UK officials knew suspect in US airline attack had extremist ties, didn’t think he was violent

By Paisley Dodds, AP
Sunday, January 3, 2010

UK knew US airline suspect had extremist ties

LONDON — British intelligence officials knew that the Nigerian man suspected of trying to bomb a Detroit-bound airliner had ties to U.K. extremists but did not consider him enough of a high risk to alert American authorities, a senior British official said Sunday.

Officials realized about a year after Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab came to London to study in 2005 that he was in contact with Islamic extremists whose communications were being monitored, a senior government official told The Associated Press on Sunday.

But there were no signs that Abdulmutallab wanted to target the United States or was considering turning toward violence, the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of his work.

“It was clear he was reaching out to radical extremists in the U.K. but there was nothing to indicate he was violent,” the official said. “There is a very large number of people in the U.K. who express interest in radical extremism but never turn to violence. He only pinged up on our radar because of other people we were interested in.”

Officials say Abdulmutallab, a 23-year-old Nigerian who spent time in Yemen, sneaked an explosive device aboard his Northwest Airlines flight from Amsterdam to Detroit on Christmas Day but was not able to ignite it as planned.

President Barack Obama has said there was a systemic failure to prevent the attack and ordered a thorough review of security shortcomings. The president has summoned Homeland Security officials to meet with him in the White House on Tuesday.

The British official said even though there are no set profile characteristics to indicate whether a suspect is likely to turn violent, the overall risk a person poses can be assessed by looking their associates, travel patterns, threats and activities.

He declined to name the extremists that Abdulmutallab had contacted.

“Obviously if there was any indication that he was likely to target the U.S., we would have immediately alerted our U.S. counterparts,” the officials told The Associated Press in an interview. “But the fact is that many start on this journey of extremism and few complete it.”

He said it wouldn’t make sense to alert US authorities to every person who showed up on the “fringes of extremism” and said Abdulmutallab’s actual radicalization appeared to have come in the time he spent in Yemen.

It is believed Abdulmutallab received training in Yemen five months before the failed attack.

A U.S. intelligence official said American counterterrorism officials are looking into what knowledge allies may have had about Abdulmutallab. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to publicly discuss foreign intelligence.

The disclosure came as Prime Minister Gordon Brown announced that full body scanners would be introduced in British airports and that the U.K. would dedicate funding for an anti-terror police unit in Yemen.

Brown told the British Broadcasting Corp. on Sunday that all airport security would be increased, and that all passengers including those only transiting through Britain would have their hand luggage screened for explosives.

It was unclear when the scanners would be introduced.

Counterterrorism police and security officials, meanwhile, are still piecing together a detailed trail of Abdulmutallab’s communications when he studied engineering at the University College of London between 2005 and 2008. He was denied a second student visa in May 2009 after saying that he wanted to study at an institution that the government said was bogus.

Abdulmutallab, who was president of the UCL’s Islamic Society in 2007, is said to have written several e-mails talking about jihad, or holy war.

During his time at UCL, he devoted more time to the group’s activities than to his studies, graduating with a 2.2 average — roughly a C — his friend Rafiq Qasim told the AP in a telephone interview Sunday.

“He spoke of doing an MBA but he didn’t get the results (grades) he wanted,” said Qasim, 24. “That was probably because he gave a lot of commitment to the Islamic Society.”

Qasim, who also was active in the Islamic Society, said he became friends with Abdulmutallab in 2005, and the two talked mostly about football, the Arsenal team and mundane activities for the Islamic Society like printing leaflets.

Abdulmutallab’s main responsibility as the Islamic Society’s president was fundraising for the UK-based charity Islamic Relief, Qasim said.

“We raised about 11,000 pounds in the fall of 2006,” said Qasim, who is now doing a Ph.D. in stem cell research.

Qasim said Abdulmutallab never shared any of his radical views with him.

“He came across as a really nice person,” he said. “There was nothing that suggested he harbored any radical views.”

Abdulmutallab also attended the Goodge Street Mosque in central London run by Muslim World League, a Saudi-based organization.

Ahmad Makhdoom, the new regional director at the Goodge Street mosque, did not know the Nigerian, but said he attended prayers there between 2005 and 2008.

“He was very quiet and very nice, people who knew him say. He would come, pray and go,” Makhdoom told the AP at the mosque, a five-floor building wedged between restaurants and stores in central London.

“His mind became twisted, brainwashed — but that didn’t happen while he was in the U.K.,” Makhdoom said. “He was a student at UCL — we have a lot of students. This was one bad act. It is not fair to tie it to a place of worship.”

“Islam says you can’t harm women and children … we pray for peace, but these people think different,” he added.

Associated Press writers Pamela Hess from Washington and Gregory Katz from London contributed to this report.

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