Who Is Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab?

The man suspected of trying to blow up Northwest flight 253 was born in Nigeria to a well-to-do family, and educated in Africa and London. NPR's West Africa correspondent Ofeibea Quist-Arcton tell us more about Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, and what led to his terror attempt.

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NEAL CONAN, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION, I'm Neal Conan in Washington. And one of the stories we're following today is continuing developments on the investigation into the attempted bombing of a plane over Detroit on Christmas Day. Just about half an hour ago, President Barack Obama delivered his first public statement on the incident. He said the administration will do everything in its power to ensure Americans are safe during the busy holiday travel season, and went on to discuss the specific measures he's taken to secure air travel.

President BARACK OBAMA: First, I directed that we take immediate steps to ensure the safety of the traveling public. We made sure that all flights still in the air were secure and could land safely. We immediately enhanced screening and security procedures for all flights, domestic and international. We added federal air marshals to flights entering and leaving the United States. And we're working closely in this country - federal, state and local law enforcement, with our international partners.

Second, I've ordered two important reviews, because it's absolutely critical that we learn from this incident and take the necessary measures to prevent future acts of terrorism. The first review involves our watch list system, which our government has had in place for many years to identify known and suspected terrorists, so that we can prevent their entry into the United States.

Apparently, the suspect in the Christmas incident was in this system but not on a watch list such as the so-called no fly list. So I've ordered a thorough review, not only of how information related to the subject was handled, but of the overall watch list system and how it can be strengthened.

The second review will examine all screening policies, technologies and procedures related to air travel. We need to determine just how the suspect was able to bring dangerous explosives aboard an aircraft and what additional steps we can take to thwart future attacks.

Third, I've directed my national security team to keep up the pressure on those who would attack our country. We do not yet have all the answers about this latest attempt, but those who would slaughter innocent men, women and children must know that the United States will do more than simply strengthen our defenses.

We will continue to use every element of our national power to disrupt, to dismantle and defeat the violent extremists who threaten us, whether they are from Afghanistan or Pakistan, Yemen or Somalia, or anywhere where they are plotting attacks against the U.S. homeland.

Finally, the American people should remain vigilant but also be confident. Those plotting against us seek, not only to undermine our security, but also the open society and the values that we cherish as Americans.

This incident, like several that have preceded it, demonstrates that an alert and courageous citizenry are far more resilient than an isolated extremist. As a nation, we will do everything in our power to protect our country. As Americans, we will never give in fear or division. We will be guided by our hopes, our unity and our deeply-held values. That's who we are as Americans. That's what our brave men and women in uniform are standing up for as they spend the holidays in harm's way. And we will continue to do everything that we can to keep America safe in the New Year and beyond.

CONAN: President Obama speaking earlier this hour from Hawaii on the attempted terrorist attack on Christmas Day. Obviously, much more on this later today on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

The suspect in the attempted bombing is a 23-year-old man from a wealthy and prominent family in Nigeria. Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab attended some of the best schools in Nigeria then went on to study mechanical engineering at a university in London. If you have questions about this man or about Nigeria, give us a call, 800-9898-255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our Web site, that's at npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION.

NPR's West Africa correspond Ofeibea Quist-Arcton joins us now from her office in Dakar, Senegal to tell us more about this man and where he comes from.

Ofeibea, always nice to have you on the program.

OFEIBEA QUIST-ARCTON: Greetings.

CONAN: What do we know about Abdulmutallab's family?

QUIST-ARTON: That he was the youngest of his father's children, that he was very well-educated, came from a pretty wealthy, well-heeled family from Northern Nigeria - which is a predominantly Muslim half of the country. In fact, his family comes from the same state as the Nigerian President, Umaru Musa Yar'Adua, from Katsina State. We're told that he never seemed to have any problems.

In that first formal statement today, his family said there was nothing in his behavior ever to suggest or give them concern until very recently, only two, three months ago. When you speak to his school friends they say he was a good guy. Very devout, very religious, but he was good fun. He played basketball. He was very bright. His history teacher at the British School in Lome Togo, in West Africa, one of those expensive, exclusive schools 25 dollars(ph) a year, said that I was expecting great things from Umar. He was a great lad, and that he was shocked to hear about the news because he was a model student - he was very enthusiastic. So it's almost as if what we're learning over the past week or so, doesn't really square with what was known about this young man earlier on.

CONAN: Well, we do know from a statement from his family, that indeed, his father had reported to him to the authorities; his concerned over his son, that he'd cut off communications with the family and that they couldn't locate him. He reported that concern, first, to the authorities in Nigeria and later to the U.S. embassy, last month, in Nigeria, in hopes that they could help him track down his son. Do we know if the family was continuing to support him financially?

QUIST-ARCTON: Well, as you've said, it was in the last couple of months that they became concerned. After graduating from prestigious University College, London, the University of London, in mechanical engineering, apparently this young man then went to Dubai for further studies. And it seems that he was studying there for the past seven months when he very abruptly told his family that he was going off to Yemen.

Now, it appears - and this isn't confirmed, because the family have given a very basic statement, but from what other family members have been saying -that he said he didn't need the family's wealth or money because he could study Islamic studies in Yemen and he didn't need money to do that - that to study was free. And it's around that time that it seems he cut off ties with the family and disowned the family, and appears to, perhaps, have quarreled with his father about how his future academic progress should be. And it's from that time that the family - the father apparently informed the U.S. embassy, the Nigerian security services, and the Saudi Arabian security services that they had lost touch with the young man and could they please find him and bring him home.

CONAN: Tell us a little bit more about the situation in Nigeria. You mentioned the northern part of the country is the Muslim part of the country. This is one of the great fault lines between Christianity and Islam - no?

QUIST-ARCTON: You could call it that. But you could also say that for a country that's about 50 percent Muslim, 50 percent Christian - the most popular nation in Africa, with 114 million odd people - that Nigeria has, more or less, done pretty well.

I mean, these two huge communities have lived side by side together in - mostly in harmony. Yes, there have been incidents of religious sectarian violence that have led to hundreds of deaths, but these have been spasmodic. Mostly Christians and Muslims have lived side by side in the north, in the west, in the south - together.

But early of this year, Neal - and I remember reporting on it extensively -there was homegrown militant Islamic group called Boko Haram, which means western education is forbidden; Haram, as in Arabic and in the Muslim religion. And it seemed to have recruited a lot of young men. And everybody was trying to find out whether it had Islamic militant links with - had links to al-Qaida, whether it had extremist links - but it ended very bloodily, with quite a few deaths and the Nigerian police and security forces being engaged. But that was a sort of Muslim-Muslim incident, as opposed to some of the sectarian violence that we have seen separating Christians and Muslims, with Christians being killed, Muslims being killed; some of the violence, sometimes started by Christians with Muslims retaliation and vice versa.

CONAN: And again, we should point out that this young man was radicalized - he was radicalized apparently outside of Nigeria. But nevertheless, we heard from Dina Temple-Raston, the NPR counterterrorism correspondent, earlier today, that she had been hearing reports, lately, of al-Qaida being active in northern Nigeria. Have you heard that as well?

QUIST-ARCTON: The Nigerian government is saying absolutely not, absolutely not. And the imams, Islamic religious leaders, are also saying that al-Qaida and other militant Islamist groups do not have a foothold in northern Nigeria. But, of course, you ask yourself the question.

Nigeria is one of Africa's top oil exporting countries. And it should be a very wealthy country. But it's desperately pull from many, many, many millions of its citizens. And people think the explosive combination of oil, wealth and poverty, of course, could be a magnet for people - Muslims as well as Christians - who are feeling disenfranchised, who are feeling they are not part of the wealth of Nigeria, that they don't benefit from the wealth, could be linked to all sorts of extremist groups.

And it's not just religion. We've seen, in the oil-producing area, where there has been militant activity, and this a mainly Christian area, for the past three years. So of course, there is scope for this sort of concern in Nigeria, whatever the government is saying and whatever the Muslim religious leaders are saying.

CONAN: We've seen this man's father being identified as a - the former director of a bank in Nigeria. Is that the source of his wealth?

QUIST-ARCTON: Apparently. A very prominent, well-respected banker, who was even a minister in a former military regime. We're also told, that he's very high up in Nigeria's first Islamic bank, Jaiz Bank, which, as you know, the Islamic banks say that they don't want profits, as such, and that everybody who was involved in the banking must benefit from the wealth.

So it's obviously a Muslim family, as I say - respected, prominent, well-to-do. But how this young man seems to have turned away from his family and espouse, as we believe, militancy and extremism isn't clear. And whether, as you say, it happened in Britain where he studied for three years as an undergraduate, or before then as a schoolboy in Togo, West Africa, or in his home country, Nigeria, that is not clear.

CONAN: We're talking with Ofeibea Quist-Arcton, NPR's West Africa correspondent, about Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, a man from Nigeria, the 23-year-old, now being held in a federal prison in Detroit, charged with trying to blow up an airliner over Detroit on Christmas Day. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And let me ask you, Ofeibea, how - and this is a very broad question, and I hope you don't mind it - but is Nigeria one of the countries where America is regarded, more or less, positively? Is there a lot of anti-Americanism in Nigeria?

QUIST-ARCTON: On contrary, I think Nigerians have a pretty good relationship with the United States. Washington and Abuja have good relation. I mean, during the military regimes - and that's been most of Nigeria's experience since independence almost 60 years ago, there were tough - there was tough talking from Washington. But since the return to democratic rule in 1999, although election since then has not been the best, generally, Nigeria has excellent relations with the United States.

There have been problems over security issues, problems of course with the fact that the U.S. gets a fifth of its oil supply from Nigeria, but there have been militancy and violence in the oil-exporting area, but not so much. We haven't heard so much about problems with al-Qaida or other extremist Islamic contact. But of course, the U.S., in the whole of West Africa, have concerns about the growing militancy and the fact that it feels al-Qaida has now got a foothold in this corner of Africa.

And we're not talking just about, perhaps, Nigeria. We're talking about Mali. We're talking about Niger. We're talking about the Sahara Desert nation. And of course, northern Nigeria is very closely linked because it has a border with Niger and - not Americans, but other Western tourists and aide workers have been abducted in Mauritania, in Niger and in Mali. So there is definitely concern in Washington about growing Islamic militancy in this region of Africa.

CONAN: And this is, obviously, part of Anglophone Africa, former British colony. And there are great and continuing ties, a considerable African community in London where this young man went to study mechanical engineering.

QUIST-ARCTON: Absolutely. Oh, yes, many Nigerians still send their children to be educated in Britain. And more and more, many West Africans - English-speaking West Africans - are sending their young people to the United States for education - more and more. I mean, my era, you know, those of us who are in our 40s, 50s - tended to go to Britain if we were being sent abroad to school. But those in their 20s and their teens are going to the U.S. more and more. So Nigeria has very close links with the United States.

CONAN: Would there be - when he was going to college in London - would there have been substantial Nigerian community that he would've felt part of?

QUIST-ARCTON: I should think so, and he lived in a very good part of London, so he lived a very privileged life. But of course, there are certain mosques in London, in Great Britain, that the British authorities fear are radicalizing the youth. A lot of them have been in, actually, northern Britain, and it's been more the Asian British, the Pakistanis and so on (unintelligible) as opposed to Nigerians.

But it's not clear where this young man worshipped, which mosque or which mosques he was part of in Britain, and whether it was there that he decided to follow the path that he has, that has led him, now, to be arrested and accused of trying to blow off the Northwest airliner.

CONAN: And the family statement issued today expressed great shock. And I wonder, though, how is this story playing in West Africa, in general, and in Nigeria in particular?

QUIST-ARCTON: Oh, in Nigeria it's huge. It's the talk of the town. I mean, it happened on Christmas Day. And as we said, Nigeria is a Muslim and Christian nation. So I guess a lot of people were celebrating. And of course they heard the news that there had been an attempt on this plane. And then they heard that a Nigerian has been fingered - great shock, great shock. And there are people who were saying, well, if it's him, he should be punished. There are parents who were saying, well, let's find out how this young man got into this position.

But also, I'm here in Senegal, a French-speaking country - it's making big news. In Ghana, where I come from, big news. Apparently, this young man bought his ticket from Lagos to Amsterdam before he took a connecting flight to Detroit from Ghana. So that is a country he knows. People are very interested. They want to know why this is happening, and is this an isolated case or are there other young, radicalized West Africans who may follow suit.

CONAN: Ofeibea Quist-Arcton, as always, thank you very much for you time. We appreciate it.

QUIST-ARCTON: My pleasure.

CONAN: Ofeibea Quist-Arcton is NPR's West Africa correspondent, with us today from her office in Dakar in Senegal.

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