SANAA, Yemen – On Sept. 21, 2009, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the would-be terrorist who failed to blow up a plane with 300 people aboard on Christmas day, left the Sanaa Institute for the Arabic Language in a taxi headed to the airport. The school, an ancient latticed house tucked behind a sun-soaked garden, had been his home for over a month.
The institute’s director, Muhammed Al-Anisi, thought the 23-year-old Nigerian was going home. Al-Anisi was celebrating the Islamic holidays with his family that day and did not have time to say goodbye. “I felt like he was a good person,” Al-Anisi told GlobalPost this past weekend.
More than three months later, Al-Anisi was shocked to find out that Abdulmutallab had stayed Yemen until early December. Then, he made his way to Amsterdam — the Yemen Foreign Ministry told GlobalPost they did not yet know how — where he boarded Northwest Flight 253 bound for the U.S. and began his attempt to carry out a terrorist attack in the skies over Detroit.
Abdulmutallab was devout, Al-Anisi said, attending prayers at the local mosques five times a day, but no one at the institute suspected he was a violent extremist.
“There are a lot of people like him that are not terrorists,” he said.
But on Friday, President Barack Obama said that investigators have confirmed that the plot to blow up the Northwest jet was conceived and planned in Yemen by Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, and executed by Abdulmutallab.
And over the weekend, the U.S. announced that it had shut its Yemen embassy, based on the threat of an Al Qaeda attack. In a brief statement on its website, the embassy said: "The U.S. Embassy in Sanaa is closed today, Jan. 3, 2010, in response to ongoing threats by Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula to attack American interests in Yemen."
The White House counterterrorism chief John Brennan told the Associated Press that the embassy, which was attacked twice in 2008, was shut Sunday because of an "active" Al Qaeda threat. Britain followed the move Sunday, telling the BBC that its embassy in Sanaa was closed "for security reasons."
And in an indication of the seriousness with which the U.S. views the current threat posed by Yemen, Gen. David Petraeus, who oversees the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, was in Sanaa Saturday. Petraeus met with Yemen's President Ali Abdullah Saleh "as part of our ongoing consultations with and efforts in support of Yemen," a senior administration official told the Wall Street Journal. "We have made Yemen a priority over the course of this year, and this is the latest in that effort," the official said.
Meantime, Obama in his weekly address broadcast online early Saturday, said of Abdulmutallab: “We know that he traveled to Yemen, a country grappling with crushing poverty and deadly insurgencies.”
“It appears that he joined an affiliate of Al Qaeda, and that this group, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, trained him, equipped him with those explosives and directed him to attack that plane headed for America.”
According to Ali Saif Hassan, the executive director of the Yemeni research institute Political Development Forum, Yemen’s growing infamy as a hotspot for the terrorist organization is no surprise.
Abdulmutallab, like Anwar Al-Awlaki, an American-born Islamic cleric who lavished praise upon the man who killed 12 people in Fort Hood in early November, fits an unusual, but increasingly common profile of Islamic extremists.
Highly educated and wealthy, both men earned degrees at western universities, and were leaders among their peers.
“[Abdulmutallab] is and example of a new generation of Al Qaeda,” said Hassan.
Both Nidal Malik Hasan, the Fort Hood shooter, and Abdulmutallab communicated with Al-Awlaki, who resides in Yemen and is believed to mentor and recruit violent extremists. Al-Awlaki was reported dead from air strikes against Al Qaeda leaders on Dec. 24. A week later, a Yemeni journalist told Newsweek Al-Awlaki had called to report that he was still alive.
Yemen, the poorest country in the Arab world, suffering from two violent insurgencies, water shortages and a looming oil crisis, is packed with disenfranchised young men. As Al Qaeda gains strength, according to Hassan, the number of new recruits could be “unlimited.”
“How many [depressed] young people would like their friends and family to see them on international TV before they die?” he asked. “They’re heroes.”
But Abdulmutallab’s brief career as a terrorist ended without death or martyrdom. He failed to detonate the bomb sewn into his beige underwear. Passengers and crew apprehended him before his flaming clothes caused injuries to anyone but himself.
And the young man known at the language institute for quiet devotion, generosity, and a quick smile faces up to 20 years in a federal prison. “I can’t imagine that there was a such a bad person living in our hostel, and studying at our school,” said director Al-Anisi, “It’s very sad.”
But the Al Qaeda plot has shined a stark spotlight on the danger the organization poses to the international community if it is allowed to thrive in Yemen’s lawless countryside. Even before the attempted attack, U.S.-backed air raids on Dec. 17 and 24 killed at least 60 suspected Al Qaeda operatives, according to the Yemeni government’s official news, Saba.
Now, Western leaders and Al Qaeda-affiliated militants are engaging in a battle of words, and appear to be gearing up for a showdown on the ground.
On Friday, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown announced that the United Kingdom would host an “urgent” international meeting about terrorism in Yemen, as a part of a conference concerning Afghanistan in late January.
“The new decade is starting as the last began — with Al Qaeda creating a climate of fear,” Brown wrote in an article published about the meeting. The U.S. and the European Union have already pledged to attend, with more countries expected to follow. Brown aims to improve counterterrorism efforts in the Arabian Peninsula by coordinating military and development assistance to Yemen, according to a press release.
On the same day as Brown’s announcement, an extremist Somali militia, classified as "terrorist" by the U.S. since 2008, declared its determination to support Al Qaeda in its fight against the West. The militia, Al-Shabaab, already holds much of central and southern Somalia, and is lead by Al Qaeda associates, according to the U.S. National Counterterrorism Center website.
“We call upon all Muslims to give a hand to our brothers in Yemen and we, Al-Shabaab, are ready to send them reinforcements,” said Al-Shebaab senior official Mukhtar Robow Abuu Mansuur, according to Rueters. “And, inshallah, we shall win over America.”
The Yemeni government responded to this threat defiantly through its official news source, but it remains unclear how Yemen, which grants automatic refugee status to Somalis, can prevent militants from entering the country along with the masses fleeing war and drought.
“Yemen never accepts terrorists and jihadist militants on its soil and it can deal with the existence of any of them,” Foreign Minister Abu Bakr Al-Qirbi told Saba News.
It is also unclear how the government can weed out potential terrorists from the students that come from all over the world to study Arabic or Islamic studies in Yemen. Passports can be examined, and visa applications can be reviewed, but once the students are in Yemen, they are not followed or monitored. “It’s a very difficult problem,” Al-Qirbi told GlobalPost.
And students and administrators at the Sanaa Institute said even if Abdulmutallab was monitored closely, it would have been impossible to predict his violent future. He was an ace student, known to be polite and enthusiastic. Guards saw Abdulmutallab hand out money, clothes and food to poor neighbors, according to director Al-Anisi. Teachers saw him play with children on the streets.
Al-Anisi said Abdulmutallab was nothing like the other foreign Arabic-language student in Yemen later arrested and prosecuted for crimes related to Islamic extremism: American Taliban, John Walker Lindh.
Lindh, unlike Abdulmutallab, was poor and thin, and studied at another school in Sanaa’s Old City. The only thing they had in common was that they first came to Yemen in their late teens, while most of the other students do post-graduate studies.
Matthew Salmon, an Arabic language student from British Columbia said he lived in the school dorms with Abdulmutallab for a few weeks. Salmon said Abdulmutallab was friendly but mostly kept to himself. He never appeared dangerous.
“The profile in the news is painting a different picture of the person we knew,” he told GlobalPost. “It’s a weird experience.”