By Joby Warrick and Ellen Nakashima
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 27, 2009; A01
He grew up amid extraordinary privilege, a wealthy Nigerian banker's son who attended top international schools and had traveled to the United States. But some time this year, according to relatives' accounts, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab became an enemy of the West.
As a college student living in London and Dubai, Abdulmutalab had worried his family with his embrace of an increasingly radical view of Islam. Then, a few months ago, he renounced his wealthy lifestyle, broke all ties with his parents and disappeared. Family members suspected he had gone to Yemen, his mother's native country.
On Friday, Abdulmutallab surfaced again when he was arrested for attempting to set off a bomb hidden in his clothing while flying in a jetliner packed with holiday travelers. The 23-year-old told U.S. investigators he was striking a blow for a Yemeni branch of al-Qaeda, a group that two months ago called on its followers to kill "apostates" and Westerners using all means, including home-brewed explosives on airplanes.
To what degree Abdulmutallab was involved with the group remained under investigation. But U.S. counterterrorism and law-enforcement officials said Saturday that the suspect appeared to have been both equipped and motivated to carry out a deadly attack. They said he also had the advantage of easy access to U.S. and European targets, owing to his Western education, fluency in English and a multiple-entry U.S. visa.
U.S. sources said the suspect's mode of attack -- detonating a few grams of the powerful military explosive PETN, or pentaerythritol, hidden on his body -- is similar to tactics used by another failed suicide bomber with known links to al-Qaeda's Yemeni branch.
In August, Abdullah Hassah Tali Assiri tried to assassinate a member of Saudi Arabia's royal family using PETN explosives hidden in his underwear, according to a published account by terrorism expert Peter Bergen, citing a Saudi official. Assiri had crossed into Saudi Arabia from Yemen and passed through two security checks before blowing himself up less than a yard from Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, the head of the kingdom's counterterrorism operations, who escaped with minor injuries.
Federal investigators were just beginning to comb through the Nigerian suspect's finances, contacts and travels in an effort to "work backwards to try to trace his steps for the last several weeks and months," a law enforcement source said. Although authorities were operating under the theory that he acted alone, they did not rule out the possibility that others -- including al-Qaeda operatives -- may have known about or helped the man in the weeks leading up to the Detroit incident, the source said.
The investigation will include interviews with the accused's friends and relatives in Nigeria and London. Some family members have spoken publicly to say they were saddened by the news of Abdulmutallab's arrest, but not particularly surprised.
His father, Alhaji Umaru Mutallab, the recently retired chairman of one of Nigeria's top banks and a frequent visitor to the United States, acknowledged in several media interviews that the suspect is his son. He said he had alerted Nigerian and U.S. Embassy officials six months ago about his son's increasingly militant views and unusual behavior, and was surprised to learn that the young man had been allowed to travel to the United States.
In an interview with the Associated Press, he said he thought his son "might have been to Yemen" in the months since he severed ties with the family.
A Nigerian newspaper, This Day, quoting relatives, said the family had been "uncomfortable with the boy's extreme religious views," leading to the decision to alert law enforcement officials.
A U.S. official said the father's warning did not go unheeded. "We didn't sit on the information. It was shared across the interagency," said the official, who spoke on the condition on anonymity, referring to the group of U.S. agencies tasked with preventing terrorist attacks.
Abdulmutallab grew up in one of Nigeria's most affluent families, with luxury houses in the Nigerian city of Lagos and in central London. According to relatives, he developed an early reputation as a serious, devout young man, even during his high school years. His frequent sermonizing earned him the nickname "Alfa," a local term for an Islamic scholar.
After graduating, he studied at University College London and earned a degree in mechanical engineering. Last year he moved to Dubai to continue his studies, and while there he announced to family members that he was breaking off contact and traveling to a place where he could not be reached, according to relatives' accounts.
How and whether he came into contact with al-Qaeda operatives could not be independently verified. But Rep. Peter Hoekstra (Mich.), the ranking Republican on the House intelligence committee, said he had been told by credible sources that the U.S. government knew Abdulmutallab was "involved with al-Qaeda" for at least a couple of months, perhaps even "a couple of years."
Hoekstra said his sources have told him that the suspect has ties to Yemen and "most likely" has ties to Anwar al-Aulaqi, the radical cleric who led mosques in San Diego and later in Falls Church, and who met with several Sept. 11, 2001, hijackers before the attacks. Aulaqi, a U.S. citizen, moved to Yemen a few months after the attacks and may have been killed in an airstrike last week carried out by the Yemeni government with U.S. assistance.
Abdulmutallab was "identified as being a potential terrorist, so he was put on a watch list," said Hoekstra, who chaired the intelligence panel from 2004 to 2006 and now is running for governor of Michigan.
U.S. officials said Saturday that Abdulmutallab had been added to the government's catch-all terrorism-related database but not to narrower lists that would have barred him from getting a visa or boarding a passenger flight to the United States.
Abdulmutallab apparently traveled to Yemen and may have been in contact with Aulaqi, Hoekstra said. "Both of these should have been a trigger," he added. "So somewhere along the line, the process appeared to break down."
U.S. counterterrorism officials said they could not confirm ties between Abdulmutallab and Aulaqi.
University College London officials said in a statement Saturday that a student by the name of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab had enrolled in a mechanical engineering course between September 2005 and June 2008.
On Saturday, British police and forensic experts were seen going in and out of the seven-story Mutallab mansion, where the suspect had lived while attending school. It is located just north of Oxford Street, London's busy shopping area, and was said to be valued at more than $4 million.