Abdulmutallab's teachers, classmates at Yemen school say he became more religious

A Nigerian man, claiming to be linked to al-Qaeda, allegedly tried to set off an incendiary device aboard a trans-Atlantic airplane on Christmas Day as it descended toward Detroit's airport. The White House called it an attempted act of terrorism.
By Sudarsan Raghavan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, December 31, 2009

SANAA, YEMEN -- The young Nigerian man had visited Yemen once before, in 2005. But by the time Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab returned this past August, again to study Arabic, he appeared to have become a very different person, more deeply religious, more of a loner, and forsaking Western clothing in favor of a long, white traditional Islamic tunic.

Abdulmutallab also expressed an inner confidence and a certainty of purpose, according to former teachers, classmates and housemates. The 23-year-old seemed to be on a mission, spending long hours in a mosque, often missing classes, and even ordering a classmate to stop smoking in front of him.

In more than a dozen interviews on Wednesday, those who know him shared impressions of the man who joined them for language school in Yemen this summer only to vanish in October and emerge on Christmas Day on a Detroit-bound flight from Amsterdam with chemical explosives allegedly sewn into his underwear.

At a dinner in September, Abdulmutallab demanded that classmate Sigurd Sorensen walk behind him as he said his evening prayers.

"What faith are you?" Abdulmutallab demanded. "Christian," Sorensen replied.

"Islam is the only true way," Abdulmutallab then declared, according to Sorensen. "If you want to go to heaven, you should accept it."

Teachers said Abdulmutallab now bears little resemblance to the man they remembered from four years earlier.

"He was so open-minded in 2005. He spoke to everybody," said one of his instructors at the Sanaa Institute for the Arabic Language. The teacher spoke on the condition of anonymity because Yemeni security officials had ordered the school's staff members not to talk to journalists. "In 2009, he barely came to class. I wouldn't see him in a week."

When Abdulmutallab spoke, he was courteous. He didn't publicly express radical thoughts, didn't lash out against U.S. policies in Iraq or Afghanistan. He didn't express core Muslim grievances such as Israel's treatment of Palestinians. He often handed out money to poor Yemenis and African migrants.

"He was friendly. He always smiled. We didn't see an ounce of aggressive behavior," said Ahmed Mujaeb, a teacher. "I felt sad when I heard what he had done. I asked myself 'Why?' This is a big question mark."

Yemeni investigators are trying to piece together what happened to Abdulmutallab between October and December, when he apparently left Yemen. He allegedly told U.S. authorities that he was equipped and trained by a bombmaker linked to al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which has asserted responsibility for the plot to bomb Northwest Flight 253.

It has shined an unwanted spotlight on the institute, housed in a tan three-story mansion with a tree-speckled courtyard in the historic quarter of Sanaa. Since 2001, the institute has taught Arabic to hundreds of foreign students, including many Americans. It offers one religious course, a basic introduction to Islam to help students learn classical Arabic. Yet students and teachers said they feared the school would be unfairly tainted as a jihadist breeding center.

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