Last September, sitting quietly among the ranks of young men was Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the man now accused of trying to kill almost 300 people by blowing up a transatlantic passenger jet.
According to his visa documents, the 23-year-old Nigerian should have been studying Arabic at an institute a few miles away. But the University College London graduate was already a fluent Arabic speaker and was interested in a far bigger agenda.
“He told me his greatest wish was for sharia and Islam to be the rule of law across the world,” said Achmed Hassan, a classmate at the language institute. Abdulmutallab was routinely skipping his Arabic lessons for lectures at the al-Eman University.
American authorities say the university’s founder, Abdul Majeed al-Zindani, is a “global terrorist” who acts as a recruiting sergeant for Al-Qaeda training camps. He denies the claim. An alumnus of the university murdered three American missionaries in Yemen in 2002.
Abdulmutallab was particularly interested in one of the university’s firebrand speakers, the American-born cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, whose lectures, it has now emerged, Abdulmutallab attended during a visit to Sana’a in 2005.
Awlaki is part of a new generation of internet-savvy preachers and has been linked to several terrorists, including some of the 9/11 hijackers, and the US army major charged with shooting dead 13 people at the Fort Hood military base in Texas. Awlaki described the gunman as a “hero”.
Six weeks after he arrived in Yemen last year, Abdulmutallab left his Arabic classes. It was later said he had travelled to Hadramawt, a poor eastern province that is an Al-Qaeda stronghold.
On Christmas Eve, this previously pious student re-emerged with murderous intent, boarding Northwest Airlines flight 253 bound for Detroit. About 80 grams of a highly explosive chemical, PETN, was carefully sewn into his underpants. It was only a technical glitch, as Al-Qaeda leaders in Yemen later put it, that stopped the bomb going off 20 minutes from landing.
Relief that a fresh atrocity on American soil was narrowly averted on Christmas Day was rapidly overtaken by questions about intelligence failures.
There were a number of significant warnings about Abdulmutallab’s intentions. Last night it emerged that during his time in London, Abdulmutallab had come onto MI5’s radar because of his “multiple communications” with extremists in the UK, including several radical figures at mosques.
One Whitehall official said: “This was a young man who while he was in the UK was starting his journey and was exploring an interest in radical Islam. He was making contact and reaching out to people who were MI5’s targets of interest.”
MI5 concluded that Abdulmutallab did not pose a threat to national security.
Officials believe he decided to become a suicide bomber only after leaving UCL last year and travelling to Yemen. They also think that up to a dozen young British Muslims are receiving terrorist training in that country.
Read it all at TimesOnline