On the left is Farouk Abdulmutallab and on the right is his wealthy Nigerian father
By JOHN F. BURNS
December 29, 2009
LONDON — Hit hard by the London transit system bombings in 2005, Britain keeps a close eye on Islamic extremists, and MI5, the covert domestic security agency, has said it specifically monitors Muslim campus groups. Yet one student president of the Islamic Society at the prestigious University College London, a British security official said Tuesday, had “never shown up on the radar screen” as a threat.
That was Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, a 23-year-old Nigerian, who is accused of trying to blow up a plane descending into Detroit on Christmas Day in the name of Al Qaeda. The attack did not end in death but has set off many alarms, about holes in airline security, an active new Qaeda front in Yemen and the apparent reality — a focus now for investigators here and in the United States — that Britain remains a nation of deep Islamic ferment, where a young man like Mr. Abdulmutallab can become radicalized, perhaps without notice.
“It took a lot to get to know him; I’d describe him as humble,” said Qasim Rafiq, 24, who succeeded Mr. Abdulmutallab as the Islamic Society’s president in 2007. “If he walked into a room, you wouldn’t know he was there.”
Mr. Abdulmutallab’s engagement with radical Islam clearly hit a crisis for his family by Nov. 19, when his father, among Nigeria’s richest and most prominent men, visited the American Embassy there to express concern about the radicalization of his son, who had disappeared, perhaps to Yemen.
But a snapshot of Mr. Abdulmutallab’s formative years in London, from 2005 to 2009, reveals a central difficultly in preventing future terrorist attacks: Friends, relatives, a teacher and fellow Muslim students say they cannot point to a trigger moment in recent years in which an amiable and privileged young man, devout if also disaffected, aspired to mass murder. Their best guess — one shared by investigators — is that the road to radicalization ran less through Yemen, where he studied Arabic as a teenager and apparently later prepared for a suicide mission, than through the Islamic hothouse of London.
“It’s pointless trying to pin the blame for this on those in far-off lands,” a Muslim from California who studied Arabic in Yemen with Mr. Abdulmutallab said in a telephone interview in which he insisted on anonymity because he did not want to draw attention to his family, which migrated from Pakistan to Orange County when he was a boy.
“What we have to do is to try and understand what is going on in our own backyards,” he said. “We have to ask ourselves why a young man like Umar Farouk would do this, what the factors were in London that drove him to violence.”
Investigators are now, in fact, turning a sharper and retrospective eye to the passage in Mr. Abdulmutallab’s life that began immediately after his summer in Sana, Yemen, in 2005, when he enrolled as a $25,000-a-year student at University College London. In recent days, officials in Washington and London have said they are focusing on the possibility that his London years, including his possible contacts with radical Muslim groups then, were decisive in turning him toward Islamic extremism.
That view, if confirmed, would offer a stark reaffirmation that Britain, the United States’ closest ally, poses a major threat to American security. Critics say the British security forces have failed to adequately monitor and restrain the Islamic militancy that thrives in the vast network of mosques that serve the nation’s 1.5 million Muslims, and on university campuses across the country where nearly 100,000 of the 500,000 students are Muslims, including many, like Mr. Abdulmutallab, from overseas.
Like the experiences of many of the 19 hijackers on Sept. 11, 2001, and the four suicide bombers who struck in the July 7, 2005, attacks on the London transit system, as well as Islamic militants involved in other terrorist plots in the past two decades, Mr. Abdulmutallab’s life in the British capital exposed him to contradictory influences that might have hastened his radicalization.
On one hand, there was the privilege of attending one of Britain’s most distinguished universities, University College, which was recently ranked the fourth best university in the world, after Harvard, Cambridge and Yale, in an annual survey conducted for Times Higher Education. Along with this, the Nigerian lived as few students in Britain can afford, in an apartment in an upscale mansion house within walking distance of the University College campus in London’s exclusive Bloomsbury district.
Details of what Mr. Abdulmutallab did out of class are emerging slowly, in part because he seems to have lived a Pimpernel’s life, moving in the shadows and disclosing little even to those who counted him as a friend. But one focus for investigators has been his activities in University College London’s Islamic Society, which he joined soon after enrolling at the university, perhaps partly as a refuge from the persistent loneliness he described in teenage postings on Islamic Web sites before he arrived in Britain.
Within a year in London, he was reveling in his role as the society’s president, sending an e-mail message to his Californian friend in August 2006 recounting what a “nice time” he was having and how “time has flown by” since he enrolled at University College and joined the society.
Left unsaid was the fact that Mr. Abdulmutallab had arrived in Britain at a time of unparalleled intellectual and religious fervor in Britain’s Muslim community in the wake of the July 7 attacks, which killed 56 people, including the four suicide bombers.
The bombers were British-born Muslims with no history of fundamentalist violence, were indoctrinated in mosques in Britain and on visits to Pakistan and had recorded “martyrdom videos” attributing their actions to Britain’s role in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
For Mr. Abdulmutallab, whose personal abstinence and insistence on praying five times a day earned him the nickname Alfa, a term for Muslim clerics, when he was at an elite British boarding school in the West African state of Togo, the Islamic Society seems to have provided comfort. Judging from its Web site and videos of its gatherings posted on YouTube, the society has served in recent years as a forum for agitated debate about the “oppression” of the world’s 1.2 billion Muslims by the United States and other Western countries.
The society’s guest speakers have included radical imams, former Guantánamo Bay prisoners and a cast of mostly left-wing, anti-American British politicians and human rights advocates. In January 2007, with Mr. Abdulmutallab as president, the society sponsored a “War on Terror Week” that was harshly critical of American conduct in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Similar gatherings were being held on campuses in many parts of the world, including the United States, and the records of the one at University College offer no evidence by themselves that Mr. Abdulmutallab or his associates in the Islamic Society were promoting anything other than peaceful protest. That, in any case, is the account given by his successor as the society president, Mr. Rafiq.
“There were no signs of anything extreme at all when I met him,” Mr. Rafiq said. “He never mentioned anything like that. If I could go back in time and speak to him, ask him, I would. There was nothing to suggest that was in him when I knew him.”
As for off-campus activities, Mr. Rafiq said he liked to meet Mr. Abdulmutallab for Friday evening prayers at the Islamic Society’s campus prayer room, then walk to a nearby chicken-and-chips shop where they would eat and talk about their common enthusiasm for the Arsenal soccer club as well as Islamic Society business.
The profile offered by Mr. Rafiq fit with the descriptions from others who knew Mr. Abdulmutallab before he arrived in London. John McGuinness, 59, who was deputy head teacher at the Lomé school in Togo when Mr. Abdulmutallab graduated in 2005, described him as an impeccable student.
“He was very slim, and he had an angelic face, always smiling,” he said. “He was incredibly polite and very hard-working. He didn’t even talk in class.”
Along with this, Mr. McGuinness said, there was his unvarying devotion to Islam. “He would put references to Allah in the work he was doing,” he said. “ ‘God is great’ would be at the end of everything he wrote,” but Mr. McGuinness said this did not strike him as done out of any extremism.
A cousin of Mr. Abdulmutallab in Abuja, the Nigerian capital, also said there was no sign of Islamic radicalism when he was growing up. “He was a normal kid,” said the cousin, who asked that his name not be used because he did not want to anger Mr. Abdulmutallab’s family. “It was clear from his late teenage years that he was actually quite devoted to his faith. He never missed his prayers. We understand that he met some people who influenced him when he was in London.”
Investigators in London seem certain to cast their net beyond the campus, and one focus seems likely to be the London Muslim Center, in the capital’s heavily Muslim, mostly underclass district of Whitechapel. An article Tuesday in The Independent, a major London daily newspaper, said, without citing any sources, that Mr. Abdulmutallab had visited the Whitechapel center at least three times while he was a university student.
If they confirm a link between Mr. Abdulmutallab and the center, investigators most likely will focus on the center’s history of involvement with Muslim fundamentalists.
A particular interest will be its contacts with the American-born, Yemen-based preacher Anwar al-Awlaki, an extremist cleric with links to Al Qaeda who investigators have named as having exchanged e-mail messages with Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan, an American Army psychiatrist charged with killing 13 people in a shooting rampage at the Fort Hood, Tex., military base in November. Earlier this year, Mr. Awlaki, who was banned from entering Britain, made a speech to worshipers at the Whitechapel center by video link from Yemen.
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