FUNTUA, Nigeria (Reuters) - For residents in his home town, it was Umar Abdulmutallab’s foreign education, not his roots in Muslim northern Nigeria, that radicalized him and led him to try to blow up a U.S. passenger plane.
The 23-year-old London-educated Nigerian was charged on Saturday in the United States with trying to blow up Northwest Airlines flight 253 as it approached Detroit from Amsterdam on Christmas Day with almost 300 people on board.
The son of a highly respected banker, Abdulmutallab’s actions shocked Nigeria’s wealthy elite and residents in his family’s predominantly Muslim northern hometown of Funtua.
“Everyone knew the Mutallabs and the father is honest, generous, helpful and above all a prominent banker. I cannot see why his son should be involved in this act,” Funtua resident Ibrahim Bello, 65, said, close to the Mutallab family home.
Like other elders from the community, Bello said Abdulmutallab’s schooling abroad meant he had been brought up outside the customs of northern Nigeria, a region with a history of moderate Sufi Islam.
“My only advice to the elite is to allow their children to mingle with the children of the masses so that he will have some of the traditional morals and values that (the elder) Mutallab himself enjoyed,” Bello told Reuters.
Behind him, a group of elderly men were listening to the local Hausa language services of the BBC and Voice of America radio stations, eager to hear the latest developments.
Abdulmutallab is from a privileged background in Africa’s most populous nation, where most of an estimated 140 million people live on under $2 a day.
His father, Umaru Mutallab, retired earlier this month as chairman of First Bank, the country’s oldest, after a distinguished career in finance.
Like many children from rich Nigerian homes, Abdulmutallab spent his formative years abroad. Information Minister Dora Akunyili said he had been living outside Nigeria “for a while” and only returned on the eve of the attack.
“We were shocked when we heard a report from one of the international radio stations that the son of Mutallab is involved in an act of terrorism in the United States,” said Ahmed Ibrahim, one of Abdulmutallab’s contemporaries.
“But many of us did not know the children of the Mutallabs because they did not grow up here in Funtua,” he said, sipping Coca-Cola under the shade of a tree.
The Mutallab home in Funtua, more than 250 km (155 miles) north of the capital Abuja, is a single-story brown and white building behind big gates, larger than surrounding houses but not ostentatious.
Abdulmutallab was educated at the British School in Lome, Togo — a boarding school mostly serving expatriates and students from around West Africa — before studying engineering at University College London (UCL), where he is believed to have lived in a multi-million dollar city-center apartment.
One friend who knew him in London said he kept himself to himself and always wore a skullcap, rare among young Nigerian Muslims who usually wear such caps only on religious occasions.
Nigeria’s This Day newspaper said he had been given the nickname “Alfa” — a local term for an Islamic scholar — while at school in Togo, for his preaching to other students.
He also made two trips to Yemen during his student days for short Arabic and Islamic courses, according to a family friend.
If Abdulmutallab was radicalized outside Nigeria as many of his compatriots believe, his case would have precedents.
Ahmed Saeed Omar Sheikh, or Sheikh Omar, who was sentenced to death in Pakistan in 2002 for the killing of U.S. journalist Daniel Pearl and suspected of links to the September 11, 2001 attacks, came from a similarly privileged background.
Born in Britain in the early 1970s, Omar was the son of a wholesale clothes merchant from Wanstead in northeast London who went to an expensive school but dropped out of one of Britain’s top universities, the London School of Economics.
Nigeria’s predominantly Muslim north has seen bouts of religious unrest. But while some Western diplomats have expressed concern that its huge population and widespread poverty could attract foreign Islamic extremists, there has been no conclusive evidence of such a presence in the country.
Clashes between security forces and a radical Islamic sect called Boko Haram — which wanted a wider adoption of sharia (Islamic law) — killed hundreds of people in the northern Nigerian city of Maiduguri in July.
But Islamic jurisprudence in Nigeria is based on the moderate Maliki school of Sunni Islam and Boko Haram’s ideology is dismissed by the country’s Muslim leaders and most believers.
Young Muslims who grew up in Funtua insist it was Abdulmutallab’s life overseas, which they view as alien, not Nigerian Islam that gave rise to his extremist views.
“We the children of the masses in this country, we don’t know anything about terrorism because our parents are poor. They don’t have the money to take us abroad,” said 25-year old student and Funtua resident Usman Mati.
Writing by Nick Tattersall; editing by Robin Pomeroy