On Christmas Day in 2009, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, boarded a flight from Amsterdam to Detroit with the materials to blow up the plane stashed in his underwear. His attempt at terrorism failed and he is now serving a life sentence without the possibility of parole. He is now known as ‘The Underwear Bomber’. I was his drama teacher.
I don’t remember him very well, just a vague impression of a somewhat morose boy who had to be bullied and cajoled into participating in group work. He was remarkable only in his ordinariness, even his vices were the standard kind; he was sullen and more than a bit lazy. He was not the boy who shook pocket money out of the younger kids, or the one who left a trail of dying lizards in his wake and tried to drown the school snake. There was nothing about Umar at thirteen to indicate a murderous instinct that would later attempt to obliterate himself and two hundred and eighty nine others.
The school was, and is, reasonably prestigious in West Africa. It is a private boarding school catering mainly to rich families from Ghana and Nigeria, housed in a failed shopping mall. My drama studio doubled as the assembly and exam hall. It was next to the kitchens, which was a special torture for my Muslim students during Ramadan. Umar was one of those who claimed that he could not participate in drama during Ramadan as he was weak from fasting. I interpreted this as an excuse not to do any work rather than as a symptom of extreme piety.
For a while I wondered if his actions were my fault. September 11, 2001 was just after the start of the new school year. It was all my classes wanted to talk about, so I did a series of lessons about it. I couldn’t bear to listen to child after child wailing “Why?” as the families of those who had lost loved ones, so I focussed on the situation of American Muslims in the aftermath; people who had been ordinary who suddenly became the enemy. Had this examination of the hatred directed towards Muslims given Umar his push into extremism?
In hindsight, my worries were not just narcissistic, they were plain wrong. It wasn’t anything that any of us had taught Umar that caused him to become a terrorist; it was what we didn’t teach him. We didn’t teach him anything about himself, we just taught him about us, about our culture, our history, our philosophy. We ignored his Nigerian Muslim identity completely.
Our silence meant that Umar found his education as a Muslim elsewhere, on the Internet. I’m guessing that his loneliness and sense of alienation made him a perfect candidate for recruitment by Al Qaida. They talked about the things that we ignored, welcomed him where we had rejected and excluded him. It is not surprising that he agreed to join their jihad.
I wonder how many more Umars are out there, unremarkable kids alienated and frightened by the hatred they hear from every level of society, from politicians down to the bigots who leave comments on the Daily Mail website. The police are running the ‘Prevent’ programme, which asks ordinary people to spy on their Muslim neighbours. Schools are policed to ensure they are not giving too much encouragement to Muslim student groups. Parents are urged to lock up their kids’ passports. These actions treat Muslims as though they are already criminals. I can think of no better way to radicalise young people.