The story of 23-year old Nigerian Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, who attempted to blow up North West Airlines Flight 253 en-route from Amsterdam to Detroit on December 25, 2009, presents a vehicle for distinguishing between political but non-violent radicalization and wholesale conversion to the jihad ideology. It also provides an opportunity to examine the validity of assumptions that suggest British universities are a breeding ground for radicalized groups and a place for recruitment. Abdulmutallab’s story also presents a case for examining the influence of the internet in recruiting young men in the West to Islamist extremism.
A series of studies has suggested UK universities are important places for the recruitment of young Muslim men with inclinations toward radicalism. Abdulmutallab might be seen as an example of this trend; after studying for two years at the University College of London, a number of reports indicate that Abdulmutallab was recruited by Iraqi-born Taimour al-Abdli who also studied in the UK before his suicide bombing in Stockholm a year after Abdulmutallab’s attempt (BBC, December 13, 2010). This led Prime Minister David Cameron to stress the importance of fighting extremism in the nation’s universities (Guardian, February 6; BBC, February 7).
However, reading Abdulmutallab’s posts on the English-language “Islam Forum” shows that university recruitment was not necessarily the most important factor in his adoption of extremism. Instead, they shed more light on the role of the internet and the attempts of young, non-Arab Muslims to link themselves to the ummah (Islamic community) and suggest this is more likely to be the paradigm that helps in understanding why such young Muslims join jihad.
This two-part article aims to analyze Abdulmutallab’s posts on the Islam Forum between the years 2005-2007 (precise dates shown at the end of each quote) in order to understand the journey to radicalism.
Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab introduces himself as follows:
"My name is Umar but you can call me Farouk. I just turned 18 (born in 1986, hence the “Farouk1986.” I come from the Muslim ummah and I permanently live in Nigeria but often come to London. I am in a boarding school with about 30 other Muslims. I’m doing the IB [pre-university] diploma. Insh’Allah, I will finish this year and I plan to head to Stanford University, California to study Engineering, or UC Berkeley or Caltech. Imperial College London gave me an offer, so if I don’t go to Cali, I plan to go to London. I sent a post in the [website’s] counselling forum to get some help. Alhamdulillah, I got some good responses from brothers and sisters. Anyway I get lonely sometimes because I have never found a true Muslim friend. I’m active, I socialize with everybody around me, no conflicts, I laugh and joke but not excessively. I will describe myself as very ambitious and determined, especially in the deen [faith]. I strive to live my daily life according to the Qu’ran and Sunnah to the best of my ability. I do almost everything, sports, TV, books… (of course trying not to cross the limits in the deen)" (February 5, 2005). 
The signs Umar Farouk showed of his commitment to the Islamic faith in his daily life point to a deep religiosity born of a childhood in northern Nigeria’s Kaduna region where religiosity, Hisba (lit. “verification,” referring to the control of the observance of Islamic principles) groups and the application of Shari’a at local levels was prevalent, though Abdulmutallab’s family was wealthy and displayed a tendency to secularism, as he mentions in one of his posts.
His deep religiosity was associated with a feeling of loneliness which emanated from two fundamental concepts; “the search for ummah” and al-Hijrah migration to Islamic lands, and the Salafist principle of al-wala’ wa’l-bara’ (loyalty [towards the believers] and disavowal [of the disbelievers]). These two concepts radicalized Abdulmutallab and made the Salafi-Jihadist discourse more attractive. These two concepts are fundamental in Salafi-Jihadi thought, though the former concept is more common to non-Arab Muslims.
Abdulmutallab wrote of his loneliness and the “dilemmas” he faced as a student in a boarding school with few Muslims:
"First of all, I have no friend. Not because I do not socialize, etc., but because either people do not want to get too close to me as they go partying and stuff while I don’t, or they are bad people who befriend me and influence me to do bad things. Hence I am in a situation where I do not have a friend, I have no one to speak to, no-one to consult, no-one to support me and I feel depressed and lonely. I do not know what to do. The last thing I want to talk about is my dilemma between liberalism and extremism" (January 28, 2005).
Umar Farouk’s professed loneliness and alienation drove him to find in cyberspace the “Islamic ummah” mentioned repeatedly in his postings. He believed that the next generations of Muslims would “reunite the ummah” through mixed marriages (January 31, 2005). Abdulmutallab expressed happiness on meeting the ummah, even if only virtually; "I love you all in the spirit of brotherhood and sisterhood in Islam" (February 10, 2005).
Abdulmutallab’s feelings of alienation also reinforced in him the concept of “migration for the sake of God” (hijrah fi sabil Allah), which was developed as a political concept by Islamic writer Sayyid Qutb and later adopted by various Islamist groups. The concept has two sides to it; the physical migration to Islamic lands and “migration by rejection,” which means that a true Muslim should shun those who are uncommitted.
It seemed that the concept began to take hold progressively in Umar Farouk:
"I am new to IF [Islam Forum] and when I first came here, I thought I was the only lonely soul. But after, I realized that almost every good Muslim gets lonely at some point. This I believe is because really there are many Muslims but most are just Muslims by name who do not practice the deen earnestly, leaving the few good Muslims alone. So it’s a test we have to strive and go through for the sake of Allah" (January 29, 2005).
In addition to the concept of migration, another notion, al-wala’ wa’l-bara’, began to develop in his mind; "The biggest obstacle I think is the Kafir imposed school system. These guys are just controlling us around anyhow. We ought to have our own systems that will make our ummah do things according to Quran and Sunnah (February 13, 2005).
This alienation was accompanied by another factor – the ideological confusion that Umar Farouk was experiencing. This element will be examined in Part Two.
Spelling and typographical errors within Abulmutallab’s messages have been corrected for ease of reading.