UK

Is Luton a breeding ground for terrorists?

Taimour Abdulwahab al-Abdaly (file image)
Image caption Taimour Abdulwahab al-Abdaly left a family behind in Luton

Luton has been in the media spotlight after it emerged a man who blew himself up in Stockholm at the weekend was a Muslim extremist from the Bedfordshire town. The 7/7 bombers also had links to Luton but is it fair to brand the place a hotbed of terrorism?

I love Luton. There, I've said it and I'm not ashamed. I'm a Luton girl through and through. I grew up there and it's home to four generations of my family.

The sad thing is that I don't recognise the town that has once again hit the headlines for all the wrong reasons.

Luton is a typical old industrial town that you see up and down the country. Most of these places have seen the same waves of immigration and face similar problems.

So why does Luton occur again and again when the roots of terrorism are discussed?

Historically, Luton's industry has always attracted a migrant population.

The town was already a good size when the Domesday Book was put together and is listed as a large market town.

'Boom town'

The 16th and 17th centuries saw the birth of the brick-making and straw hat-making industries which attracted more and more people with the promise of work.

Image caption The 7/7 bombers - caught on CCTV at Luton station before the London attack - had links to the town

Parish records from the time include numerous references to people of different ethnic origins living locally to work in the town, including Gypsy queens, Welsh drovers and French Huguenots.

One of the earliest documents of a black person living in the UK comes from local baptismal records in July 1661.

The 20th Century saw Luton becoming a boom town. Electrolux, SKF and Vauxhall meant there was plenty of work and the town's population went from 39,000 in 1900 to 130,000 by the 1960s and close on 200,000 by the end of the century.

Waves of migrants from the Republic of Ireland, the Caribbean, Africa, India, Pakistan and, more recently, Eastern Europe have all made Luton their home.

In the 1960s, many of the migrants were Kashmiri Muslims fleeing sectarian violence.

'Sanctuary'

In Luton they found somewhere they could rebuild their own communities and were free to practise their conservative branch of religion.

They typically moved into the town's Bury Park area, building businesses and their own places of worship.

They sent a lot of money back home and some returned to fight those they perceived as their persecutors.

Many brought their families and the community has grown steadily from there, free from significant scrutiny until recently.

If you talk to these migrants, most are bemused by the radicalism espoused by the younger generation.

They see the UK as a sanctuary from persecution and somewhere to live the way they see fit.

They cannot understand why their children want to return to the way of life they ran away from.

The decline of the manufacturing industry in Luton, the subsequent reduction in jobs on top of conflicts between western values and the laws of Islam have all created an environment which saw radical speakers like Abu Hamza al-Mazri and Omar Bakri Mohammed invited to come to speak at the mosque on Leagrave Road.

Foiled plot

We are probably still seeing their influence today.

A man who is believed to have been a major facilitator for al-Qaeda, who has been under surveillance for years, lived with his family in Luton.

He has been linked to many plots including the foiled fertiliser bomb plot.

Image caption Representatives at Luton Islamic Centre challenged Abdaly over his views

He is thought to have sent one of the 7 July bombers for training and may have met the bombers before they carried out their suicide attacks.

If he is the lynchpin many believe him to be, then it is unsurprising that Luton is linked to so many attacks.

That is unfortunate for Luton and it could so easily have been any other town.

There have also been reports that the town's university has been a fertile recruiting ground for the extremists.

In common with many of the UK's other higher education establishments, there are agencies in India and Pakistan promising to get students places at the University of Bedfordshire.

For a price, they can get you in and sort out the red tape, and there are few checks once you are in to see if you are actually studying.

'Magnet' factor

And there are persistent stories that radical groups openly recruit in Freshers' Week and go out of their way to harass other minorities.

The university denies it happens and says extremism is not tolerated, but privately many minority groups say it does happen and they are too scared to say anything.

Consider also the magnet factor. How many would-be terrorists came to Luton because they had read in the papers and seen the news stories talking about extremism and thought they might find like-minded individuals?

There has been much speculation this may have been one of the attractions of Luton's university when the alleged Sweden suicide bomber, Taimour Abdulwahab al-Abdaly, was choosing where to study before his move to the UK 10 years ago.

Finally, there is one factor Luton will never be able to change.

Just 35 miles north of London, it is an extremely convenient location. Easily accessible for the capital and the Midlands it has great transport links - train, bus, rail and air.

You can get anywhere you like, with relative ease any time you like.

While in my teens, I worked in a Luton pub where people would openly collect for the "boys back home".

IRA links

Growing up, I'd heard stories about the IRA's links to my home town but put it down to just that, but here, under my nose, was evidence.

"Don't worry," I was told. "You're fine living here because you don't do it on your own doorstep. They go straight into London and come straight out again."

Let's not blow this out of proportion. If Luton does have a problem, then it is confined to a very small minority. A vocal and dangerous minority, but a very small proportion of the town's population nonetheless.

The politicians keep saying British Muslims must speak out and challenge the extremists in their midst - and that is exactly what happened in Luton.

Abdaly was challenged at a prayer meeting and his views were denounced. We should be welcoming and applauding this. They got it right.

This is the same community that asked the local media not to give Islamist group al-Muhajiroun air-time because it did not represent the views of the majority and gave a distorted view of Islam.

Maybe this is the end - not the beginning - of extremism being linked to Luton.

The revolution may be coming from within. And it is not the revolution that vocal minority had hoped for.

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