LAGOS, Nigeria (AP) — As a member of an upper crust Nigerian family, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab received the best schooling, from the elite British International School in West Africa to the vaunted University College London.
But the education he wanted was of a different sort: Nigerian officials say his interest in extremist Islam prompted his father to warn U.S. authorities. As Abdulmutallab was being escorted in handcuffs off the Detroit-bound airliner he attempted to blow up on Christmas Day, he told U.S. officials that he had sought an extremist education at an Islamist hotbed in Yemen.
A portrait emerged Sunday of a serious young man who led a privileged life as the son of a prominent banker, but became estranged from his family as an adult. Devoutly religious, he was nicknamed “The Pope” for his saintly aura and gave few clues in his youth that he would turn radical, friends and family said.
“In all the time I taught him we never had cross words,” said Michael Rimmer, a Briton who taught history at the British International School in Lome, Togo. “Somewhere along the line he must have met some sort of fanatics, and they must have turned his mind.”
Abdulmutallab has been charged with trying to destroy a Northwest flight on Christmas Day with 278 passengers and 11 crew members on board. The detonator on his explosive apparently malfunctioned and he was subdued by other passengers.
Al-Qaeda claims responsibility
Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula on Monday claimed responsibility for the attack on a U.S. airliner bound for Detroit on Christmas Day, saying it was retaliation for a U.S. operation against the group in Yemen.
Federal authorities met Monday to reassess the U.S. system of terror watch lists to determine how to avoid the type of lapse that allowed a man with explosives to board the flight in Amsterdam even though he was flagged as a possible terrorist.
In a statement posted on the Internet, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula said 23-year-old Nigerian Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab coordinated with members of the group, an alliance of militants based in Saudi Arabia and Yemen.
Yemeni forces, helped by U.S. intelligence, carried out two airstrikes against al-Qaeda operatives in the country this month. The second one was a day before Abdulmutallab attempted to bring down a Northwest Airlines flight as it prepared to land in Detroit.
The group said Abdulmutallab used explosives manufactured by al-Qaeda members. “He managed to penetrate all devices and modern advanced technology and security checkpoints in international airports bravely without fear of death,” the group said in the statement, “relying on God and defying the large myth of American and international intelligence, and exposing how fragile they are, bringing their nose to the ground, and making them regret all what they spent on security technology.”
The Obama administration has ordered investigations into how travelers are placed on watch lists and how passengers are screened, as critics and administration officials questioned how Abdulmutallab was allowed to board the flight. A senior U.S. intelligence official said authorities were reviewing the procedures that govern the lists, which could include how someone is placed on or moved between the various databases.
“Why wasn’t he flagged at a higher screening level?” Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said on ABC’s “Good Morning America.” “How did he get an explosive substance on to the plane? All of those are serious questions that we are now looking at.”
Passengers have faced stiffer boarding measures since Friday. Authorities warned travelers to expect extra delays returning home from holidays.
“Shock and regret”
Through an official, Abdulmutallab’s father “expressed deep shock and regret over his son’s actions.”
His family home sits in the city of Funtua, in the heart of Nigeria’s Islamic culture. Religion figured into the family’s life: His father, Alhaji Umar Mutallab, who had a successful career in commercial banking, also joined the board of an Islamic bank – one that avoids the kind of interest payments banned by the Quran.
The large house, surrounded by a wall and a metal fence just off the main road running through the city, stood empty, a common occurrence for a jet-set family that sought an education abroad for Abdulmutallab. Family members told The Associated Press they could not comment but expected the family to issue a statement.
Mutallab was working with the FBI and not expected to grant media interviews, Information Minister Dora Akunyili said.
The elder Mutallab was “a responsible and respected Nigerian, with a true Nigerian spirit,” she said. He had been estranged from his son for several months and alerted U.S. officials last month about the youth’s growing hard-line Islamic religious beliefs.
A close neighbor told the AP he believed Abdulmutallab did not get his extremist ideas from his family or from within Nigeria.
Basiru Sani Hamza, 35, said Abdulmutallab was a “very religious” and a “very obedient” to his parents as a boy in the well-to-do banking family.
“I believe he must have been lured where he is schooling to carry out this attack,” Hamza said. “Really, the boy has betrayed his father because he has been taking care of all their needs.”
Rimmer, a teacher at his high school in West Africa, said Abdulmutallab had been well-respected.
Nicknamed “The Pope”
“At one stage, his nickname was ‘The Pope,’” Rimmer said from London in a telephone interview. “In one way it’s totally unsuitable because he’s Muslim, but he did have this saintly aura.”
But Abdulmutallab also showed signs of inflexibility, Rimmer said.
In a discussion in 2001, Abdulmutallab was the only one to defend the actions of the Taliban in Afghanistan, Rimmer said. At the time, Rimmer thought the boy was just playing the devil’s advocate.
He also noted that during a school trip to London, Abdulmutallab became upset when the teacher took students to a pub and said it wasn’t right to be in a place where alcohol was served.
Rimmer also remembered the youngster choosing to give 50 pounds to an orphanage rather than spend it on souvenirs in London.
Rimmer described the institution – an elite college preparatory school, attended by children of diplomats and wealthy Africans – as “lovely, lovely environment” where Christians often joined in Islamic feasts and where some of the best Christmas carolers were Muslims.
Abdulmutallab showed no signs of intolerance toward other students, Rimmer said, explaining that “lots of his mates were Christians.”
The Briton noted that he has not seen or heard from his former pupil since 2003 when he was still a teenager.
Abdulmutallab went on to study engineering and business finance at the University College London, where he graduated last year, the college confirmed.
Students at his prestigious university in London, where Abdulmutallab lived in a smart white stone apartment block in an exclusive area of central London, said Abdulmutallab showed no signs of radicalization and painted him as a lax student with deep religious views.
“We worked on projects together,” Fabrizio Cavallo Marincola, a 22-year-old mechanical engineering student at University College, told The Independent newspaper. “He always did the bare minimum of work and would just show up to classes. When we were studying, he always would go off to pray.
“He was pretty quiet and didn’t socialize much or have a girlfriend that I knew of. I didn’t get to talk to him much on a personal level. I was really shocked when I saw the reports. You would never imagine him pulling off something like this.”
Photo: Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab