How a middle-class Nigerian boy was seduced by Al Qaeda into trying to blow up a transatlantic jet
Last updated at 1:11 AM on 02nd January 2010
Almost exactly a decade ago, I picked my way among the charred ruins of downtown Kaduna city in northern Nigeria.
Days of rioting and violence between the majority Muslims and minority Christians had left scores, if not hundreds, of residents dead.
Graffiti that proclaimed: 'We need sharia!' could be seen on many walls.
Groomed to kill: Failed suicide bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, on a school trip to Britain in 2002
This week, two images of a handsome, clean-cut son of Kaduna have dominated the international news. His name is Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab.
One is a post-arrest mugshot provided by the U.S. authorities. It shows a solemn young man, who is perhaps both scared and perplexed. Understandably so.
Solemn: Abdulmutallab's mugshot after he was arrested
The other is a typical pre-attack publicity photograph - provided by Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula - in which Abdulmutallab's smile is so broad, friendly and relaxed it is hard to believe his intention had been to kill several hundred innocent men, women and children in the skies over Detroit on Christmas Day.
But, three days after his 23rd birthday, Abdulmutallab had indeed boarded Northwest Airlines Flight 253 in Amsterdam, carrying the materials of mass destruction.
Thankfully, his device failed to detonate properly. The University College London graduate now languishes in a Michigan correctional facility, as far from the Paradise promised to jihadist martyrs by their extremist handlers as you can get.
But how did he get there? What made this rich, privileged young man whose profile differs from many other Al Qaeda suicide bombers take this most extreme of courses?
There has been much talk this week of Abdulmutallab's radicalisation while he was living in the West and, undoubtedly, his extremism was cultivated, shaped and hardened after he had left Nigeria behind.
Yet let us not be mistaken about his background. He is not the product of a society in which religious toleration and peaceful coexistence between the faiths can be taken for granted.
was a 13-year-old schoolboy when the mobs burned Kaduna. Those who
died, the urban poor, were not like him.
He came from one of Nigeria's
wealthiest and most respected Muslim families.
His financier father, Alhaji Umar Mutallab, founded the country's first Islamic bank and had also been in charge of the mainstream United Bank for Africa and First Bank of Nigeria.
Ruins: A woman walks amid the wreckage of the violence in Kaduna ten years ago
The family was devout, but they found the situation in their native land troubling.
Extremism was on the march, religious unrest following. In late 1999, sharia law was introduced in several states across northern Nigeria. Shortly afterwards, on a trip there, I met a cow thief who'd had his right hand cut off, the first man to be punished for such a crime in this way.
Later, a woman from Abdulmutallab's home town of Funtua, near Kaduna, would be sentenced to stoning to death for having a child out of wedlock.
It was barbaric, and the backlash by local Christians led to the riots that laid waste to Kaduna in early 2000.
This week, in the wake of the failed Christmas Day bomb attempt, locals recalled how Abdulmutallab's formative years would have been shaped by that period in Nigerian history.
What made this rich, privileged young man whose profile differs from many other Al Qaeda suicide bombers take this most extreme of courses?
Leading civil rights activist Shehu Sani, who lived two houses away from the bomber's family in Kaduna, told a French journalist: 'Here, religious intolerance and extremism is not something that is new.
'For the past 30 years, we have witnessed the rise of Islamic fundamentalism in this part of the country and it has inspired many young people into acts that are subversive to national security.
'There are individuals who have been given scholarships to study in countries such as Afghanistan, Yemen and Pakistan, and they come back with radical ideas.'
Abdulmutallab's family sent him away to be educated, not in Yemen or Afghanistan, but as a boarder at the 'Eton of Africa', the prestigious British School in Lome, the capital of neighbouring Togo.
The religious upheavals of northern Nigeria were physically left far behind. But it is clear now that Abdulmutallab, already a devout Muslim, began to suffer the process of alienation that underpins the recruitment of many young men and women to extremist causes.
Classmates and teachers remember him as quiet and polite, but radical in some respects. After the 9/11 attacks, he was the only one of his classmates, who came from both Muslim and Christian families, to defend the actions of the Al Qaeda terrorists.
Abdulmutallab: Posing with a fellow pupil during a trip to London
His more private musings on various Islamic internet forums reflect a deep loneliness and the conflict he felt between his westernised upbringing and his Muslim faith.
He wrote of his situation at the British School: 'I am in a situation where I do not have a friend, I have no one to speak to, no one to consult, no one to support me and I feel depressed and lonely. I do not know what to do.
'First of all, I have no friends. Not because I do not socialise, but because either people do not want to get too close to me as they go partying and stuff while I don't, or they are bad people who befriend me and influence me to do bad things.'
Oddly, he makes no mention of the Togolese preacher Hini Abass, a grey haired radical in his late 40s, who spent hours each week in private talks with his young protege throughout his years at the school.
After prayers, they would go to a room where they would remain for up to an hour. Both Abass and Abdulmutallab refused to tell pupils or staff what they discussed, insisting it was private.
By the time Abdulmutallab was pouring out his troubles to strangers on the internet, a new kind of organised, armed, Islamic extremism had appeared in northern Nigeria, in the shape of the Boko Haram movement.
The name translates as 'Western education is a sin'. Boko Haram modelled itself on the Afghan Taliban, and called for sharia law across the whole of the country. It fought bloody gun battles with government forces, causing hundreds of deaths.
It is unclear what links Abdulmutallab had with Boko Haram. But the fact that something like an armed Islamic uprising was taking place back home would have done little to discourage his growing radicalism.
Ironically - given Boko Haram's name - his next step took him to Britain and one of the West's most prestigious educational establishments, University College London.
Again, it is not yet clear who or what motivated his decisions from there on. We do know that between graduating from school in Togo and taking up an engineering course at UCL, Abdulmutallab spent some months in 2004-2005 in the Arabian country of Yemen.
His mother has family ties there, but surely the visit has a greater significance. For Yemen has become the latest Al Qaeda powerbase, attracting would-be jihadists from across the Islamic world.
Studies: Abdulmutallab took classes for seven months at the University of Wollongong in Dubai
Did Abdulmutallab do more than simply begin an Arabic language course there? It's possible, but not proved, that this is when he began training for terror. We do know that he did so on his return to Yemen last year.
At UCL, he was an unusual student in two respects, which together illustrated his conflicted situation.
First, he lived in a luxury apartment in Marylebone, reportedly worth more than £1 million. Second, he was an advocate of increasingly radical Islam.
During 2007, Abdulmutallab, who cut a dramatic figure on campus in flowing Islamic robes, was the president of UCL's Islamic Society.
The post got him on to an MI5 antiterror watch list. Again, his posts on Muslim websites reflect what, in hindsight, we can see as a dangerous state of mind.
After the 9/11 attacks, he was the only one of his classmates, who came from both Muslim and Christian families, to defend the actions of the Al Qaeda terrorists
He wrote about having trouble with his struggle to be 'pure' - and he confided on the internet that he had trouble fulfilling the religious duty of 'lowering the gaze' around women.
'I think this loneliness leads me to other problems,' he wrote. 'As I get lonely, the natural sexual drive awakens and I struggle to control it, sometimes leading to minor sinful activities, like not lowering the gaze.'
And a particular course was forming in his mind. Aged 19, he posted: 'I wont go into too much details about me fantasy [sic], but basically they are jihad fantasies. I imagine how the great jihad will take place, how the Muslims will win, God willing, and rule the whole world and establish the greatest empire once again!'
It has been suggested that Abdulmutallab was further radicalised while in London and that here he might well have been identified and groomed by Al Qaeda as a potential foot soldier.
Certainly, he was moving in extremist circles. Among the preachers he is thought to have met here is Anwar al-Awlaki, the Yemeni cleric who inspired some of the 9/11 hijackers.
Al-Awlaki was subsequently banned from the UK and is now said to be a commander of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. When arrested in Detroit after the failed bombing attempt, Abdulmutallab became the fourth president of a London University Islamic Society to face terror charges in three years.
Suspect: Abdulmutallab had flown from Nigeria to Amsterdam before boarding a flight to Detroit
Many within the British Islamic community are worried about what is happening on our campuses.
Dr Taj Hargey, chairman of the Oxford Muslim Educational Centre and an imam of one of the city's Islamic congregations, says: 'The radicalisation of Abdulmutallab at University College London, where he was head of the Islamic Society, is no different to the radicalisation of many other students in university Islamic Societies across the country.
'These organisations are an insidious and creeping menace, and in my opinion a crucible of extremism that has no place in our society both here in Britain or the wider Muslim world.
'They prey on the insecurities and guilt of young Muslims. Islamic Societies espouse dogma and doctrine that is flawed and ritualised, and demands that individuals should not think for themselves but merely follow the crowd.'
As a child, he could have, or should have, been repelled by the violence he saw happening in his own backyard. But his privileged background shielded him from its direct effects
He added: 'Even in a seat of learning such as Oxford, these organisations tell their members they cannot mingle. It is ridiculous.
'They draw their teaching from the extremists in Middle Eastern Arabic society - such as Wahhabism and Salafism - which order a withdrawal from mainstream society in the West. They believe it is us against you.
'It is no longer the mosques that are the seats of radicalisation in this country but our universities. They are full of Neanderthals whose theology constitutes a dream of a return to an idealised 7th-century society.'
Abdulmutallab certainly left UCL in 2008 with more radical views. After graduating, he pursued other academic activities - an attempt to return to London to study 'life coaching' at a bogus college and a business course at an Australian university in Dubai - that can now be seen as manouevrings for an attack on the West.
Yemeni records show that Abdulmutallab had re-entered that country in early August 2009 and left in early December.
His cover was an Arabic language course. But in reality he was being prepared by Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula for the Detroit aeroplane attack.
By now he was alienated from his family. A rare phonecall home in October sufficiently alarmed his father for him to contact the Nigerian authorities and then speak to the CIA.
Yemen: Records show that Abdulmutallab left the country in early December
The rest of his story, that we know at least, comprises a series of mistakes or missed chances by the security services to prevent Abdulmutallab from flying - and nearly achieving his dream of killing hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people.
In the end, only a faulty detonator saved the world from another terrorist outrage. What is the expert view of Abdulmutallab?
Dr Maha Azzam of the Royal Institute of International Affairs, an expert on radicalisation and Al Qaeda, told the Mail: 'Abdulmutallab's background is somewhat different [from other Al Qaeda terrorists] in that it is relatively privileged, although typical in that he is a young man desperate to maintain his religiosity in a modern, Westernised society.
'His privilege and intelligence set him apart, but let us not forget that Osama bin Laden himself and several of his deputies come from elite families.'
She added: 'Al Qaeda is not alone in attracting the rich and the clever. Look at German terrorists Baader and Meinhoff and kidnap victim-turned-guerrilla Patti Hearst.
'Abdulmutallab was clearly increasingly frustrated and alienated and felt cut off from his peers while he was studying in this country. Such isolation has been a trigger for many such individuals.'
Whatever the detail, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab's short life appears to have brought him full circle.
As a child, he could have, or should have, been repelled by the violence he saw happening in his own backyard. But his privileged background shielded him from its direct effects. Instead, his wealth simply steered him towards a more sophisticated extremism in the role of a spearhead soldier of the international jihad.
A plane, instead of a club or a machete, was his weapon.
If he had succeeded, a Detroit suburb would have resembled central Kaduna a decade ago.
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