The building housing the San'a Institute for the Arabic Language in Yemen's capital, where Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab studied.
The building housing the San'a Institute for the Arabic Language in Yemen's capital, where Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab studied. Peter Kenyon/NPR
Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the young Nigerian man accused of trying to blow up a Detroit-bound airliner on Christmas Day, traveled twice in recent years to Yemen, a poor, barely governed country with a growing hard-line Islamist influence that spread from neighboring Saudi Arabia.
There, he studied Arabic and, investigators say, received training and explosives from al-Qaida operatives. Sources tell NPR that the seeds of his radicalization were sprouting during his first visit to Yemen in 2005.
By June of that year, Abdulmutallab had arrived. But Western and Yemeni officials have not offered much information about the visit. A Western diplomat says: "I think he was germinating when he was here in 2005," adding, "He probably became more full-blown in London after that."
Abdulmutallab spent three years as a university student in London, from 2005-2008, where he came in contact with Islamic extremists. He then returned to Yemen in 2009.
Radical cleric Anwar al-Awlaki told a Yemeni journalist that he "had contact" with Abdulmutallab and supported his failed airliner attack. U.S. and Yemeni officials say the two probably met in the Yemeni countryside last fall, before the Nigerian set off on his potentially deadly mission.
First Contact With Awlaki?
Al-Iman University, on the outskirts of the Yemeni capital of San'a, has been training Sunni religious scholars since 1995. The school has drawn suspicion in the West as a place that has inspired violent radicals or their supporters. The man known as the "American Taliban," John Walker Lindh, studied here.
Did Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab meet radical Islamic cleric Anwar al-Awlaki? Awlaki, pictured here in 2008 in Yemen, is linked to al-Qaida and the alleged Fort Hood shooter Nidal Malik Hasan.
Did Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab meet radical Islamic cleric Anwar al-Awlaki? Awlaki, pictured here in 2008 in Yemen, is linked to al-Qaida and the alleged Fort Hood shooter Nidal Malik Hasan. Muhammad ud-Deen/AP
The head of the school, the conservative and popular Sheik Abdul-Majid al-Zindani, has been listed as a supporter of terrorism by the U.N. Security Council and the U.S. Treasury Department.
School officials say they are being unfairly demonized over a few isolated examples, and they insist that Abdulmutallab was not a student there.
Al-Iman political science professor Ismail Soheily denies that Abdulmutallab was ever at the school.
But he uses more careful language when asked about the cleric Awlaki. Soheily says Awlaki was never on the teaching staff, but when pressed about claims that Awlaki lectured at the school in 2005, Soheily says he can't rule out the possibility.
"Maybe he has attended the mosque of the university," Soheily says. "It's open to the public, and anyone who says he is an Islamic preacher and would like to preach on some topic, he is allowed."
Others, however, say Awlaki definitely did spread his message of jihad, or Islamic holy war, at Al-Iman.
Saeedd Obaid al-Jamhi, who has studied radical Islam and is the author of a book on al-Qaida in Yemen, says he can't confirm any relationship between Abdulmutallab and Awlaki.
"But it is true that Awlaki lectured that year at Al-Iman University," Jamhi says. "And, of course, school leaders denied that, because they know the Americans are looking for evidence that the school was involved with terrorist groups."
Arabic Studies As A Way Back To Yemen
Abdulmutallab spent time on both his visits to Yemen at the San'a Institute for the Arabic Language, which sits on the edge of the capital's bustling and beautiful old city.
Nearly five years before he boarded Northwest Flight 253 from Amsterdam bound for Detroit, Abdulmutallab found relief on the Internet for his self-described loneliness. Intelligence officials say that for two years beginning in January 2005, he posted to a chat site called Islamic Forum under the name Farouk1986.
Farouk1986:I imagine how the great jihad will take place, how the Muslims will win, inshallah, and rule the whole world.
Respondent:Would you consider yours fantastical dreams? Or plans?
A number of media accounts place Abdulmutallab in Yemen from the fall of 2004, but the Nigerian's own Web postings claim he didn't arrive in Yemen until June 2005. The school's records appear to confirm this. They include a photocopy of Abdulmutallab's entry visa, dated June 10, 2005.
The director of the school, Mohammed al-Anisi, says he recalls a quiet, devout young man who studied with remarkable focus and discipline. Anisi says Abdulmutallab left the school in 2005 speaking Arabic at an intermediate-to-advanced level. He heard nothing more of the young man until the summer of 2009, when Abdulmutallab sent an e-mail saying he was in Dubai and needed a one-month refresher course.
"So we helped him, we got him an entry visa, his passport showed that he had a multiple visa in the USA, and also it showed that he was also in England for four years," Anisi says. "So they felt it is OK to bring this guy."
Abdulmutallab was put in the school's most advanced class, but was clearly ahead of the other students. At the time, Anisi says, he had no reason to doubt the student's sincerity, but with the benefit of hindsight, he can't help feeling that the school was simply a means to get back into Yemen.
"I think he needed the school to have a break," he says. "To have a nice time before dying," Anisi adds, then laughs. "Maybe. Because I think he loved Yemen, he liked Yemen very much. And he lied to us, and he deceived us."
Abdulmutallab continued deceiving Anisi, who believed the Nigerian left Yemen on Sept. 21 last year.
But Canadian student Matthew Salmon, a housemate of Abdulmutallab's, says the Nigerian stayed in student housing well into early October, without attending classes. Salmon was a student of religion, so he says the two talked about their beliefs frequently.
"Yeah, we actually talked about religion quite often — but it was always for very short periods of time because one of us always had to go somewhere," Salmon says. "But whenever we'd talk about it, it was more about, for him, it was how it's made his life better, how he's happier because of it, how he doesn't have the same struggles that he had before he took it seriously."
Salmon says that when he first heard of the attempted airliner attack on Christmas Day, he didn't know who the suspect was.
"When I found out it was Umar, I was slightly devastated," he says. "I felt fear, just because we lived with him and that he was willing to do this. I was incredibly disappointed with the lack of respect for life and for family, and for the faith that he professed to like."
Accounts of Abdulmutallab's journey still contain several gaps. The most crucial one includes the final three months of his time in Yemen last year, when investigators say he was trained and armed by al-Qaida operatives in the remote area southeast of the capital.
But as Yemeni officials put it, U.S. investigators already have the "black box" for this information: Abdulmutallab himself, in custody and awaiting trial in the U.S.