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On the trail of the Detroit bomb suspect

By Channel 4 News

Updated on 10 January 2010

Jonathan Rugman follows the journey to Yemen of suspected Detroit airline bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, who met one of Channel 4 News' investigative team just weeks before boarding the flight in the US.

Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab (credit:Reuters)

When Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab was taken off a Northwest Airlines plane in Detroit on Christmas Day after the alleged failed attempt to blow it out of the skies, the growing threat of Islamist extremism from Yemen came into a sharp new focus.

American and British intelligence sources say it was Yemen where Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab was radicalised into an alleged suicide bomber.

FBI agents who questioned Abdulmutallab before his first appearance in court on Friday say he claimed that he was just one of many bombers being groomed by the al-Qaida affiliate group in Yemen - a claim the Yemeni authorities fiercely deny.

Meeting the alleged bomber
By Jamal Osman

In October 2009, I went on an assignment in Yemen for Channel 4 News. The story I pitched to the editor was to see whether Muslims from Britain travel to Yemen for religious purposes or do they train as jihadists.

Prior to my trip, Yemen was rising on the news agenda. Although the media was mainly focusing on the conflict in Sa'ada region between the government and the Huthis, some were talking about the growth of al-Qaida in Yemen. So I went to find out the truth about the link between British-Muslims and al-Qaida in the country.

During my stay in Sanaa, I met many people, British and non-British, Muslim-born and Muslim-converts. As part of my research, I arranged to meet a British Muslim, "Ahmed", through a source in the city. Ahmed is one of the students from Britain studying Islam in the country.

The meeting took place at Thalaj Abyadh, the White Ice Café on Khawlani Street in the Daa'iri district. As I entered the café, I spotted Ahmed who was sitting behind the door on the left-hand-side. He was with another man.

"You must be Jamal," he said.

"Yes, how do you know? Is it because I got big belly?  Perhaps I should stop eating fish and chips," I joked.

Then Ahmed introduced me to "a Nigerian, who has studied in the UK". That was Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the man accused of trying to blow up a US plane on Christmas Day.

Initially, after the Christmas incident, I didn't realise Omar was the man I met in the café. But, after seeing different photos of him on television, I realised it was him. I had to contact a friend of mine in Sana'a, who was accompanying me at the time and he confirmed to me that the man was Umar.

As an ambitious journalist who is obsessed with getting scoops, exclusives and so on, my immediate reaction was: "How did I miss that. I should have interviewed him."

The event has led to a full scale review of security on planes in the west and an investigation by President Obama into the failings of his security services, and burst the bubble of comfort many had begun to feel after a sustained period free from incidents or threats.

Air travellers from 14 countries will be subjected to extra body pat-downs and advanced screening of baggage before boarding airliners bound for the US.

Even though it was fairly a brief encounter I could not accept the man I met in the café would involve in the incident that has triggered worldwide security alarm.

I never thought he would be accused of such actions and I had no idea he apparently had these plans. Umar, who seemed a quiet and devout Muslim, was wearing a typical Islamic dress and covering his head with a male-scarf.

Immediately, I started talking about the Nigerian politics especially the conflict in the Niger Delta and the tensions between the foreign oil corporations and some local ethnic groups. As Umar was a Nigerian I had to rule him out of my potential story as I was concentrating on British people.

I do not remember the exact words we exchanged, as I wasn't focusing on him. But I vaguely recall him giving a very short answer saying something like: things happen with God's will and we have to accept that it is beyond our power.

I replied something like: perhaps I shouldn't criticise other nations when I am from Somalia. We (Somalis) should get our house in order before talking about others.

It was difficult to hear one another because there was an electricity generator outside the premises.

Consequently, after a very short conversation, Ahmed and I left the café to go to a quieter place nearby. I was with him for about an hour discussing his stay in Yemen and his overall experience. He sounded a very peaceful man who doesn't condone violence. And I believed him.

A 19-year-old from south London whom we interviewed put the matter in a nutshell. He said: "There are many people who study here - and there are some who go and do their thing. I can't vouch for them. I do my thing. What I know is that the majority of brothers and sisters come to learn. And that's it."

My view is that Yemen may be in a terrible security state but that doesn't mean it would be the "next Afghanistan". More importantly, it's wrong to describe all British Muslims who come here as terrorists. I am sure there are few bad apples in every society but the vast majority of them are seeking to improve their understanding of Islam. There are many success stories.

For instance, I met a 23-year-old from London who told me that he was in and out of jail when he was in the UK. Now, he is someone who appreciates life and has turned his life around for the good. He believes that had he not come to Yemen he would still had been carrying on his old lifestyle.

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