British and U.S. intelligence authorities have linked the young Nigerian at the center of the alleged attack on Northwest Flight 253, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, to two men accused of ties to major terrorist plots in the United Kingdom, NPR has learned.
British and U.S. officials have been feverishly tracking down leads on anyone who had contact with Abdulmutallab during the three years he was a student in London. His father sent him to study mechanical engineering at University College London in 2005. It was Abdulmutallab's first experience in the West, and those who knew him in London said he was quiet and somewhat lonely.
That has meant that leads about his contacts with other potential terrorists have been few and far between. One official told NPR that Abdulmutallab had few friends, and though he attended several local mosques, he made no impression on the elders who worshipped there.
Scotland Yard had opened what it called a tracer file on Abdulmutallab. Essentially, it was a file that indicated that he had contacts with extremists in the U.K., but that there was no reason to think those contacts would lead to violence. One official in London said there was a "jihadi subculture in the U.K. that numbers in the thousands." This subculture apparently included people like Abdulmutallab, who either dabbled in extremist ideas or ran in circles that sometimes included potential terrorism suspects. Security services in London decided long ago that they didn't have the resources to follow those tracer leads. Instead, they focused on several hundred people they thought were more likely to launch attacks. Abdulmutallab, by their accounts, fell into the broader category of young Muslims who were just dabbling in radical ideas.
Contacts With Suspected Terrorists
But when they returned to Abdulmutallab's file after the alleged Christmas Day airliner attack, officials started to see the signs of a possible switch in Abdulmutallab's mindset. The first worrisome contact they flagged after the incident was with a man linked to a 2006 plot. In that case, a group allegedly planned to detonate liquid bombs onboard at least seven passenger planes en route to the U.S. and Canada. That plot is the reason passengers are no longer permitted to carry more than 3 ounces of liquid onboard a plane.
Security officials say Abdulmutallab had started meeting with a man named Waheed Zaman, one of the men accused in that airliner plot. They met around 2006. It is unclear exactly how the two met, though it likely was through programs sponsored by the Islamic student society at a neighboring college, London Metropolitan University. Zaman was its president. Abdulmutallab became president of University College London's Islamic Society in 2006.
Officials say Zaman is about to be retried on charges linked to that airliner case. If officials have the timing of their contacts right, Abdulmutallab would have been with Zaman around the same time the alleged plot was being hatched.
Officials also say Abdulmutallab was in contact with a second possible terrorist. That man was initially arrested two years ago as part of a plot to kidnap a British Muslim soldier and behead him. A U.K. security official briefed on the plot said the young men involved had wanted to kidnap a Muslim soldier in Birmingham and essentially stage a reprise of the Daniel Pearl beheading. They wanted to kill the soldier on video and then put the tape on the Web for all to see. The nature of Abdulmutallab's contacts with this man are still under investigation.
Search For Influences
While the extent of these relationships is still unclear, security officials on both sides of the Atlantic say they are meaningful because they may shed light on when Abdulmutallab began the transformation from radical student to potential terrorist.
"I think we have to be very wary about being too simple about this," said Peter Clarke, the former head of Scotland Yard's counterterrorism unit. "We need to look to underlying issues like specific influences that came to bear, and whether it is key individuals or key events or a gradual process [that] has drawn people into a position in which they are willing to kill people in the hundreds and thousands."
Security officials have been looking at Abdulmutallab's case to uncover clues as to why someone with his background — a privileged young man whose banker father sent him to good schools — might be drawn into violence.
"As with many of these cases, this was not a question of socioeconomics of the situation," said Peter Neumann, an expert on radicalization at King's College London. "The key is a sense of feeling lost, a sense of circling for identity, a sense of needing something that makes sense of your life. And if at that point in time someone comes along and offers a fairly simplistic, fairly plausible explanation of what you can do with your life — that may seem attractive," Neumann said.
Campuses Fertile Ground For Extremists
Abdulmutallab found just those sorts of people on the fringes of his school. MI5, the British equivalent of the FBI, has a list of 12 campuses it says have been fertile ground for extremist recruiters. University College London, the school Abdulmutallab attended, is at the top of that list.
"Abdulmutallab is the fourth former head of a British university Islamic society to have been charged with a serious terrorism offense," said Douglas Murray, director of London's Center for Social Cohesion. "University College London, in my opinion, offers the most conducive environment for an Islamic extremist outside of Waziristan."
Murray's think tank released a report in 2008 about Islam on campus. He commissioned it, he said, because the list of British students turning to terrorism seemed to be growing exponentially. The report tracked what it called routine extremist preaching on U.K. campuses and loads of extremist texts. It also conducted a poll with YouGov, a polling company in the U.K., that found that 1 in 3 Muslim students believed that killing in the name of their religion could be justified. The number almost doubled — to 60 percent — among survey respondents who said they were active members of the university's Islamic student societies.
The U.K.'s Federation of Student Islamic Societies called the report's findings flawed. The group said it "rejected the conclusions utterly."
"It's a dilemma," said Michael Mates, the ranking Conservative member of Parliament's Intelligence Committee. "I think we have gone too far one way. I think we have to be more robust, and I think a lot of the moderate Muslims in this country agree with me. Students are students. They say crazy things, and they do crazy things. We hope that people will grow out of it."