Bomber linked to London extremists but radicalised in Yemen, officials say

Counterterrorism investigators believe six months in Yemen formed crucial period of Abdulmutallab's training

Counterterrorism sources investigating the Detroit plane bomber's activities in London said today they believe the crucial period of his radicalisation occurred when he travelled to Yemen earlier this year as it emerged that his extremist views had gathered intensity in London.

Searches of security records since Umar Farouk Abdulmuttalab's failed attempt to blow up a passenger jet on Christmas Day have revealed the security services knew that while he lived in London the 23-year-old was connected to unnamed extremists who were under MI5 surveillance suspected of criminal activities, such as fraud.

But there was no evidence that the Nigerian-born Abdulmuttalab was a threat to national security and his name was not on any MI5 watchlist, according to counterterrorism officials.

Abdulmuttalab was a prominent figure in student Islamic affairs during his degree course in London and organised a War on Terror Week conference in 2007 while president of the Islamic society of University College London, where he was studying mechanical engineering. Presentations included Jihad vs Terrorism, billed as "a lecture on the Islamic position with respect to jihad". There was no evidence that he personally promoted violence, according to his successor as president.

"There were no signs of anything extreme at all," said Qasim Rafiq, who described Abdulmutallab as "humble".

Security sources played down suggestions he was recruited or radicalised by al-Qaida in London, stating: "The process was not going to be a one-day wonder."

Officers from the Metropolitan police completed searches of properties in London on Tuesday and said they were continuing inquiries while pressure intensified on counterterrorism authorities to explain how the terror suspect could board a plane with a bomb.

The Home Office said tonight it did not alert the US authorities to its concerns about Abdulmutallab when it placed him on a UK Border Agency watchlist after he tried to apply for a visa in May 2009 using details of a bogus college course. But it said the list was open for the US authorities to look at as a matter of course.

As they continued to trawl through their databases and look for contacts Abdulmutallab made in London, security sources said his radicalisation began during his days at a private school in Togo, but "the crucial period" was the last six months he spent in Yemen, based at the Institute for the Arabic Language.

He has told FBI investigators that he was trained in Yemen, according to the New York Times, and students at the language centre in Sana'a where he studied Arabic until disappearing in early December described him as obsessed with piety and a lonely character who appeared to have no close friends. Asked on a number of occasions by students to join them for lunch, Abdulmutallab declined, saying he was fasting, though Ramadan had ended weeks before.

Abdulmuttalab reportedly attended the East London mosque in Whitechapel on three occasions while studying in London. A spokesman at the mosque denied any knowledge of his attendance and said the mosque community was distressed by the fact that it was once again the focus of law enforcement and media attention.

"We don't recognise him at all," said Mohammed Shakir. "It is upsetting for everyone because the mosque has a large, loyal community and they are stunned and upset that one person can affect perceptions of the community. This mosque has been kicking out radical preachers since 1990. We have a secondary school here and we are teaching boys how to find their place in society and contribute positively to what is their home."

Meanwhile officials in Somailia said yesterday that a Somali man tried to board a commercial airliner in Mogadishu last month carrying powdered chemicals, liquid and a syringe that could have caused an explosion in a case bearing similarities to the 25 December attempt.

The Somali man whose name has not yet been released was arrested by African Union peacekeeping troops before the 13 November Daallo Airlines flight took off . It had been scheduled to travel from Mogadishu to the northern Somali city of Hargeisa, then to Djibouti and Dubai. A Somali police spokesman, Abdulahi Hassan Barise, said the suspect is in Somali custody.

"We don't know whether he's linked with al-Qaida or other foreign organizations, but his actions were the acts of a terrorist. We caught him red-handed," said Barise.

A Nairobi-based diplomat said the incident in Somalia is similar to the attempted attack on the Detroit-bound airliner on Christmas Day in that the Somali man had a syringe, a bag of powdered chemicals and liquid tools similar to those used in the Detroit attack. The diplomat spoke on condition he not be identified because he isn't authorized to release the information.


Richard Norton-Taylor and Robert Booth

The GuardianTramp

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