Bombing suspect was pious pupil who shunned high life of the rich

Xan Rice visits the home town of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab in Nigeria to meet those who knew him in his youth

One morning in late 2008 a quiet, simply dressed 22-year-old man walked into the office of the Little Scholars primary and secondary school in his home town in northern Nigeria and asked if he could book the hall for two days. He said he had completed a course in London on "prophetic medicine", based on traditional Islamic teachings, and wished to pass on what he had learned.

About 15 women attended the course, for which the man refused to charge. Emmanuelle Mardiyyah, a teacher at the school, went along. She said: "He spoke calmly about everything from issues with children to the causes and treatment of jinns [mythical spirits that possess humans]," she said. "He seemed like a normal, good Muslim boy."

To those who knew Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the British-educated Nigerian who is accused of trying to blow up an American jet last week, his decision to offer free Islamic tuition was perfectly in keeping with his character. While many children of Nigeria's super-rich elite rarely attend mosque or church – and frequent nightclubs and drive flashy cars after leaving school – Abdulmutallab had remained a humble, if solitary young man who shunned material possessions and craved knowledge – particularly about his religion - and felt the need to pass it along.

"The way he lived made you envy his character," said Abdulkarim Durosinlorun, a director of the school.

It is this reputation – of a softly spoken, well-adjusted son of one of the country's most respected businessmen – that has made news of Abdulmutallab's alleged terror plot all the more shocking to people in Nigeria. But internet postings as far back as five years ago while he was attending an exclusive international boarding school in Togo, hint at the deep inner turmoil – and thoughts of holy war – that his family say they only became aware of a few months ago when he cut ties with them to apparently link up with extremists in Yemen.

"I also indulge in my little fantasy world at times," he wrote in one of many entries on the Islamic Forum website before 2006. "They are jihad fantisies. I imagine how the great jihad will take place, Muslims will win … and establish the greatest empire once again."

A look at Abdulmutallab's upbringing shows a life that straddled vastly different worlds. His father, Umaru Mutallab is from Funtua, a baobab-dotted farming town in Katsina State in northern Nigeria. Many of the people there are dirt poor but the Mutallabs, who own a three-storey, ten-bedroom house, with a silver domed mosque attached – by far the grandest in town – are among the richest families in the state. Umaru Mutallab made his fortune in banking and has, for decades, served as the town benefactor, giving money for mosques, Islamic schools, and offering scholarships and jobs to promising student.

Locals are proud of him and sympathetic to what has happened - "It took the father 70 years to build the family name and the son ruined it in a day," Yusuf Musa, 46, said – but it also clear that gulf between Mutallabs and the townfolk is more than economic.

"None of use knew Farouk [Abdulmutallab] – a farmer cannot be a friend of a rich guy," said Mudi Balare, 35, sitting outside the Modesty Auto Electrical Co mechanic shop.

Mutallab's 13 children by two wives received their early education in Kaduna, about two hours drive away, where they lived in a large yellow-walled compound topped with razor wire. Bala Abdallahi, 70, a close friend of Umaru Mutallab from childhood, described him as a devout Muslim and strict disciplinarian who gave his children everything they needed to succeed.

As a young boy, Abdulmutallab attended the Essence International School in Kaduna, as well as classes at the Rabiatu Mutallib Institute for Arabic and Islamic Studies – named after his grandfather – very close to the family home. Moussa Umar Dumawa, an affable, heavy-bearded Islamic scholar who is the institute's director and has strongly condemned the bomb plot got to know him well.

"He was always a gentle, respectful boy. His quietness was different to his siblings – he never mingled much with people, and even sought isolation."

During Abdulmutallab's time at a British-style boarding school in Togo the importance of his religion became apparent to teachers. But his internet postings paint a far more vivid self-portrait. He emerges as intelligent, articulate and increasingly concerned with leading a pious Muslim life, all the time balancing it with the privileges of a wealthy family, enjoying holidays in the Cairo Sheraton, going ice skating and on a Nile cruise. He talks of "my dilemma between liberalism and extremism" and he subjects every youthful interest to Islamic scrutiny.

He recounts visits to the family home in London and praying at the Regents Park mosque, and offers of places at five British universities including University College London where he finally went. But he also talked of his loneliness; although there were about 30 other Muslims at the Togo school he said his schoolmates were wary of him because of his unwillingness to socialise.

Still, few around him seem to have been aware of Abdulmutallab's fragile state of mind. None of friends of the family and others that knew him well who were interviewed realised anything was wrong until a few months ago.

After graduating from university in London last year, Abdulmutallab had made regular visits to Kaduna, and his public actions – from his prophetic medicine course to barely speaking a word during the 10-day I'tikaf mosque ceremony during the 2008 Ramadan - were merely interpreted as a sign of his piousness. Only when Abdulmutallab announced he was dropping out of a master's degree in Dubai, saying he was going to study Arabic and Islam in Yemen for seven years did his parents begin to panic. Counterterrorism officials believe that trip to Yemen was a crucial period of the radicalisation that ended with him allegedly trying to blow up Northwest Airlines Flight 253.

But for his family it appeared Adulmutallab had suddenly forsaken them, destroying his phone SIM card after a final call. His father's final question, asking who would sponsor Abdulmutallab for his Yemen studies, was dismissed, according to Damawa. He said: "The son said 'That's none of your business'".


Xan Rice in Kuduna

The GuardianTramp

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