleged crime. "There is no reason why the police can't go to court and persuade a magistrate to issue a warrant with which the university would have to comply," he said. "But this seems more about heavy-handed intelligence gathering, which may not have respected the privacy rights of the students."
Zubair Idris, 21, a second-year international medical student at UCL, said: "I feel frustrated and outraged. To pass on 900 student details because they were members of UCL Islamic Society is ridiculous. The reason I joined the society was for socio-cultural reasons. I've never seen the guy [Abdulmutallab]. I wasn't here when he was at university. "
Sayyida Mehrali, 19, a first-year neuroscience student, added: "I feel that it is a bit extreme that my information has been passed onto the Metropolitan Police as I joined UCL after Umar Farouk had left. There was never any opportunity to meet this individual and I think it's shocking that they have my details on a database."
From 2005 to 2007, Muslim students at Dundee University were harassed by Tayside Police's Special Branch community contact unit, who targeted "ethnic religious groups" in order to gather intelligence on activities that "could be considered extremist."
The university's Student Advisory Service allowed the police to attend the Freshers Fair to speak to students, but there was an outcry after branch officers posed as community officers and spoke to students covertly. They also approached students on campus, attended university meetings and events and visited students at their homes. They repeatedly harassed members of the Dundee University Islamic Society, and during the Israel-Lebanon war in 2006, visited Muslim students at their flats late at night.
The police initially approached the UCL Islamic Society on 4 January 2010 for a list of names of their members between 2005 and 2008. Following legal advice, the society declined to give the information. The police then approached the student union with a personal data request. The union provided names and email addresses of members of the UCL Islamic Society and Royal Free and UCL Medical Islamic Society between September 2005 and June 2009. The police then approached the university for telephone numbers and home addresses. These were passed on by the UCL Registry.
There are further concerns about the role of the student union in the disclosure of the data. Mr Adams-Mogaji said: "We also realised that the student union gave the details of the UCL Medical Islamic Society without being requested for it. The union is supposed to protect the societies under it and not hastily succumb to pressure without the need to. We're clearly not safe with the union and our trust in them is undoubtedly diminishing."
Qasim Rafiq, a former president of the UCL Islamic Society and spokesman for the Federation of Student Islamic Societies (FOSIS), said: "Giving unnecessary personal data to the police seems to demonstrate a lack of regard for the personal data of its members. For me, it goes against the principles of the union to act in a flagrant manner towards its constituents. We had to demand the student union to email the students whose details were given to the police, and had we not had done so students who have been contacted by the police wouldn't have been aware that their details had been passed on."
In a statement, the Metropolitan Police said: "As part of enquiries police spoke to a number of people who may have been able to provide information relating to the background of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab. This has included liaison with UCL, the student union, the Islamic Society and the FOSIS.
"Inquires made at UCL - where Abdulmutallab studied between 2005 and 2008 - are just one strand of the investigation. We have been careful to ensure that all inquiries and information gathered is treated sensitively."
A spokesman from UCL's press office refused to comment on the matter. A spokeswoman from the student union said: "The police asked the student union to provide details of members of the UCL Islamic Society and the Royal Free and UCL Medical Islamic Society between 2005 and 2008. The union provided the names and email addresses of student members only."