SANA'A // Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the man charged with trying to blow up a US-bound airliner, was described yesterday by his teacher and classmate at the Yemeni language school where he studied as "quiet and smart but introverted". The Nigerian, who is accused of attempting to blow up a Northwest Airlines flight carrying 278 passengers and 11 crew from Amsterdam to Detroit, was in Yemen from August until December, the government confirmed, and studied at the the Sana'a Institute for the Arabic Language.
Matthew Salmon, a Canadian student who arrived in Yemen in September and who lived in the same house at the institute as Mr Abdulmutallab, said there was nothing suspicious about him and that he would regularly go to mosque five times a day. "He was very quiet and polite," Mr Salmon told The National. "He had been enrolled in the school, but had not been attending by the time I had arrived. "We had a few conversations and they were basically on religion and he politely used to encourage me to read the Quran.
"When I heard about the attempt on board the aeroplane I was frightened, enraged, overwhelmed and confused. There was nothing suspicious about him. He always stayed to himself and did not interact with us; he would not join us at dinner." Mr Salmon, who was speaking from inside a yard at the school with a fellow western student, said he had asked Mr Abdulmutallab about when he planned to return home and he had said in one or two months.
The last time Mr Salmon saw Mr Abdulmutallab was on October 6 or 7. The Sana'a Institute for the Arabic Language is located in the old city of Sana'a and offers courses in Modern Standard Arabic, Yemeni colloquial Arabic, Classical Qur'anic Arabic, Arabic calligraphy, Islamic studies, as well as a host of other courses, according to its information sheet.
Ahmed Mujeb, Mr Abdulmutallab's Arabic teacher, said he was a bright student. "I found Umar as the best and the brightest student among his five mates who I taught in an advanced course. He would always raise his hand to answer questions. "He is knowledgeable. He always smiled but his colleagues used to tell me that he was an introvert and did not mix with others outside the class," Mr Mujeb told The National. "We did not discuss religion as our classes are purely Arabic linguistics but it was noticeable that he was totally indulged in religion - he used to go to the mosque for dawn prayer and come back to read the Quran until 9am in his own room."
Mr Mujeb believes that Mr Abdulmutallab might have used the school as a cover for other objectives. "When I came to know about his attempt to blow up the plane, I thought he might have taken his study at the institute to camouflage his own plots for which he came here [to Yemen]," he said. Al Qa'eda in the Arabian Peninsula, which includes militants from Yemen and Saudi Arabia after they merged in January this year, claimed responsibility for the attempted attack on the airliner and said it was retaliation for a US operation against the group in Yemen.
In a statement posted on the internet on Monday, the group described Mr Abdulmutallab as a heroic Jihadist, and said he co-ordinated with members of the group and used explosives manufactured by al Qa'eda members. Yemen, which is facing an insurgency from al Houthi rebels in the north and a growing secessionist movement in the south, said on December 17 it had launched military raids against al Qa'eda training camps in the Abyan village of al Maajala, 480km south-east of Sana'a, and in Arhab district, 60km to the north-east of the capital.
Government officials said as many as 34 suspected militants, including four would-be suicide bombers hiding in Arhab, were killed and that 29 others were arrested. Local sources said the raid in Abyan killed more than 60 civilians, mainly women and children, which sparked angry protests in the south. In a separate statement dated December 20, but which only appeared on Islamist websites on Sunday, al Qa'eda vowed to take revenge over the raids it alleged were carried out by five US warplanes and killed about 50 men, women and children in Abyan.
The al Qa'eda statement was dated before renewed attacks on Thursday, in which the government said its forces killed more than 30 suspected militants in a dawn raid in a remote mountainous region of the Shabwa province, about 650km east of Sana'a. However, local sources said the strike only killed five. Hassan Ahmed al Lawzi, the information minister and government spokesman, said Mr Abdulmutallab visited Yemen twice.
"He was here from 2004-2005 and then from early August to the first week of December this year after receiving a visa to study Arabic in a school in the capital Sana'a," Mr al Lawzi told reporters yesterday. The minister added that the US government had not provided Yemen with any information about Mr Abdulmutallab to warrant putting him on a watch list. "Yemen has not received any information that this person is a terrorist or was on a watch list," Mr al Lawzi said. "He was given a visa because he visited many countries including the United States, which he visited in the past.
"We didn't get any notice from the Americans to put this man on a list. America should have told Yemen about this man as they have of others." He disclosed that the Yemeni government in a meeting yesterday ordered Yemeni embassies to issue visas only to students coming to Yemen to study Arabic or religion after interior ministry approval. "Any foreigner coming to Yemen for study will be under the surveillance of the security apparatuses," Mr al Lawzi said.
A foreign ministry statement said that security agencies were investigating the parties with whom the accused was in contact during his time in Yemen. "The results will be sent to US agencies investigating the attempted attack, within the framework of US-Yemeni co-operation on security and fighting terrorism," the statement said, adding that Yemen will remain "an active partner in the international community in the war against terrorism." @Email:firstname.lastname@example.org