Going Radical: NPR Investigates Abdulmutallab

From Student To Radical

Three NPR reporters spent weeks investigating the life and eventual radicalization of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab.

West Africa correspondent Ofeibea Quist-Arcton, counterterrorism correspondent Dina Temple-Raston and Middle East correspondent Peter Kenyon share their findings.

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NEAL CONAN, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. Im Neal Conan, in Washington.

Last week, NPR News ran a six-series - a six-story series on the life, education and radicalization of the young man accused of attempting to blow up an airplane on its way to Detroit on Christmas Day. The series was part of an NPR News investigation called Going Radical, about 23-year-old Nigerian Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab.

West Africa correspondent Ofeibea Quist-Arcton reported from Nigeria on his family and from Togo, where his interest in Islam began to deepen. That's where he went to high school. Counterterrorism correspondent Dina Temple-Raston picked up the story in London, where he went to college and contacted two suspected terrorists. Cairo-based Peter Kenyon then followed Abdulmutallab to Yemen, where he met with an American-born imam who's also been connected to the suspect in the Fort Hood shootings and reportedly where he was trained by al-Qaida.

Later in the program, Christopher Hill, the United States ambassador to Iraq, on the crucial elections scheduled there in just a few weeks time. But first, a portrait of a would-be suicide bomber.

If you have questions about the life and radicalization of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, our phone number is 800-989-8255. Email: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our Web site. Thats at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

In the series' first report, Ofeibea Quist-Arcton spoke with several people in Nigeria who knew the young man growing up, including a neighbor, Shehu Sani.

Mr.�SHEHU SANI (Human Right Activist, Author): People who are indoctrinated are those who already have the seed of violence in them. They have the seed of hate. They have the seed of their perception, that things are wrong and must be addressed drastically. And Umar Farouk came from a society that has not embraced tolerance. He came from a society that has a history of violence, of extremism, and that is a fact.

CONAN: And Ofeibea Quist-Arcton joins us now from Accra, in Ghana. Good to have you back on the program.

OFEIBEA QUIST-ARCTON: Greetings.

CONAN: And the scene of violence that man was describing was the history in northern Nigeria, where it is overwhelmingly Muslim, but nevertheless, there have been, well, a long record of incidents involving disputed religions.

QUIST-ARCTON: Indeed. Shehu Sani is also a human rights activist and he's an author, and has written a book about religious violence in Nigeria and terrorism. And the perspective he wanted to put it in was that he said for the past 30-odd years, young people who have been growing up, anybody the age of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab and others, even though they may not have been involved in the violence themselves, they have probably absorbed this fact of religious of violence, Christian against Muslim, and then some radical Muslim sects, and this could have affected him.

He said, you know, I can't say that he was radicalized in Nigeria, but certainly as a young boy in his early years growing up and in his early teens, before he went off to boarding school in Togo, this is the reality he lived.

CONAN: And that's, of course, the societal context. The family context, you paint a portrait of a young man becoming increasingly isolated from his family, as he found his faith in opposition to what his father did for a living.

QUIST-ARCTON: Indeed, but a family that is also very wealthy. His father is a very well-known and respected conventional banker in Nigeria, but - and also, everybody I spoke to said Alhaji Umaru Mutallab was equally pious, as pious and as a devout a Muslim as his son. But what we learned from the Internet postings of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, we're told by intelligence sources that these are his postings. It seems that despite the fact that he had an upbringing -somebody - a privileged upbringing, that more and more, he was conflicted between his life as a true Muslim and the Western life that he was living as a young schoolboy.

CONAN: And let's bring Dina Temple-Raston into the story. She picked up the story and went to London, where Abdulmutallab went to college at University College, London. Counterterrorism correspondent Dina Temple-Raston followed him there. The university where he studied was on MI5's watch list - MI5 the British equivalent of the FBI, concerned for some time that radical Islamists used college campuses to recruit and radicalize students. Douglas Murray heads a center that studies radicalization in Britain.

Mr. DOUGLAS MURRAY (Director, Center for Social Cohesion): People who are jihadi preachers and, indeed, members of terrorist organizations tour U.K. campuses week in, week out, and preach violence with impunity. It's hard, maybe if you're outside Britain - indeed, it's hard for people in Britain to recognize quite how bad this has got.

CONAN: Dina Temple-Raston has returned to her base in New York and joins us from our bureau there. Nice to have you on the program again.

DINA TEMPLE-RASTON: Thank you very much.

CONAN: And you paint a picture, I guess, of what we came to known as Londonistan.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Yes, it's sort of the next step in Abdulmutallab's development. You know, and building on what Ofeibea did in Nigeria, we then see Abdulmutallab in a period in his life where he feels quite isolated. This is the first time that he is by himself in a non-Muslim country, and he's sort of reaching out, trying to find things that he recognizes.

And very early in his time at the University College, London, he becomes the president of their Islamist Society, and the way that you become president is not by some sort of popularity contest, but actually people are voted into the presidency of this particular society at the university by being particularly pious. And apparently, he was very, very devout and spent a lot of his time going to prayer and knew quite a bit of the Quran, and these are all things that helped him gain that particular role.

CONAN: Yet that dichotomy, that tension within the family, illustrated by the fact in London, his home there, the family home in London in a very fancy part of town, in Regent's Park, and yet he attended a mosque in a storefront.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, one of the mosques that he attended, indeed, was at a storefront. It was on the way to school. It's hard to actually explain how really nice this apartment he lived in as a college student was.

I mean, what I found interesting is it's sort of like living in a mansion on Park Avenue. It's that nice. It was a historic building. It had - on the street, there were Rolls Royces and Mercedes and BMWs just parked street-side. And what I found interesting is I spoke to some of the students in the Islamic society who knew him when he was there, and they said they didn't know he lived in this really nice place until they read about it in the papers. So he was very much living sort of a double life.

CONAN: And - double life - at one point, he puts on a project, a school project, based on Guantanamo. He becomes very exercised about the treatment of Islamic prisoners there. And well, tell us about the dramatization he put on.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, this is what I think is really interesting. He put on a conference as part of his responsibility as the Islamic society president. And this doesn't mean - and this was a conference that was focusing on the war on terror. And it wasn't only about Guantanamo, but certainly Guantanamo was an enormous element in it.

And I'm not saying that Guantanamo is something that radicalized him, but you have to understand Guantanamo is seen very differently in the U.K. than it is here. It was a great sort of shiny, radicalizing or shiny focal point for many of the young Muslims in the U.K. at the time when he was there in 2005, 2006, 2007. And these were people that he - we know from his postings that he was interested in some of these former detainees or people who were at the forefront of the Guantanamo movement.

These are people he was interested in when he first arrived in London. And then with his position as the head of the Islamic society, suddenly these people, he asked them to be someplace, and they actually responded, and he met them in person.

And you have to imagine that this had a great effect on him simply because what was sort of distant before, it was suddenly personified by people who were right there in front of him.

CONAN: After London - and we'll have more on the period there, very interesting, too - NPR's Peter Kenyon traveled to Yemen to document Abdulmutallab's visits there. He met with the head of a school where the young Nigerian studied Arabic in 2005. The school's director didn't think anything was amiss when Abdulmutallab emailed him from Dubai last year, saying he needed a refresher course. In hindsight, he now has doubts about the young man's true intentions.

Mr. MOHAMMED AL-ANISI (Director, San'a Institute for Arabic Language): I think he needed the school to have a break, to have a nice time before dying...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ANISI: ...maybe. Because I think he loved Yemen. He loved Yemen very much. And he lied to us, and he deceived us.

CONAN: Peter Kenyon joins us now from our bureau in Cairo. Hello, Peter.

PETER KENYON: Hi, Neal.

CONAN: And that was a very nervous laugh we heard there.

KENYON: It was. I should say he tends to have a bit of a shrill laugh on other subjects, as well. I don't want any people to read too much into that. But yes, that was Mohammed Al-Anisi, the director of the San'a Institute for the Arabic Language. And possibly one reason he might have been nervous is because this kind of publicity is just devastating, of course, to all the language schools, the idea that a terrorist could, or a would-be terrorist might come and use their schools as an excuse to get into a country where they could have access to a lot of radical influences.

And there's a slight hitch in the chronology of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab's tour here. As he came here first in 2005, spent the summer here, there in Yemen, learning Arabic and then went to London where, from all accounts, he became much more radicalized and then returned to Yemen in 2009, spent a very brief time at the same school, San'a Institute for Arabic Language, they helped him get his visa, and then disappeared.

CONAN: And then disappeared, allegedly into the countryside where he was instructed by al-Qaida.

KENYON: That's what apparently he has told investigators. That is what people have said they believe happened. I've been told - people, investigators and officials, believe that he met with al-Qaida operatives in the southwest of the capital, in the mountains southwest of San'a, and that he also is believed to have met with Anwar al-Awlaki, the U.S.-born cleric who is hiding there, being protected by his tribe, who has been connected, of course, with the Fort Hood shooting and this Christmas Day attempted bombing. And that is the final piece of his radicalization, his journey where, apparently, he was armed, trained and sent on his way.

CONAN: And Dina Temple-Raston, we just have a couple of seconds left in this segment, but he apparently encountered those lectures by the American-born cleric, al-Awlaki, online.

TEMPLE RASTON: Online, and then subsequently went to a mosque in Finsbury Park to actually hear a video conference in which he was giving a speech. So he clearly already had a focus on Awlaki before he went to Yemen that second time.

CONAN: We're talking with the three NPR correspondents who were part of the NPR news investigative series Going Radical. If you'd like to talk about the life and radicalization of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, give us a call: 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. Stay with us. Ofeibea Quist-Arcton will be with us from Accra in Ghana, Dina Temple-Raston from our bureau in New York, Peter Kenyon with us from NPR's Cairo bureau. I'm Neal Conan. Stay with us. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington. And we're talking today with three NPR correspondents behind the investigative series Going Radical. They traveled three continents, tracing the path of the accused Christmas Day bomber, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, from a well-off young men to potential jihadist. You can find their reports at npr.org. Just click on TALK OF THE NATION.

They are Ofeibea Quist-Arcton, NPR's West Africa correspondent, Dina Temple-Raston, NPR's counterterrorism correspondent, Peter Kenyon, NPR's Middle Eastern correspondent. If you'd like to join the conversation, give us a call: 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org.

And Ofeibea, in Accra, we've worked out this timeline. But in terms of a glimpse into what actually was going on in this young man's mind, we learn a great deal from these postings on this Islamic forum that he made, posting as Farouk1986. That, of course, is his birth date. And that really gives us some indication of how he was thinking, at least at that time.

Quist-Arcton: I think very much. When we think about this, when he started posting, he was an 18-year-old, almost-high school graduate. And he seemed to have all the problems that adolescents have about all sorts of things. But apart from those, he also had these - and Peter will tell us more about this -he was talking about jihadist fantasies and how he wanted to see the Islamic world win a jihad, a holy war, and rule all over again.

So these things were very much part of his consciousness and things that he was thinking about. Dina has also mentioned the fact that Guantanamo was like a beacon. And I have to say that a lot of people I spoke to in northern Nigeria, if it wasn't specifically Guantanamo, were also talking about the fact of U.S. foreign policy, the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, the Middle East, Palestinian-Israeli crisis, how they felt so personally that the U.S. was attacking not only Muslims, as they felt, but even Nigerian Muslims, because Islam is very much a way of life.

Islam is not just a religion for them. So if many Nigerians that I'm talking to now are speaking about that, obviously, that may have been how Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab felt. But, having said that, many Nigerians also added, but, you know, suicide bombing is not our way. Nigerians love life. Everybody kept saying this. You know, this is not part of our religion.

We can be angry with U.S. foreign policy, but going, even thinking about taking life because of how we feel, that's not on. That's not part of our religion.

CONAN: Well, we'll get to Peter in just a minute, but there in London, Dina, that's apparently where he was asked the question: Are these just fantasies? Are these just ideas, or do you want to actually take steps in this direction?

TEMPLE-RASTON: Right. He was asked this in some of his online postings, continuing on from what Ofeibea said. And what's interesting is that he sort of equivocated on that and said he didn't really want to answer that question.

So he was clearly sort of going along a particular path. And I spoke to a recruiter when I was there in - or a former Islamist recruiter when I was there in London, and I had him take me around the Regent's Park mosque, which was one of the mosques that Abdulmutallab attended. He used to go there for evening prayers. And I asked him to tell me how the radicalization process worked.

And in walking me through it, he said, you know, one of the things that recruiters were looking for were people who looked sort of - who felt isolated and alone and who'd already started down the path of how can they do more to be better Muslims.

And what recruiters say to them is the more alienated you feel from the West, you shouldn't be sad about this. You should be happy about this, because this means that you're getting closer to God.

CONAN: And Peter Kenyon, when he was in Yemen, there he found a society that, indeed, as you reported, he felt very comfortable in.

KENYON: He liked Yemen very much, and according to housemates who would talk with him before going to class there in San'a, he liked it specifically because there were so many Sunni Muslims there, so many people who lived very conservative, religious, pious lifestyles. And he felt very much at home there, and if indeed he was still nurturing these fantasies of a global Islamic society, then that would, in part, explain that.

And I think in terms of his radicalization, it seems safe to say that at this point, it was fairly complete by his second trip to Yemen. In Dubai, before he came on his second trip, he had written to his family and said look, I've found the true religion. Don't try to contact me anymore, which follows on a bit from what Dina was saying, that perhaps he had bought into this argument that the more isolated he felt, the more of a true Muslim he had finally become.

CONAN: And that - well, we're not quite sure. The last three months before the attempted bombing, well, Peter, that's opaque. We actually don't know what's going on there.

KENYON: This is the hardest part, and I have to say that many journalists in addition to myself have tried to find out more about this. The movement in that part of Yemen is extremely difficult. It's very hard to get around. The checkpoints are just every few miles, and it's extremely hard to move in that part of the country. And this - the religious end of the Yemeni spectrum is quite insular in many ways. If you don't know people already, it's hard to get to know them. It does take a lot of time.

There is a Yemeni journalist who has met with Anwar al-Awlaki on a few occasions, and he has come back with interviews and reports of both him talking to the Fort Hood shooter and talking about Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab.

But that is really the key, and it's - Abdulmutallab himself, who is the most likely source of the best information on this, as we're hearing now, he seems to be talking to investigators. I can't say what he's been telling them, but it seems that some information may eventually come out on that.

CONAN: Let's get some callers in on the conversation: 800-989-8255. Email: talk@npr.org. Joe's on the line from Groveport in Ohio.

JOE (Caller): Yeah, nice to talk to you.

CONAN: Thank you.

JOE: As I said to your call-taker, unfortunately, whatever small percent of radicalized Muslims, you know, there are, they're making the majority look that way, and I'm sure the majority isn't.

But my question is is that: How did this guy, and including the Fort Hood shooter, how did he, how did both of them fly under the radar without any red flags, considering I know the Fort Hood shooter had direct contact with a radical imam? So how do we better - I mean, even if it comes to profiling, to protect our country, to protect our people, how do we do that?

CONAN: Well, Dina Temple-Raston has been involved in both those stories and looking into them. Dina, can you help us out here?

TEMPLE-RASTON: Yes, I think also we should make clear that it wasn't just that they had direct contact with Al-Awlaki, this radical imam, but in addition to that, you know, they discovered him on YouTube. And how do - and Facebook. And so it was very hard to track that sort of thing.

And this has always been a big dilemma for the FBI, that if you sort of shut down these Web sites, then potentially what you're doing is shutting down an avenue for seeing people early on in the process, when they might be embracing these sorts of ideas.

And so there's been a push-pull on this. And also if you shut down the Web site, how long does it take until another Web site opens up?

CONAN: And how was - they contacted him through hearing his remarks on YouTube and through Facebook, and so that's how they got directly in contact with him?

TEMPLE-RASTON: Originally, although I think that was certainly what the Fort Hood Shooter, Nidal Hasan, Major Nidal Hasan, had actually originally met Al-Awlaki as an imam to the mosque that he attended in Virginia...

CONAN: In northern Virginia.

TEMPLE-RASTON: ...before Al-Awlaki left. So they actually knew each other personally. And then they had contact later via email.

And in Abdulmutallab's case, you know, in London, it's actually quite easy to get a hold of Al-Awlaki. A lot of people have his phone number, apparently. A lot of people reach out to him and have him do video conferences and video speeches in different mosques and Muslim organizations in London.

So of the various things that Abdulmutallab had to do in order to get to this spot where he decided to possibly attempt a bombing of a U.S. airliner, the connection with al-Awlaki was probably one of the more simple ones.

CONAN: Joe, thanks very much for the call.

JOE: Thank you.

CONAN: Peter Kenyon, you mentioned that al-Awlaki, well, he denies that he's a member of al-Qaida, and that's a matter of some dispute, but that he apparently did meet with this young man when he was there in Yemen.

KENYON: Yes. There's a bit of a thread that I followed that involved al-Awlaki when I was doing my reporting. The first was during 2005, where he did apparently lecture at Al-Eman University, a very conservative university whose head, Abdul Majeed Al-Zindani, the sheik, has been labeled a supporter of terrorism by the U.S. and the United Nations Security Council.

But he has strong support within Yemen, and he's quite popular. And Al-Awlaki did lecture there in 2005, although the school now denies it. An expert on al-Qaida in Yemen confirmed that for me. And then several officials, both Yemeni and Western officials confirmed that there probably was a face-to-face meeting between al-Awlaki and Abdulmutallab in the fall. This would be a few weeks, probably, just before he left on his mission.

And I'm also told by officials that al-Awlaki was much more active in those in the recent months. He had been more active as a recruiter, going around to these small villages and essentially showing slideshows and PowerPoint presentations. I have some of this information second hand. It's also been reported in the Wall Street Journal that trying to recruit these young villagers to the cause.

CONAN: And, Dina, going back to London, al-Awlaki was not the only person on the radical side here that this young man, Abdulmutallab, got into contact with.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, he would be the only one that - well, there were two young men actually. I see what you're getting at with the question. There were two young men who were suspected terrorists that Abdulmutallab had some contact with. One is Waheed Zaman, who was a young man who was the head of the Islamic Society at London Metropolitan University, a neighboring university from University College London. And they knew each other. And, in fact, Zaman is now - or is about to be retried for a role he might have had in the 2006 airliner plot, which was the - a plot to blow up seven airliners with liquid explosives. That's the reason why you don't get to carry your shampoo on the plane anymore.

And then a second man, who is arrested in late January who - we only know his last name, which is Farhan(ph), but he was a man in Birmingham who apparently crossed paths with Abdulmutallab and he's either a propagandist or a recruiter. It's a little bit hard to tell because the UK has very strict rules about releasing these kinds of information before someone is actually charged.

CONAN: And, Dina, we're going to let you go. There's another story that listeners maybe aware of in New York, a gentleman named Najibullah Zazi has told a federal judge today that he was trained by al-Qaida for a martyrdom plan to attack the New York City subways on the anniversary of 9/11. He said that in the course of a plea agreement in a federal court in New York, today. Dina's working on that story. So, Dina, we're going to let you go. Get to work.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Thank you very much. Nice to be here.

CONAN: Dina Temple-Raston joining us from our bureau in New York.

In the meantime, Ofeibea Quist-Arcton is still with us from Accra in Ghana. And our Middle East correspondent Peter Kenyon is with us from our bureau in Cairo.

And let's see if we can get another caller on the line. This is Saeed(ph). Saeed calling from Detroit.

SAEED (Caller): Hi. How are you doing?

CONAN: Very well. Thanks.

SAEED: Well, my area of research - I teach at Wayne State University here and I teach Islamic and Near East studies. But I looked at the issue of identity politics of Muslims living in the West. And the case of Abdulmutallab is, unfortunately, a very common character sketch. I mean, you've got these people who are coming from wealthy backgrounds who feel a sense of privilege, but then they also feel a sense of guilt as a result of that, and ask themselves is there nothing else.

And part of the problem is that when they come into an Islamic narrative, there is a lot of fish mentality and they appropriate it from other communities like the one in Britain that feels as though they are alienated and marginalized from the dominant society, and they internalize those feelings to themselves. And that makes them more vulnerable to things like what we find happening with Abdulmutallab, because there's a pervasive rhetoric that's now existing in many Islamic circles that you are part of a larger Ummah, or community, worldwide. And if one part is in pain, then the entire body is in pain.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

SAEED: And so that kind of constant internalization along with what I would call the ghettoization(ph) of the mind is a very strong and compelling factor when it comes to people who are already on that - on the cusp of looking for something else.

CONAN: Saeed, thanks very much. It's very interesting. We appreciate the phone call.

You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And, Ofeibea Quist-Arcton, I wanted to bring you in on exactly what Peter was talking about. Well, maybe not the second part so much, but that idea that there was an element of guilt here of being born into great privilege, as you mentioned, a very wealthy family there in Nigeria, able to give him anything he wanted, but seeing much of the rest of the Muslim world in very different straits.

QUIST-ARCTON: Indeed. I mean, we're told and, obviously, I don't have this -well, I didn't have it from an uncle by marriage, saying that Abdulmutallab was telling his age mates, you know, his cousins that surround him, that they must live a much more Muslim life. And significantly, also apparently, chiding his parents that they should give more to the poor, that they should be less excess and waste. So it seems that he was terribly conflicted not only about his Western lifestyle versus being a better Muslim, but the fact that his problem with the conventional bankers, you know, Islamic banking interests, there's no interest charge. And apparently, he chided his father about that. But then we heard from Dina that when he lived in London, he lived in the family's home in a very swanky part of town. So, you know, if you feel that you've got too much and that too few people have too much and it should be shared amongst the many, I guess he was trying to live this parallel lives, which must be pretty difficult.

But I have to say that a lot of Nigerians are also saying, you know, this is one out of 150 million Nigerians. He is not a typical Nigerian Muslim or a typical Nigerian. And why has the U.S. slapped extra security requirement on Nigerians traveling to the U.S. because of this one young man, who many Nigerians say, hey, he left here as a young teenager. He was radicalized in the West, not here in Nigeria. Why are Nigerians being penalized because of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab?

CONAN: And, Peter Kenyon, I wanted to end with this email we have from Lyn(ph) in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Have we given this radical celebrity status? Six reports last week, a whole hour talking about him today. Why are we making this terrorist famous? Yes, there's something to learn from his life story, but for you and me, common Joes, do we need to study him? Peter?

KENYON: Well, I would argue, yes, we do. And I appreciate what I take to be a bit of resentment and possibly even anger from the emailer. But I would argue that this is precisely what people need to be studying, especially counterterrorism experts because it seems fairly likely that these are exactly the kind of candidates that al-Qaida branches around the world will now be looking for. And in fact, we've heard some of that from al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, already. They are now looking for people who has, as your earlier caller said, can fly under the radar, people who are not obvious candidates with long track records of radical behavior.

And you can look at missed signs and missed signals as they have in the Fort Hood case, but in Abdulmutallab's case I think if you were going to put him under suspicion very early on in his life, he would putting a net that is so small-meshed that you'd be catching millions and millions of fish. So it's a very difficult problem and I think it's something that counterterrorism agencies will have to be wrestling with for some time now.

CONAN: Peter, thanks very much.

KENYON: You're welcome Neal.

CONAN: Peter Kenyon, NPR's Middle East correspondent joining us today from our bureau in Cairo. Our thanks, too, to Ofeibea Quist-Arcton, NPR's West Africa correspondent who joined us from Accra in Ghana.

Coming up, ahead of the big elections coming up in Iraq, the U.S. ambassador to Baghdad stops by the studio. Ambassador Christopher Hill will be with us to take your calls. I'm Neal Conan. Stay with us. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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