British investigators are hunting for signs that a Nigerian terrorism suspect could have had contact with London’s extremist underworld before the attempted plane bombing over Detroit on Christmas Day, counter-terrorism officials said Tuesday.
But so far, an investigation of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab’s time as a student in London from 2005 to 2008 has not revealed links to known Islamic ideologues or operatives there, British officials said. It is not yet clear where he may have become radicalized or established contact with Al Qaeda’s offshoot in Yemen, the network suspected of masterminding the plot, officials said.
“He does not appear to have been particularly radical in London,” said a senior British counter-terrorism official who requested anonymity because the case is open. “He’s not someone who came to our attention very much. If he was radicalized, he radicalized and went operational quickly.”
The case has crystallized several threats that Western anti-terrorism officials have been following for some time -- the rise of Yemen as a terrorist haven and the potential emergence of extremists from Nigeria and the rest of sub-Saharan Africa.
Abdulmutallab is the first Nigerian suspect to surface in an Al Qaeda-connected plot.
The multiethnic cluster of extremist networks in London includes a longtime presence of ideologues and militants of African and Afro-Caribbean descent. Would-be suicide bombers convicted in a failed strike on the London transport system on July 21, 2005, included four East Africans and a militant from Ghana in West Africa.
Nonetheless, most Nigerian immigrants in a diaspora concentrated in cities including London and Naples, Italy, are Christians from southern Nigeria. Despite a surge in fundamentalist violence in Nigeria’s Muslim-dominated north, Western investigators had detected very few Nigerian extremists overseas.
“This case probably has less to do with radicalization in Nigeria, though there is a problem in Nigeria, and we have been aware of it for some time,” the senior British official said.
Investigators have not turned up connections between Abdulmutallab and well-known African ideologues and groups in London, another British anti-terrorism official said. He attended an East London mosque dominated by Bangladeshis and a more recent influx of Somalis. The mosque is not regarded as a hotbed of extremism, officials said.
But the mosque has been criticized for playing a video sermon by Anwar al Awlaki, the Yemeni American cleric whose ideology has allegedly helped radicalize a number of Western terrorism suspects, including the U.S. Army major accused of killing 13 people at Ft. Hood, Texas, last month.
British investigators suspect Awlaki’s ideology also had an influence on Abdulmutallab, who was a devout worshiper and served as president of his university’s Islamic Student Society for a year, officials said.
Abdulmutallab’s three years at University College London remain a target of scrutiny. There are questions about the wealthy 23-year-old’s attempt to return to Britain this year with an application to a bogus college.
His return was blocked by a government crackdown on illegal entry by foreigners, including suspected extremists posing as students, and landed Abdulmutallab on an immigration watch list in May, officials said.
The subterfuge seemed clumsy and unnecessary because of his wealth, previous studies and family home in London -- all of which would have probably enabled him to enter Britain, according to the second British counter-terrorism official.
“What was so important that he wanted to come back to the UK and had to lie about it?” asked Sajjan Gohel of the Asia-Pacific Foundation, a security think tank in London. “Was it to meet someone? Why did a wealthy individual likely to have been admitted to the country decide to seek entry to a fake academic institution?”
Abdulmutallab allegedly became an aspiring suicide bomber during a stay in Yemen in recent months. That only exacerbates concern about that country as an alternative to Pakistan, the longtime outpost for training and plotting by Al Qaeda.
British investigators have detected increasing movement of militants from Britain and other Western nations to Yemen and neighboring Somalia. More of them have gone to war-torn Somalia, but the threat to the West seems worse in Yemen because of the entrenched presence of hard-core Al Qaeda figures likely to recruit operatives for overseas attacks, officials said.