TORONTO – The man accused of trying to bring down a packed Northwest Airlines flight Christmas Day may have gone from a highly-observant practitioner of Islam to a fundamentalist zealot in less than three months, a former housemate said Wednesday.
Canadian-born Matthew Salmon lived next door to Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab for about a month in September when they shared a floor at a student housing complex in the Yemeni capital of Sana’a.
During their few in-depth conversations – which invariably turned to religion – the Nigerian national never expressed beliefs consistent with Muslim fundamentalism and raised no red flags through his behaviour, Salmon said.
“I got the feeling that he was very very passionate and happy with his faith, but never did I have any feeling that he was angry or frustrated or willing to do anything of that nature,” Salmon, 27, said in a telephone interview from Yemen.
Religion was the most frequent topic of conversation for the two young men, who approached the study of Islam from opposite perspectives. Salmon -a practicing Christian who was born in Ontario but grew up in British Columbia, – is studying the religion out of intellectual curiosity, while Abdulmutallab was focused on rigidly following the tenets of the faith.
Salmon said his housemate practiced a more conservative brand of Islam, but said their dialogs on the subject were both amicable and instructive.
“There was never any sense that one person was wrong and one person was right, it was just two different ways to go at the same topic,” he said. “It was really similar to experiences I’ve had with Christians back home.”
Abdulmutallab never revealed how long he had been in Yemen, but told Salmon he had come to the middle-eastern nation to improve his Arabic and immerse himself in a culture where faith plays a central role. In early October, he indicated he planned to remain in the country for another month or two before going to visit his family.
But the next day, Salmon said Abdulmutallab’s room was vacant and the 23-year-old was gone without a word of farewell to his fellow residents.
Salmon suspects his former housemate underwent intensive indoctrination between the time he left the student residence and the day he boarded the Detroit-bound flight with explosives concealed in his underwear.
Salmon said such rapid conversions are not uncommon in Yemen, where people often come for exposure to the Islamic faith.
“I’ve met people that in a very short time have been converted to religions that are completely separate from their own traditions,” he said.
Abdulmutallab’s existing religious preferences might have made him easy to lead further down the road of extremism, he added.
But foreigners are being presented with a distorted picture of Yemen, Salmon said, adding the country should not be defined solely by reports of rampant terrorist activity.
His experiences with the friendly and open-minded Yemeni locals have made Salmon wish to extend his proposed year-long stay into a long-term stint with an aid organization where he hopes to help people cope with the grinding poverty and political unrest gripping the country, he said.
When news of the failed Christmas day attack reached Yemen, Salmon said his emotional reaction ran the gamit from fear to fury.
He struggled to reconcile the smiling student with the would-be killer of nearly 300 people and has often thought about the fact that he used to sleep with his door open while Abdulmutallab worked or prayed in the adjoining room.
He also experienced an irrational sense of guilt, asking himself if he missed any early indicators or whether he could have done anything to intervene.
But now that the crisis has passed and Abdulmutallab’s case is moving through the U.S. judicial system, Salmon is most struck by the irony of his actions, which have left another blemish on the face of the faith he took so seriously.
“We talked a lot about . . . brotherhood and peace and love. These are the sort of ideas we’d discussed and we both agreed were good concepts, and he really turned his back on those in an extreme way.”