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Bomb plot suspect's odyssey revealing

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Sunday, Jan. 10, 2010

Christmas Day bombing suspect Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab crossed three continents, nine time zones, eight countries and four U.S. military combatant command zones along a path of radicalization, recruitment and terror training.

Born to a polygamous Sunni Muslim millionaire banker in northern Nigeria, Abdulmutallab, 23, is believed to have become interested in militant Islam while at a British boarding school in the tiny West African nation of Togo.

According to officials in Yemen, the young man nicknamed "Alfa" -- Togo slang for "learned Muslim" -- was later recruited by terrorist agents at his college in London.

That's where he received an American visa from the U.S. Embassy.

He had studied Arabic in Yemen, and that's where he returned in August, after a brief visit to Houston and the revocation of his student visa by British officials.

In Yemen, Abdulmutallab was trained by guerrillas belonging to al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, many of whom are veterans of war in Afghanistan and Iraq.

On Christmas Eve he boarded a jet in Nigeria and carried a bomb undetected through Ethiopia, Ghana and The Netherlands, before attempting to blow up an Airbus over Detroit.

That convoluted path, say global counter-terrorism experts, diplomats and military commanders, is what makes finding and defanging potential jet-setting killers such as Abdulmutallab so difficult.

Although Abdulmutallab failed, his attempt may shed light not only on the evolving relationships of the normally independent franchises of al-Qaida in Pakistan, Yemen and North Africa, but also on how we should confront them.

"To me, it will be interesting to see where the explosives came from," said Barak Mendelsohn, a former Israeli army officer and a top counter-terrorism professor at Haverford College in Delaware County.

"We know that he traveled to Yemen to train with al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, a franchise that has the closest ties of them all to Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida in Pakistan.

"If another franchise such as North Africa's al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) provided the explosives or helped him, then that would show a level of communication and sharing between the groups we hadn't seen yet, and that would be very important.

"We also probably now know that the recruiting network in London of Yemen's al-Qaida is more extensive than we imagined."

Yemen's deputy prime minister for defense and security, Rashad al-Alimi, said Abdulmutallab was recruited by Yemeni al-Qaida agents in London and obtained his explosives in Lagos, Nigeria.


Nigeria is neither a hangout for al-Qaida operatives nor has it been a likely breeding ground for suicide bombers, said John Campbell, a career U.S. State Department diplomat who served as ambassador to Nigeria from 2004 to 2007.

Campbell said he believes Abdulmutallab's rage likely began when he measured his rich life among Nigeria's political and economic elites to the poverty of nearly 60 million Muslims in his nation -- but his terrorist conversion clearly has the hallmarks of al-Qaida's message as spread on the Internet.

"I see this young person as someone who had a religious imagination, and that his sensibilities began to tie into the most radical currents of Islam," said Campbell, now a senior fellow for African studies at the Council of Foreign Relations in New York.

Social taboos in Nigeria, however, strongly recoil against what Abdulmutallab tried to do on the plane to Detroit, according to Campbell. Suicide and terror bombing are strongly detested, he said, although "a radical dimension that is anti-establishment has erupted" in the north of the country.

A backlash against receiving a polio vaccine administered by the World Health Organization also has erupted, revealing wide distrust of foreigners.

He wonders what Abdulmutallab's actions "now mean to those in the back alleys and the small villages" of Nigeria "and how much support is there really for that?"


U.S. Army Lt. Col. James Woods, based in Stuttgart, Germany, wants similar answers. But getting those won't be easy.

"The primary challenge for us is that AQIM is somewhere in a vast, ungoverned terrain across the Sahara, a land that's about the size of Texas," said Woods, who directs the U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM) counter-terrorism program Operation Enduring Freedom Trans-Sahara.

AFRICOM is the military's newest regional command, begun in October 2008.

Recruiting terrorists already arrayed against Morocco, Libya and other North African nations, AQIM infests parts of Mali and Mauritania, making money by ransoming westerners, smuggling and drug trafficking. It is hitting Saharan governments with assassinations, kidnappings and bombing campaigns.

"What a lot of people don't understand is that the leaders of al-Qaida, the ones in Pakistan, are racist," Mendelsohn said. "When they were in Africa, they said that they didn't like African people, especially in Somalia. They thought they were too backwards.

"But the franchises in Yemen and North Africa and the group in Somalia, al-Shabaab, obviously don't have this problem. Abdulmutallab was a good recruit for them."

Mendelsohn and other experts interviewed by the Trib don't know whether the Nigerian was sent to the United States in response to U.S. airstrikes and Yemeni raids against their forces, or if he was intended for other purposes -- say, as an operative to sniff out weak airport security, or to become part of a sleeper cell here.

"Regardless of his ultimate role, what al-Qaida realized was that being able to do a failed attack in the United States is better than killing 20 people outside of an embassy overseas, which they could've tried, too," Mendelsohn said.

"Succeed or fail, they spread fear and sent a message."


At AFRICOM, Woods' mission is to help 10 allied nations across the Sahara -- including strong U.S. ally Nigeria -- deter wannabe messengers such as Abdulmutallab.

It helps to counter terrorist propaganda, aid poor villagers, rebuild national militaries and ensure that intelligence services talk to each other about common threats.

Woods does all of this on a budget that hovers annually between $80 million and $100 million, explaining: "You can do a lot in Africa with $80 million."

He's shorthanded, however, with only seven of the 11 soldiers he needs to expand the mission, largely because of the military's commitments in Afghanistan and Iraq and a dearth of qualified volunteers for the unique duty.

Woods cautions that it likely will take a long time to "build the capacity" in the region.

The day Abdulmutallab tried to detonate his bomb, U.S. troops were teaching Malian forces how to kill or collar AQIM terrorists who have infiltrated their immense, impoverished nation.

"Knowing the number of their recruits, that's tough," Woods said. "But what we're trying to do is increase the capabilities of the nations that are fighting them.

"They learn all of this, and then they share it with their neighbors. That's the best way to defeat them."



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