What Online Posts Reveal About Abdulmutallab
NEAL CONAN, host:
Questions persist about the 23-year-old Nigerian man charged with the attempt to blow up Northwest Airlines flight 253. We do know that Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab told federal authorities that he acted under orders from al-Qaida. We know that he grew up as the son of a wealthy banker in Nigeria. We know little about why he decided to become a suicide bomber. Today, The Washington Post published excerpts from 300 posts on an Islamic forum that may shed some light on that.
They were written under the name Farouk1986, and they describe a young man who was sometimes desperately lonely. He also writes about religious duty, love, marriage, frustrations with standardized tests, and about college. With Julie Tate, national political reporter Philip Rucker wrote the story for The Washington Post. And he joins us now from the newspaper's offices. Nice to have you with us today.
Mr. PHILIP RUCKER (Political Reporter, The Washington Post): Thanks for having me here.
CONAN: And the first thing we have to ask is whether you're sure that Farouk1986 is indeed Abdulmutallab.
Mr. RUCKER: You know, that's an excellent question. We talked to a U.S. government official late yesterday who said that they were reviewing the postings but had not yet independently confirmed their authenticity. But what we found is that many of the biographical details in his online postings match up with facts already known about him. Of course, his username is Farouk1986, which represents his birth year of 1986 and his middle name, Farouk.
And he talks in the postings about attending an elite British boarding school, which we know he attended, about visits to London and the United States and other countries which we know he went to. And really hints a lot about his family's wealth in Nigeria. Of course, he is the son of a wealthy Nigerian banker there. So we were led to conclude almost 100 percent that this really is him.
CONAN: And where did you find these posts?
Mr. RUCKER: You know, my colleague Julie Tate and I reviewed over 300 online postings. They were all on an Islamic chat room called The Islamic Forum Web site, which we found online. And through reviewing the postings and sort of crossed-referencing what he wrote in those postings with biographical details we already knew about the suspect, we were able to conclude that this was him.
CONAN: And these posts run from 2005 to 2007, so they don't cover the period of when he apparently became radicalized. But he does write a lot about his -about his religious beliefs and what he regarded as his religious duties.
Mr. RUCKER: He does, and they're very intimate writings. You know, at the time, he was an 18, 19, 20-year-old, sort of contemplating college and love and marriage and he talked very openly about, you know, being lonely and depressed. And he said he never had a true Muslim friend. He said in one posting in 2005 when we believe he was attending boarding school that he had no one to consult with there, no one to support him. He was depressed and lonely. And he didn't know what to do.
He said, I think this loneliness, quote, "leads me to other problems." So there were some signs that, you know, foreshadowing what might have come, but this is really earlier in his life and it was not - there weren't any hints of, you know, how he became radicalized and trained in the explosive device that he tried to use, of course, on that Detroit-bound aircraft.
CONAN: And he, as you mentioned, he is the son of a wealthy banker and does describe his life of privilege. It is - he wrote that he was in Yemen at one point for three months, Arabic course saying that he was very impressed with that country and that it was great there.
Mr. RUCKER: You know, he did. And he really showed a really acute awareness of Western culture and a real worldliness in that particular posting, 'cause he went on describing how the city in Yemen had bustling shopping and global cuisine and talked about the Pizza Hut and KFC that he had there. In another post, you know, he offered travel advice to people who were visiting the Egyptian pyramids. And he talked about his visits to the United States and how he would frequently go to London. So he was clearly - had been traveling a lot. He really understood Western culture, but at the same time, he was such a devout Muslim.
CONAN: He wrote about his "dilemma," quote, unquote, between liberalism and extremism. Can you tell us what he said about that?
Mr. RUCKER: That's right. I think this is one of the most revealing posts that he had. It was in January of 2005, and he talked about the tension between his desires, his romantic desires, and his religious duty of - and this is his words here, quote, �lowering the gaze in the presence of women.�
And he talks about how the Prophet, according to his faith, advices young men, you know, to act fast and get married because, you know, that he doesn't want to sin. And he talked about his sort of inner turmoil over whether he should get married at such a young age. Remember he was, you know, 18 or 19 years old at the time and talked about how he worried his father would not approve of him getting married at such a young age.
CONAN: Indeed there's a lot of tensions with his family. At one point, they're visiting him in London and he is unsure about - whether he can even eat with them.
Mr. RUCKER: That's right. He, you know, he's of the view, of course, that meat that's not slaughtered by Muslims is forbidden, according to his faith. His parents had a different view. And when they visited him in London, they would prepare meat. And he, you know, at one point, said he was - he just didn't eat with them. He would go outside and eat on his own. And he went online and wrote to his followers on this blog - or rather on this chat room, to get their advice, sort of asking them how he should handle that. And this was really what he did a lot of times. He would seek out advice and comments from people on this online forum, and a lot of them would comment back. And that was really his outlet, and he sought companionship there.
CONAN: I am active. I socialize with everybody around me. No conflicts. I laugh and joke but not excessively, he wrote in one posting, seeking counseling from online peers. And this I found fascinating. I will describe myself as very ambitious and determined especially in the deen. And the deen is - means in the religious way of life, D-E-E-N.
I strive to live my daily life, live according to the Quran and Sunna, to the best of my ability. I do almost everything: sports, TV, books, of course, trying not to cross the limits in the deen. And again, keeping himself squarely within the confines of his religious outlook.
Mr. RUCKER: That's right. It's very interesting. And he's so keenly aware of sort of the Western custom. He, of course, was at boarding school there with many British students who are also from privileged backgrounds. And so he was exposed to all of this, the TV, the sports, the books, the socializing. And he tried to participate in as much as he could. But he, you know, he kept his Muslim faith so central to what he did every day, according to these postings. And it's really revealing.
CONAN: As part of your story, you also spoke with some of his colleagues, the people he went to school with. And they describe him almost the same way he describes himself - as very quiet, very studious. Well, actually, there's - one of them says he didn't work very hard at all at his studies, but quiet and very religious.
Mr. RUCKER: Mm-hmm. Yeah. That was a theme that carried through in interviews that some of my colleagues had overseas with some of the students he went to school with. That he really, you know, his religion was the most important thing in his life. And you can see how that might have developed over the years as we lead up to his becoming more radicalized. And moving forward he just - he became very devout.
CONAN: You write about defining these posts on an Islamic forum. He also had a Facebook page?
Mr. RUCKER: He did. He had a Facebook page. He had 287 friends on Facebook. And his profile featured a photo of him smiling. He was standing with two of his friends, wearing a pink polo shirt and sunglasses. And, you know, we're not able to access his actual Facebook page because, you know, he's in a little private network. But we were able to see that photo and see, you know, who his friends were online.
CONAN: And are you continuing to report this story?
Mr. RUCKER: We are. We're continuing to follow these leads. We're also, of course, focusing closely on the Republican criticisms that have been surfacing in the last few days to President Obama's handling of this.
CONAN: And indeed, Secretary Napolitano as well.
Mr. RUCKER: Of course.
CONAN: As you go ahead with this, is there any explanation as to why he stopped writing on this site in 2007?
Mr. RUCKER: You know, that's unclear. And that's one of the biggest questions we have. Of course, we don't really know that he stopped writing. We were just only able to find his online postings under this name through 2007. So, you know, there's a chance, of course, that he may have started writing with a different name or posting in some way that we're not able to see it. Or he might have been posting on a different blog or a different site. Or, of course, he could have stopped altogether. We really don't know. And of course, I think the postings people really want to read are the ones he wrote in the last few months leading up to this attack.
CONAN: We now do understand from Yemeni authorities and other sources as well that, indeed, he did spend, I guess, from August until December of this year in Yemen.
Mr. RUCKER: That's correct. And he was in Yemen earlier as well, I believe, in 2005 for three months in an Arabic language training program, which he wrote extensively about in his online postings.
CONAN: And what he was doing this most recent time is less than clear. It is interesting, though, his ambitions at one point, at least, were to, well, continue with his engineering studies. Indeed, to go on to study in the United States.
Mr. RUCKER: That's right. He wrote a lot about the college admissions process to get into American universities, which all of your listeners know is quite competitive here. He wrote about planning to apply to Stanford University, University of California at Berkeley, and the California Institute of Technology. Of course, three of the best engineering programs in the country.
And then he wrote about his disappointment in scoring just a 1200 on the SAT. This, of course, is under the old rubric where the highest score was 1600. So it's a very respectable score but perhaps not quite enough to gain him admission to those universities. He wrote, I tried the SAT, and it was a disaster, with three exclamation points.
CONAN: He's not alone there.
Mr. RUCKER: Yeah.
(Soundbite of laughter)
CONAN: What kind of - you've read all of these posts, what kind of a young man do you come away with? What is your view of this man's personality?
Mr. RUCKER: You know, from - keeping in mind that this is just one window into who he is, we come away with the sense that he's really lonely, he was depressed. He was seeking counsel. We know he was, I believe, the youngest of 16 children, so perhaps he just didn't have - didn't have roots. I mean, he was away in a different country for boarding school. He is said to have only come home to Nigeria occasionally.
You just - you get a sense in his postings of somebody who's naive, who's desperate - it's a very sad situation. And he was opening himself so publicly on these online forums talking in such intimate detail about his life. You really come away with this sense. And I have to tell you, I covered a lot about Ft. Hood during the Ft. Hood shootings and wrote a lot about Nidal Hasan, of course, the man accused of killing 13 in Ft. Hood last month. And so many of the characteristics are similar.
Hasan was so lonely. He, you know, had very few friends. He felt isolated. He was in a place at Ft. Hood where he was surrounded by very few Muslims, just like this Nigerian man had very few Muslims at his boarding school. So you see a lot of the same characteristics.
CONAN: Yet, in London, Abdulmutallab was - there was a community there. There were other - many others from West Africa, people in not dissimilar circumstances.
Mr. RUCKER: That's true. That is true in London. Although, you know, many of his postings that we read were from his experience in boarding school and that was not the case when he was in boarding school and he was forming these thoughts.
CONAN: So, as the youngest of the family, thought that maybe he was being exiled somehow to be sent to this boarding school in another country while this family's life continued to pace away from him.
Mr. RUCKER: Yeah. And, you know, we don't know that to be true but I think reading all of these postings and sort of analyzing it a little bit, you might be able to draw that conclusion.
CONAN: And at the same time, having a difficult relationship with both his father and his mother.
Mr. RUCKER: That's right. And, you know, clearly the son was more devout than the father and the mother, and that came to be in a posting where he talked about his conflicts about eating meat.
CONAN: Philip Rucker, thanks very much for your time today. We appreciate it. A very interesting story.
Mr. RUCKER: Thank you. Take care.
CONAN: Philip Rucker is a national political reporter for the Washington Post. With Julie Tate, he wrote a piece for today's editions of the newspaper, "In Online Posts Apparently by Detroit Suspect, Religious Ideals Collide." And he talked to us from his office at the Washington Post.
And you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, which is coming to you from NPR News.
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