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Plane bomb suspect went from ‘teacher’s dream’ to traveller’s nightmare

Text by FRANCE 24

Latest update : 2009-12-28

The 23-year-old Nigerian national accused of trying to blow up a US passenger flight on Christmas day was once “every teacher's dream”, but his increasingly radical Islamist views eventually estranged him from his privileged past.

The 23-year-old Nigerian national who stands accused of trying to blow up a US passenger flight from Amsterdam to Detroit on Christmas day was once “every teacher's dream”, but his increasingly radical Islamist views eventually estranged him from his privileged past and wealthy father, a former government minister who once headed Nigeria’s largest banks.

Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab was charged by US authorities on Saturday with trying to blow up Northwest Airlines Flight 253 as it approached Detroit on Christmas Day with almost 300 people on board.

The son of a prominent Nigerian banker and former politician, Abdulmutallab attended the British International School in the Togo capital of Lome, where he earned the nickname “Alfa” (a local term for a Muslim scholar) for his strong religious views and tendency to preach to schoolmates,  Nigeria’s This Day news daily reported.

At the time, Abdulmutallab was “every teacher's dream -- he was very keen, enthusiastic, very bright, very polite", said Michael Rimmer, a former history teacher at the British school, in an interview with the BBC on Saturday. But even back then, the young student’s strident views, notably on the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, set him apart from his Muslim classmates.   
 
“In 2001 we had a number of class discussions about the Taliban. All the other Muslim kids in the class thought they were just a bunch of nutters, but Umar spoke in their defence,” Rimmer said. He added that at the time, he suspected Abdulmutallab was "just playing devil's advocate, trying to keep the discussion going".

British authorities say the suspect may have studied mechanical engineering from 2005 until June 2008 at University College London, where an Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab was registered, although the school has not confirmed that the accused is its former pupil.
   
After his stint in London, Abdulmutallab relocated to Egypt and later to Dubai. It was while in Yemen in October that he reportedly severed all ties with his family before travelling to Ethiopia, Ghana, and finally back to Nigeria.

"His father, having become concerned about his disappearance and stoppage of communication while schooling abroad, reported the matter to Nigerian security agencies about two months ago and to some foreign security agencies about a month and a half ago," the Mutallab family said in a statement to the press on Monday.  

Abdulmutallab’s family called his sudden cessation of contact with them "completely out of character and a very recent development".

Suspect on watch lists, but granted US visa

UK border authorities in May had rejected Abdulmutallab's application for a British visa that would allow him to attend a six-month study programme, because the college named in the request was illegitimate, Britain’s Sunday Times online reported. Home Secretary Alan Johnson on Monday confirmed that Abdulmutallab was placed on a security watch list after his application was rejected.
   
Abdulmutallab was added to a US watch list of some 550,000 people in November, after his father, Umaru Mutallab, told the US embassy in Abuja that he was concerned about his son's increasing radicalism, according to Nigerian media reports. But Abdulmutallab was left off a no-fly list of 4,000 and was travelling to Detroit with a valid US visa, Dutch authorities said.

Abdulmutallab began his Christmas journey to Detroit in the Nigerian commercial centre of Lagos aboard a KLM flight to Amsterdam, transferring to the US-bound Northwest Airlines flight at Schiphol Airport.

Republican Senator Susan Collins told The New York Times that, following his father's warning, Abdulmutallab's US visa should have been revoked.
   
"This individual should not have been missed," Collins said. "Clearly, there should have been a red flag next to his name."

US President Barack Obama ordered a review of the country’s no-fly lists on Monday as travellers faced huge delays in the wake of new security measures hastily introduced following the failed attack, including restrictions on almost all hand luggage at some airports.

US and international counter-terrorism officials are now investigating whether Abdulmutallab was acting alone or whether he has established links with al Qaeda.
   
US media reports have quoted unnamed security officials as saying the suspect confessed while in custody to receiving training for the attack from al Qaeda bomb makers in Yemen. But Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, the top US law enforcement official, said there was "no indication" Abdulmutallab was acting as part of a larger scheme and warned against speculating about al Qaeda involvement in the attempted attack.  

Date created : 2009-12-28

  • USA

    Bomb suspect’s disappearance 'out of character', family says

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