Close Friend of 'Underwear Bomber' Saw No Hint of Militancy

Friend insists "underwear bomber" was more interested in economics than jihad.

December 29, 2009, 12:19 PM

LONDON, Dec. 30, 2009 — -- A close college friend of the accused "underwear bomber" insists Umar Farouk Abdumutallab did not become an Islamic radical while attending school in London and wasn't an isolated loner, but admits he cannot explain why his friend apparently volunteered to become a human bomb.

"He was a very likable person, honest, well-spoken, and very genuine," Qasim Rafiq told ABC News in London today. "When I heard about what happened I was totally shocked. There was nothing in his personality that raised question marks."

"If I met him today, I would ask him what was he hoping to achieve?" Rafiq said.

Rafiq is trying along with government officials and counterterrorism experts to find the roots behind Abdulmutallab's attempt to blow up a jetliner filled with Christmas travellers.

Some have pointed to the 23-year-old's Internet writings in which he complains about loneliness, a common trait in many of the Muslim men who have become suicide bombers and terrorists.

"The isolation that they all seem to have -- a common theme -- is very telling," former FBI profiler and ABC News consultant Brad Garrett told "Before they get inspired to do what they do, there's got to be some sort of depression."

Writings and online postings said to have been penned by Abdulmutallab in recent years reveal a young, privileged man unsure of how to handle his growing independence and religious views that had already started to take on a more fundamentalist tone from his family.

"Can you be my friend?" he wrote in 2005. "I get lonely sometimes because I have never found a true Muslim friend."

But Rafiq says the Internet writings don't match up to the student he knew at the prestigious University College London from 2005 to 2008. "He did not become radicalized while in London. His actions (the attack) were out of character. We used to talk about football, hold weekly games," Rafiq insisted.

Friend Says Abdulmutallab Was Interested in Economics, Not Terror

"I can't confirm or deny that he was lonely. We were very close," Rafiq said. "Being an international student in London can be difficult...that may have been a factor. I never came across anything to suggest that he was lonely."

Rafiq said his friend also didn't appear to be interested in terrorism.

"The last time we spoke, he said he wanted to do an MBA, further his studies in economics," Rafiq said.

Abdulmutallab joined the school's Islamic Society and succeeded Rafiq as the society's president. During his tenure, the group organized a week long seminar entitled the War on Terror and invited controversial speakers about jihad.

Rafiq said he organized the War on Terror conference and said it is not evidence of his friend's development as a radical.

"We wanted to remove some of the hysteria surrounding the jihad, invited many high profile speakers," Rafiq said. "The essence of university life is debate as long as it doesn't incite violence. Whether the majority agrees or disagrees is irrelevant, we need to encourage discussion or it goes underground."

Despite Rafiq's warm profile of Abdulmutallab, others see parallels with people like Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan, the alleged Fort Hood shooter accused of firing on a group of soldiers and civilian in November, killing 13.

Hasan had also alluded to growing feelings of isolation and loneliness.

According to members of Hasan's family, the Army psychologist, a devout Muslim with misgivings about the war in Iraq, was teased about his religion and called a "camel jockey" by other members of the military.

Finding radical Islam, whether sought out or contacted from within, "gives them a purpose," Garrett said.

"It gives them a focus. It gives them a singular focus that no matter what, this religion is about everything else," he said.

ABC News learned after the Fort Hood shooting that Hasan had exchanged 18 e-mails with al Qaeda leader Anwar al Awlaki, some of them asking when a jihad is appropriate and if it would be okay to kill American soldiers.

Officials are now saying Adbulmutallab has ties to Alwaki, an outspoken andmilitant Islamic cleric.

New information about Abdulmutallab's time at University College London suggests he was just one of many students immersed in what some have called pro-radical, anti-Western propaganda.

While at UCL, Abdulmutallab found refuge in the university's Islamic Society and he became its president. During his time as head of the Islamic Society, Abdulmutallab brought in speakers who talked about jihad.

Terrorist Recruits Share Vulnerability, Depression, Experts Say

The way terrorist leaders influence recruits is not unlike the cults that prey on people's insecurities and vulnerabilities, Garrett said. And with people like Hasan, Abdulmutallab, even the 9/11 hijackers, already immersed in the teachings of Islam, tipping their sensibilities becomes even easier.

"When you become isolated and you become depressed nothing looks bright to you," he said. "They get someone to tell them, 'We have the right way for you to go here.'"

And, he said, terrorists know to promise their potential recruits something they desperately are looking for -- acceptance.

"They promise a bright after-life," he said. "By dying for a cause like this makes you a better spirit, a better person, a better whatever."

But Dr. Howard Bursztajn, co-founder of the Harvard Medical School Program for Psychiatry and the Law, told ABC News that the loneliness apparently suffered by people like Abdulmutallab is of their own making and their own refusal to accept anything different from themselves.

"It's a self-imposed loneliness, a self-imposed isolation," he said.

"The fundamental question that we can ask in forensic psychiatry when we see a horrible act is, was this person simply bad or is he mad?" Bursztajn said. "People who are bad, the badness comes from a sense of self-righteousness, a sense of entitlement, a conviction that you somehow have a direct line to God."

Dr. Carole Lieberman, a psychiatrist with the University of California at Los Angeles Neuropsychiatric Institute and author of the book "Coping With Terrorism," said radicalist views, for many of the modern-day terrorists, including several of the 9/11 hijackers and Abdulmutallab, seem to crystallize with a foreign education.

Sept. 11 hijacker Mohamed Atta attended university in Germany as did Marwan al Shehhi and Ziad Jarrah. Mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed attended Chowan College in North Carolina before transferring to North Carolina's A&T State University.

Removing them from their family and their homeland -- both typically Muslim and accepting of Islam's traditions -- and putting them into a foreign setting, typically in Europe or the United States, she said, almost serves to cement fundamentalist teachings that Westerners and their beliefs are threatening.

"Psychologically speaking, they go to colleges .. where they are not part of the crowd, they are not treated with respect," Lieberman said.

Bursztajn countered that it is their choice to stand out, their choice to not fit in and their choice to to try an exterminate anyone who is different.

He quoted Sigmund Freud in saying, "human beings can be both for better or for worse than we can imagine."

"The news," Bursztajn said, "still reminds us of that, doesn't it?"

Modern-Day Terrorists -- 'Columbine Killers Meet Radical Islam'

Adulbmutallab, in particular, not only came from a large Muslim family -- he's the youngest of 16 children -- he was the son of a wealthy banker.

Of course, college doesn't create terrorists from scratch, she pointed out, and men like Abdulmutallab go in with a certain amount of prejudice to begin with. Then they have to learn to deal with cliques, competition from pretty girls and other challenges that likely don't come easy.

"And you put this on top of an Islamic education, or a radical Islamic education and it crystallizes that, yes indeed, these people are the enemy," Lieberman said.

"It's kind of like the Columbine killers meet radical Islam," she said. "It's a revenge fantasy that they attach to a higher purpose."

Garrett noted that the ages of some of the terrorists in recent years -- Abdulmutalllab is 23 -- can be a factor as can some degree of mental instability.

"It certainly is an age when people are becoming more independent," he said.

For now, Abdulmutallab's world is confined to the walls of a federal corrections facility in Milan, Mich., about 50 miles outside of Detroit. Though billed as a low security prison, a Bureau of Prisons spokeswoman told that it is equipped to handle high-risk inmates.

He was transferred to the Milan facility on Sunday after being released from the University of Michigan Medical Center, where he was treated for the second-degree burns he suffered when the explosive device ignited a fire in his pants. The Bureau of Prison declined to comment of Abdulmutallab's medical condition today, saying that information was being kept private.

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