x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

Detroit bombing suspect 'focused on religion'

The 23-year-old Nigerian charged with trying to blow up a US-bound airliner on Christmas Day used to 'disappear' from his Arabic-language classes.

Sana'a Institute for the Arabic Language, where Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab studied.
Sana'a Institute for the Arabic Language, where Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab studied.

SANA'A // Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the 23-year-old Nigerian charged with trying to blow up a US-bound airliner on Christmas Day, used to disappear from his Arabic-language classes, according to classmates who said religion was the main focus of his life.

"Umar studied with us for two or three weeks, but then started to disappear from classes without notice. During Ramadan, he did not attend classes and said he would like to devote it for the reading of the Quran and worship," said Ahmed Hassan, 28, a housemate of Mr Abdulmutallab at Sana'a Institute for the Arabic Language. Mr Hassan, a Singaporean student whose room was next to Mr Abdulmutallab's at the school residence, said he left the institute without even saying goodbye to his friends.

"I found his room open, which is unusual, and when I asked about him I was told he left," Mr Hassan said. "He used to live alone. I lived next to him but would see him only once or twice a day; he only joined us for a meal once or twice in weeks. He was better than me in Arabic - when we used to talk about our objectives in life, he told us he wanted to improve his Arabic language skills and study Islam thoroughly."

A US classmate of Mr Abdulmutallab's described him as "passionate about religion". "I spent 10 days with him in the class and I found him passionate about his religion and I think that is the focus of his life," the student said on condition of anonymity out of concerns about his parents. "He tried to convince me to convert to Islam and used to tell me if I want to go to heaven, I should convert to Islam; he felt it was his duty to share his faith - I did not feel he was a radical in a violent sense; I believe he was misguided as he is young."

The Nigerian, who is accused of attempting to blow up a Northwest Airlines flight carrying 278 other passengers and 11 crew from Amsterdam to Detroit, was in Yemen from August until December, the government confirmed, and studied at the Sana'a institute. Mr Abdulmutallab used to attend a Zaidi Shia mosque about 100 metres from the school. This, according to Ahmed al Kibsi, a Yemeni teacher, demonstrates the contradictions in his personality.

"I lived with him in the same building and there was nothing unusual about Umar and his behaviour with his classmates or teachers. I once watched him coquetting with a little child passing by with her father. This shows there is no hostile attitude, but when I heard the news about his attempt to blow up the plane, everybody in the institute was completely shocked," Mr al Kibsi said. Qubat al Mutawakil mosque is known as a Zaidi mosque. "It is not a jihadist mosque - there are broad contradictions between his behaviour and what he tried to do," Mr al Kibsi said.

Yusuf al Khawlani, 19, who works at the institute, said Mr Abdulmutallab did not like music, or would not mix with women and that he spent 10 days of Ramadan, the holy Muslim month, in the mosque. "He - used to tell me listening to songs is not good," Mr al Khawlani said. However, Sheikh Yahia al Halili, the blind imam of Qubat al Mutawakil, said he did not know him. "I do not know of any Nigerian man here," Mr al Halili said. "I have never met or spoken with him. I have an American man studying with me but not a Nigerian." Ahmed Mujeb, Mr Abdulmutallab's teacher, said: "He seems to be easy to influence and is easy to guide." Yemen officials said Mr Abdulmutallab visited Yemen twice: from 2004 to 2005 and then from early August to the first week of December this year after receiving a visa to study Arabic.

The al Qa'eda group in Yemen said this week it had trained Mr Abdulmutallab and took responsibility for the attempted bombing of the plane. Yemen, which is facing an insurgency from al Houthi rebels in the north and a growing secessionist movement in the south, launched this month a series of air attacks on al Qa'eda militants. Saleh al Zawari, the deputy interior minister, said at a meeting of military officials in Hadramaut province that Yemen would continue its attacks. A militant was injured in clashes between police and the militants meeting yesterday in the port province of Hodiedah. He was later arrested.

@Email:malqadhi@thenational.ae