x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

The anatomy of a suicide bomber

Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the son of a former minister, and a passionate football fan, does not fit the profile of a typical suicide bomber.

"I get lonely sometimes because I have never found a true Muslim friend," an internet poster called Farouk1986, thought to be Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, wrote on an Islamic internet forum in 2005, aged 18. "I have no one to speak too [sic], no one to consult, no one to support me and I feel depressed." Born in Nigeria to well-to-do parents on December 22, 1986, Abdulmutallab is the youngest of 16 children. His father, Umaru Abdulmutallab, 70, is a highly respected banker who recently retired as chairman of First Bank Nigeria in December. He also served as a member of the country's Federal Executive Council and was awarded the title of Commander of the Order of the Niger for services to the country, one of Nigeria's highest accolades.

Umaru took special interest in his youngest son after noting his academic promise, and while other siblings studied at government colleges, Abdulmutallab was sent to the British School of Lomé, a prestigious academy in Togo that is popular with the Nigerian elite. Abdulmutallab began boarding in 2000, at age 13, and outwardly appeared to thrive during his teenage years, excelling at school with a keen interest in current affairs. "He was one of my star students," said Mike Rimmer, who taught history to Abdulmutallab during his first three years at the school. "He had so much going for him."

But contradictions between Abdulmutallab's appearance and his actions are continuing to emerge. Few who knew him seem to have had any inkling that on December 25 he would board Northwest Airlines flight 253, from Amsterdam to Detroit, with a package of the highly explosive pentaerythritol tetranitrate (PETN) sewn into specially made underwear. He allegedly attempted to detonate the bomb with a syringe filled with liquid.

To his teachers he was bright and sociable; those who knew him at university described him as friendly, engaging and even lazy. His family said that until recently Abdulmutallab had never shown any "attitude, conduct or association that would give concern". Even British security officials have said he had "never shown up on the radar screen" as a threat. Investigators are trying to pin down exactly where Abdulmutallab formed his views, by examining his internet activity, time in Yemen and years at university in London.

Like many teenagers, Abdulmutallab appears to have reached out to the internet for support and comfort, cloaking his internal struggle with religion from those who knew him. With a new technology-savvy generation of al Qa'eda at large, the world's private boarding schools and universities can become recruiting grounds for those who prey on the lonely and confused. In one of the first of 310 posts on the Islamic Forum website www.gawaher.com thought to be made by Abdulmutallab, the poster describes himself as being in a "dilemma between liberalism and extremism". But this internal struggle is at odds with his outward appearance at the time.

Mr Rimmer described him as "fresh-faced, intelligent and gregarious". "I don't remember him ever saying anything radical," he said. "I do recall him explaining the reasoning of the Taliban when the Bamiyan statues were destroyed but I can't recall if he agreed with their reasoning. "Somewhere along the line somebody got to him and filled his head with bizarre nonsense and his heart with hatred," Mr Rimmer said.

Pictures provided by Mr Rimmer of Abdulmutallab on school excursions show a smiling schoolboy, but he is often slightly removed from the rest of the group, and on the internet he said that although he laughed and joked with his peers, he found it difficult to fit in as he did not go "partying" like others, and yearned for "meaningful discussions with good Muslims". Over time his religious views may have hardened.

When Farouk1986 first joined the forum in January 2005 he talked passionately about Liverpool Football Club, joking with other members about matches and praising Frank Lampard. He argued that the players' actions off the pitch did not necessarily mean a team should be boycotted for religious reasons. "As long as we do not support the bad things they do, and only enjoy our football, I think all is cool," the poster said.

By November, after Abdulmutallab spent a summer studying Arabic in Yemen followed by several months at university in London, Farouk1986's views had changed. He posted: "I'm in no position to say spectating and playing football is haram, but I think if we want to reach a high level of Piety [sic], it is best to stay away from it." He said he had come to his decision after a "good analysis" of the relevant hadith.

"Let's save our honour and religion and try and stay away from footbal [sic] and do sporting activities that are more Islamically beneficial," he said. Though the posts under the screen name Farouk1986 have not been officially confirmed to be Abdulmutallab's, security officials have said they are investigating them, and the events described by the poster closely follow the 23-year-old's life. Farouk1986 describes himself as Nigerian, at boarding school, and talks about his summer in Yemen in 2005. He introduces himself as Umar, but "you can call me Farouk", the name by which Abdulmutallab's friends and family also knew him.

Even with jihadi forums heavily monitored, the internet provides an easy route to find the like-minded, with the availability of every kind of Islamic message on offer. Farouk1986 asks for a link to a "jihad forum" from a fellow Islamic Forum contributor calling himself Jihad4Ever, going on to say he hopes to meet the other posters in another forum where they can share "useful knowledge". The Islamic Forum is monitored by moderators, and supporting cult or sectarian ideas, or supporting civilian killings, is banned. But sites sympathetic to al Qa'eda such as Muntada al Ansar al Islami and al Ekhlas are less restrictive.

The news service Agence France-Presse has quoted family members as saying that Abdulmutallab was "radicalised" during his stint as a student at University College London, but even before leaving for the UK he was talking about his "jihad fantasies" on the internet. "I imagine how the great jihad will take place, how the Muslims will win insha Allah and rule the whole world, and establish the greatest empire once again!!!" he wrote in February 2005.

During this time Abdulmutallab was becoming increasingly isolated from his family, who are moderate Muslims. Ultimately he cut all ties with them, leading to his father reporting him two months ago to intelligence services who, until then, seem to have been unaware of any threat from Abdulmutallab. In 2005, Abdulmutallab expressed his dissatisfaction with his family's religious practices, saying their practice of blessing non-meat when travelling had led him to avoid them and eat out.

On previous visits to the UK he said he regularly worshipped at the London Central Mosque in Regents Park, but after moving there reportedly forged ties with the East London mosque, which has been criticised for hosting a talk by Anwar al Awlaki, a Yemeni cleric who is alleged to be a recruiter for al Qa'eda and has been described as the "bin Laden of the internet". One of his school friends, Kwesi Brako, told CNN that London was where Abdulmutallab became increasingly religious, and isolated from his old friends.

At secondary school he already stood out for his devotion, praying five times a day. His classmates nicknamed him "The Pope" for his piety, but it was in London that he began to wear traditional robes and sandals, even in the winter, Mr Brako said. Abdulmutallab became vice president of UCL's Islamic Society, and then president from 2006 to 2007, throwing himself into the role. A spokesman for the Federation of Islamic Societies told a Nigerian newspaper that students and staff had been "shocked and horrified" at the arrest of someone they had considered "engaging, friendly and keen to seek a common cause for all people".

"If these allegations prove true, then many fellow students would undoubtedly feel this to be a breakdown in trust," he said. The fact remains that British university campuses are a target for groups such as Hizb ut-Tahrir, which aims to bring about a united Muslim Caliphate and has been accused of preaching hate. With about 600,000 Muslims in London, it would not have been difficult for the Nigerian to seek out those who shared his views or helped to further radicalise them.

The cleric Mr al Awlaki is now a focus of the investigation into how Abdulmutallab came to try to blow up the US-bound airliner. He was in regular contact with the Fort Hood shooter, and the Wall Street Journal reported that US investigators have uncovered intelligence "chatter" indicating contact between Mr al Awlaki and Abdulmutallab. While many al Qa'eda-affiliated clerics are only accessible to an Arabic-speaking audience, Mr al Awlaki, with his English website and Facebook page, holds appeal for English-speaking youths.

The young Nigerian travelled to Yemen twice, supposedly to study Arabic, first in 2005, then again in August 2009. In between his graduation from university in 2008 and his arrival in Yemen, Abdulmutallab is known to have travelled to Dubai, where he studied at Wollongong University, but he seems to have kept a low profile while in the country. It was on his return to Yemen in August that the US intelligence services reportedly began to pick up information on a "person of interest" known as "The Nigerian" meeting with al Qa'eda in the country, but this was not linked with information later obtained from Abdulmutallab's father. Since the attack, al Qa'eda in Yemen has said it trained Abdulmutallab and claimed responsibility for the attempted bombing.

Even those who met Abdulmutallab over the past few months said his outward appearance contradicted his actions. Though devout, his classmates at the Sana'a Institute for the Arabic Language said he did not seem "radical in a violent sense" and one of his teachers said there were "broad contradictions" between his general behaviour and what he attempted to do. Abdulmutallab had been placed on the US watch list only because his father reported him to authorities and he had been denied a visa to Britain not because of any connections to terrorist organisations, but because he had given the name of a bogus educational institution on his application.

Gone are the times when frequent trips to training camps in Afghanistan or Pakistan would alert the authorities to questionable individuals. Younes Tsouli, a Moroccan-born UK resident, was found guilty of incitement to commit acts of terrorism in 2007. His crimes were carried out entirely over the internet. Latest reports say that Abdulmutallab spent barely 30 minutes in Lagos after arriving from Ghana on a Virgin Nigeria flight. According to the Nigerian information minister, his passport was cleared for entry into the country at 8.08pm and then for departure to Amsterdam at 8.35pm. He was in possession of a passport and valid US visa, issued by the embassy in London in 2008.

Abdulmutallab's connections to Yemen have brought the growing problem of militancy in the beleaguered nation, which is also fighting an internal secessionist movement, into the spotlight. Fear is growing that Christmas Day may have just been a test run, and more attacks are to come. Abdulmutallab, who was described as "calm and lucid" during the attack, has said there are others like him; growing bands of disaffected young men travelling to al Qa'eda's mountain hideouts for training, and the Yemeni foreign minister warned that there may be hundreds more like him, willing give up their lives for al Qa'eda's cause. It emerged this week that a Somali man attempted to board a plane bound for Dubai last month with a device similar to Abdulmutallab's. If, like Abdulmutallab, these would-be bombers are able to go through life without raising alarm bells to those who know them, the challenge increases for intelligence services trying to track this new generation of chameleon terrorists.

@Email:lmorris@thenational.ae