In London, Bomb Suspect Found Militant Edge

In this series, "Going Radical," NPR News investigates what turned a young Nigerian student into a would-be terrorist aboard a Detroit-bound airliner on Christmas Day.

University College London i i

hide captionUniversity College London, where Abdulmutallab studied from 2005 to 2008, is one of 12 British universities on an intelligence agency watch list.

Courtesy stevecadman via Flickr
University College London

University College London, where Abdulmutallab studied from 2005 to 2008, is one of 12 British universities on an intelligence agency watch list.

Courtesy stevecadman via Flickr

When Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab arrived in London in the fall of 2005, his life revolved around two things: the Goodge Street Mosque and the Islamic Society at his new school, University College London.

The Goodge Street Mosque hardly looks like a mosque at all. It's a storefront on an unremarkable street of storefronts in central London. It is run by the Muslim World League, which is backed by the Saudi government and teaches a strict form of Islam called Wahhabism.

Abdulmutallab had long been a follower of Wahhabi Islam. He prayed five times a day. He tried to follow its strictures. And, in a way, he found refuge at the Goodge Street Mosque.

It was his first time living alone in a non-Muslim country. The Goodge Street Mosque gave him a moment of reflection and prayer on his way to school.

One of the elders at the mosque confirmed to NPR that Abdulmutallab often prayed there. But beyond that, he declined to say more about the young man who would later be accused of trying to blow up an American airliner on Christmas Day.

Commitment To Islam

Many people who knew Abdulmutallab during the years he studied in London from 2005 to 2008 told me he was quiet, kept to himself and left little impression.

Those who did have an opinion of him focused on his commitment to Islam — his desire to study Arabic to learn the Quran by heart. They also cited his tendency to chastise people who took the religion less seriously than he did.

He was so devout after just a year at University College London, the Islamic Society voted him their president.

"You don't get to be president because you are popular," said one of the society's young sisters, Latifah, who declined to provide her last name. "You get to be president because you are the most committed, the most religious, and provide an example for others to follow."

Societies are the British answer to fraternities or eating clubs. Freshman year there is a kind of rush week when all the societies vie for members.

The Islamic societies attract a certain kind of Muslim — extremely devout. In fact, school officials say most Muslims at British universities don't join their "ISOCs," as they are known, because the young people who join them tend to be very political and don't particularly want to mix with other groups at school.

Abdulmutallab joined the University College London ISOC soon after he arrived on campus. His quick elevation to the presidency of the group just a year later meant that in addition to leading the opening prayer at the society meetings, he was in charge of organizing the annual Islamic Awareness conference, a task that people who knew him say he attacked with gusto.

I attended some of the sessions at this year's Islamic Awareness Week program at University College London. Walking into the auditorium, there were signs that directed "sisters" to the left and "brothers" to the right. (A flyer seeking feedback about the session asked, in addition to whether the speaker was interesting, whether the event was "separate" enough.)

About a dozen young women sat in the back of the lecture hall. They all wore headscarves. One of them was from Pakistan, another from Malaysia and a third from Indonesia. The young men wore sweatshirts and track pants. They were at the opposite corner of the hall in the front three rows. Some were bearded, and others were not.

'War On Terror' Week

Moazzam Begg i i

hide captionFormer Guantanamo Bay detainee Moazzam Begg speaks outside the extradition hearing of a British terrorism suspect in London. In 2007, Begg was a speaker at a weeklong conference organized by Abdulmutallab.

John D McHugh/AFP/ Getty Images
Moazzam Begg

Former Guantanamo Bay detainee Moazzam Begg speaks outside the extradition hearing of a British terrorism suspect in London. In 2007, Begg was a speaker at a weeklong conference organized by Abdulmutallab.

John D McHugh/AFP/ Getty Images

This year's program included a lecture on the Prophet Muhammad, and another on finding one's life purpose through Islam. The sessions were conducted in a combination of English and Arabic.

In 2007, the tenor of Abdulmutallab's conference was very different. He called his event "War on Terror" week, and it focused on the Bush administration's war on terrorism policy.

The conference opened with a startling video: American Airlines Flight 11 plowing into the North Tower of the World Trade Center. It then cut to various images of mujahedeen on the battlefield.

It is unclear whether Abdulmutallab knew that he was essentially using the very same images recruiters use in their videos to convince young Muslims to join violent jihad. But people who saw the video that day in the hall said they were a little taken aback.

If there was any question about where Abdulmutallab stood when it came to the war on terrorism, it was answered by how the ushers in the hall were dressed — young men in orange jumpsuits passed out flyers; they were supposed to look like Guantanamo prisoners.

The U.S. detention center at Guantanamo Bay had clearly captured Abdulmutallab's attention months before the conference took place.

Intelligence officials say Abdulmutallab posted to an online chat site called the Islamic Forum. He called himself "Farouk1986," (his middle name and year of his birth). He began posting in late January 2005 and continued through September 2007.

Waheed Zaman

hide captionAuthorities believe that Abdulmutallab was connected to Waheed Zaman, a former president of the Islamic Society at a nearby university, and one of the men arrested in connection with a 2006 airplane bombing scheme.

Getty Images

The early postings from Abdulmutallab were about the difficulties in squaring his teenage experiences with being a good Muslim. He talked about not always lowering his gaze when a woman approached him, and his sexual desires. In later posts, he discussed politics.

In March 2006, he joined an online discussion about battlefield detainees in Afghanistan. In his posting, he mentioned a British journalist, Yvonne Ridley, who was captured and released by the Taliban.

"She later on became a Muslim because of how well she was treated relative to Guantanamo detainees," Farouk1986 wrote. "So I have a link for you. Yvonne Ridley tells her story and Martin Mubanga a former Guantanamo detainee gives his story too. Listen to it with an open heart."

Nine months later, Ridley, Mubanga and another high-profile Guantanamo detainee named Moazzam Begg were all guest speakers at Abdulmutallab's conference. The people at the forefront of the Guantanamo debate, who had been just people he had followed on the Web, were now on campus at his invitation.

Getting Close To Gitmo Detainees

Moazzam Begg may be one of the best-known former Guantanamo detainees. I met him at a coffee shop in London near the Houses of Parliament, not far from the offices of his organization, CagePrisoners, which highlights the plight of American terrorism detainees.

Begg is not much more than 5 feet tall, and he's burly and built like a hydrant — all shoulders. I asked to see him because he spoke at Abdulmutallab's conference. When I arrived, he was eating a slice of strawberry cheesecake and drinking a latte. People who attended the conference say Begg and Abdulmutallab were sitting next to each other during Begg's session. Begg says he doesn't remember him.

He does remember, however, what he talked about.

"I would have talked about how inside this tiny prison cell where you have no access to the rest of the world, the one thing that gives you solace is the Quran," Begg said. "The only thing that's familiar to you after they have taken away your clothes and taken away your family and taken away your environment and the very air that you breathe, the only thing you can see that is familiar is when you open that book."

Abdulmutallab had never been highly political, but when he started rubbing shoulders with people like Begg, Mubanga and Ridley, it must have had an effect.

You don't have to talk to Begg very long to know that he is angry about what happened to him. He was held in Guantanamo for several years, and then was released without charge. He says he can never forgive the United States for imprisoning him.

He recalled writing a poem while at Guantanamo Bay that he titled "Indictment USA." Begg recited the poem from memory: "The last verses are like this: They suffered an atrocity and want us all to pay, but I wish no proximity to such a USA. Vulgarity is not my style, but still I have to say, this occasion causes me to revile, so f—- the USA."

Stoking Anger, Frustration

Shiraz Maher used to be a recruiter for an Islamist group in the United Kingdom. He says there is a roster of former prisoners who stir things up on campuses. They never call for violence directly, but their incendiary speeches push some listeners in that direction.

"In this country, people who do these tours — Begg, Yvonne Ridley — espouse highly reactionary, highly politicized angry views," Maher said. "Imagine you are a young man, and you're being wound up constantly with this anger and frustration and being told there are all these things you should do. After a while, some people decide that political activism in which they are being engaged in London is not enough — they have to go to the front lines of the battlefield."

None of this is to suggest that Begg directly radicalized Abdulmutallab. But Guantanamo did become a huge symbol for the Islamist movement and university students in Britain in 2007. In the words of one U.S. intelligence official, "There are lots of bright, shiny objects that can attract these people, and Guantanamo is certainly one."

If the seeds of Abdulmutallab's radicalization were sown when he was growing up in Nigeria, they found a rich soil in which to grow at University College London.

It was the original London University when it was founded in 1826 and is the biggest college in the London system. UCL calls itself the "Global University" because a good portion of its student body comes from outside the United Kingdom.

What is less well-known is that it is one of 12 college campuses in Britain that is on an MI5 watch list. MI5 is the British equivalent of the FBI, and its investigators have been concerned for some time that Islamists are using college campuses to radicalize students.

The university and several other campuses, like London Metropolitan University, are considered fertile ground for radical Islam.

Britain's Jihadi Subculture

"People who are jihadi preachers and, indeed, members of terrorist organizations tour U.K. campuses week in and week out, and preach violence with impunity," said Douglas Murray, executive director of a nonpartisan think tank, The Center for Social Cohesion, that studies radicalization in Britain. "It's hard if you are outside Britain and even if you are in Britain to recognize just how bad this has got."

One statistic often cited: In the past three years, four presidents of U.K. campus Islamic Societies have been arrested on terrorism-related charges; Abdulmutallab was the fourth.

Terrorism experts say that Britain is different from the United States when it comes to radicalization and terrorism because it has something America doesn't have: a jihadi subculture.

The head of MI5, Jonathan Evans, says there is a group of people in Britain, numbering in the thousands, who have direct and regular contact with people who law enforcement sees as terrorism suspects. Scotland Yard says thousands of people in the "jihadi subculture" may share some of the terrorists' convictions, but never intend to commit violence.

It is the smaller group, of several hundred people who want to commit violence, whom officials are trying to keep off campuses.

"The government has twice issued advice and guidance to universities and colleges about what to look out for, and to try to address this issue," says Peter Clarke, former head of counterterrorism for Scotland Yard.

Until he was arrested on Christmas Day, Abdulmutallab seemed to be merely a peripheral figure among Islamic radicals in London. It wasn't until British officials went back to their files that they found the more sinister radical Islamic connections that went beyond conversations with Guantanamo detainees and dressing up in orange jumpsuits.

British intelligence officials say they have discovered Abdulmutallab had links to two suspected U.K. terrorists.

One is Waheed Zaman, a former ISOC president at London Metropolitan University. He was implicated in a plot to detonate liquid bombs onboard passenger planes in 2006. He is going to be retried in Britain for his alleged role.

The second man, whom officials identified to NPR only as Faranz, was arrested by Birmingham police a short time after Abdulmutallab was placed in custody by U.S. officials. They have not released details about their connection or why he was arrested beyond saying he had materials that could be of use to terrorists.

U.S. and U.K intelligence officials are still piecing together Abdulmutallab's journey from young man of privilege to potential jihadist.

Now Abdulmutallab is in a federal prison outside Detroit, cooperating with authorities, and living a life not unlike the one he had been somewhat obsessed with: as a prisoner of the U.S. government, in an orange jumpsuit.

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