The Detroit Suspect: From Nigeria's Privileged, a Radical Convert

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Muhammad Salisu Rabiu / AP

A vacation house owned by Alhaji Umar Mutallab, the father of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, in Funtua, Nigeria

Across the highway from the towering and luxurious Hilton Hotel is one of the smartest neighborhoods in the Nigerian capital of Abuja. There, on Asa Street, is the residence of Alhaji Umar Mutallab, a household name in Nigeria and the former chief of the United Bank for Africa and the First Bank of Nigeria, two of the country's largest financial institutions. In the past few days, however, he has become better known around the world as the father of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the young man accused of trying to blow up Northwest/Delta Flight 253 over Detroit on Christmas Day.

That has made the always busy street even busier than ever. Scores of young men, private guards and domestic servants, sit on large white flowerpots, keeping watch on the immediate vicinity. Expensive cars, including new SUVs and luxury sedans, deliver well-heeled visitors by the minute. They are quickly ushered through huge, black gates into a sprawling estate of two large white single-story buildings. Mutallab, who is in his 70s, has not been short of sympathizers and well-wishers since the news broke. He can use it.

Nigerian newspapers these days have headlines like "Mutallab: Man Who Shamed Nigeria," as the independent daily Guardian screamed — a reference to the son, not the father, but reflecting on the elder just the same. Many more Nigerians have poured out their outrage in blog posts and on Facebook. "A Nigerian has created an additional problem for us by wanting to blow up an aircraft," the country's Vice President, Goodluck Jonathan, lamented at a church service in Abuja. "That means that those Nigerians who travel out of this country will be subjected to unnecessary harassments and searches."

This is not the kind of attention Alhaji Mutallab is used to. Having retired just last week as chairman of First Bank, he is regarded as one of the richest men in the West African nation. (He also founded Jaiz International, the first bank operating on Islamic principles in Nigeria, in 2003.) The family controls many businesses in Nigeria and abroad.

Aides confirmed he was at home but declined a request for an interview. Instead, a young man who gave his name simply as Alfred and described himself as a member of Mutallab's domestic staff handed a copy of a family statement to TIME. "Farouk, to the best of my parental monitoring, had never shown any attitude, conduct or association that would give concern," the statement said. "As soon as concern arose, very recently, his parents reported it and sought help." But while the family chose not to speak to the media, Alfred and other friends were willing to provide some information.

Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab of Nigeria, who is accused of trying to blow up Northwest/Delta Flight 253 from Amsterdam on Christmas Day
AFP / Getty
Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab was one of the banker's 16 children and the third child of Alhaji Mutallab's second wife. Born in 1986, he lived a privileged life in a country where 90% of the population survives on less than $2 a day. He was known as a basketball player while growing up and a great football fan, his favorite club being Arsenal. But his passion for sports seemed to have waned with time, religious fervor taking its place, according to friends. "Farouk was a devoted Muslim who took his religion seriously and was a committed student," Alfred told TIME. "Some people call him ustaz [Arabic for teacher], others call him alfa [Muslim scholar], but he is a complete gentleman." Alfred says that the banker's son took seriously the Islamic recommendation for prayer five times a day. The son was also known for his strong views on the U.S. and Israel. According to a source close to the family, it was an alleged threat to blow up an American plane that apparently alarmed his parents and supposedly resulted in his father going to warn the U.S. embassy.

So how did a member of an upper-crust Nigerian family apparently seek to become an international terrorist linked to al-Qaeda? "It is not shocking and it is not surprising," says Shehu Sani, a human-rights activist and expert on the rise of Islamic fundamentalism. "There exists a socioeconomic and political atmosphere in the north [of Nigeria] that has created such kinds of conditions for these kinds of things." Sani says the phenomenon can be traced back five years to the country's northeast, when a group of young Muslims from a wealthy background launched what became known as Nigeria's Taliban movement, also known as Boko Haram. "These young men were not children of the poor," he says. "They came from privileged homes, they came from powerful homes, they came from homes of people that were holding high positions in government."

This breed of Muslim activists, most of them educated and from the middle and upper classes, aggressively embraced a stricter — and increasingly violent — version of Islam. The young Nigerians rebelled against the existing order of their rich and politically well-connected parents in northern Nigeria. "They abhor the stupendous wealth their parents have accumulated and they don't want to have anything to do with them," says Abdulmumin Sa'ad, a professor of sociology at the University of Maiduguri.

In July, the heavily armed Nigerian Taliban were subdued by government troops near the northeastern border with Cameroon, in a clash that left more than 800 dead. The next month, during her visit to Nigeria, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton speculated publicly on the group's links with al-Qaeda. Nigeria denies that al-Qaeda has an active presence in its territory.

The phenomenon of disaffected offspring of the rich may have inspired the younger Mutallab, but a source close to the Mutallab family says the Detroit terror suspect was not a member of Boko Haram. He told TIME: "We knew Farouk's extreme views and we were always very worried about what may happen to him or what trouble he could get himself into. Even during the last Boko Haram crisis we were all very worried that he may have been involved, but thank God he was not. He is a bit reserved and we thought we should give him some space. He is a young man and we were apprehensive he could be easily influenced." Still, said the source, "we were all shocked to hear that he attempted to blow up a plane."

The nation's foremost Islamic group, the Supreme Council for Islamic Affairs, dismissed the attempted bombing as an "isolated incident which did not point to a wider problem with Islamist militancy in the country." Still, many analysts say Islamic extremists and terrorist networks operate in predominantly Muslim northern Nigeria, feeding an already tense coexistence between the country's equally large Christian and Muslim populations. Sani blames Nigerian authorities for "negligence and security lapses" that have created a constant threat of violence. "You have numerous groups of extremist religious sects that have been receiving support and sponsorship from nations across the world," Sani says. "And no one has any tab on who are these people, who is funding them and what are the funds meant for."