(Reuters) – When Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab enrolled in an Arabic course in Yemen last year, few who met him could have guessed what this withdrawn young man was really up to, nor the devastating impact he would leave behind.
Staff at the now-deserted language center where he studied are still reeling from the actions of the Nigerian, suspected of trying to blow up a U.S.-bound plane in December, just weeks after leaving the Arabian peninsula country.
Adil Badi, a teacher at the Sanaa Institute for the Arabic Language, said radical Muslims such as Abdulmutallab, a student from a wealthy family who had no criminal record, had used the Arabic courses on offer in Yemen as a pretext for entering the country to meet fellow militants there.
“They had something else to do in Yemen but their excuse was to study Arabic,” Badi said.
Prized for the purity of its dialect and cheap living costs, Yemen was long a popular destination for students of Arabic. But over the years, a number of foreign militants have arrived in Yemen in the guise of Arabic students, only to join al Qaeda training camps.
Sherif Mobley, a U.S. citizen currently being held in Yemen on suspicion of belonging to al Qaeda, also first came to the country as a student of Arabic at a language institute, before attending a university run by prominent hardline Muslim cleric Sheikh Abdul-Majid al-Zindani, officials say.
Abdulmutallab was on his second visit to Yemen when he enrolled at the center in August 2009. When his visa expired in September, he disappeared for around two months, during which officials believe he moved to al Qaeda’s main hideout there.
Four months after the attempted bombing, an al Qaeda video showed Abdulmutallab attending a militant training camp in the desert and also showed footage of him in an apparent martyr’s farewell.
During this time, the former engineering student also met Anwar al-Awlaki, a radical U.S.-born preacher who is wanted dead or alive by Washington.
“His goals and objectives came prior to Yemen,” said Sabri Saleem, president of the Yemen College of Middle Eastern Studies, one of Sanaa’s oldest Arabic language schools. “He just came to implement.”
Yemen has a long history with al Qaeda, whose resurgent regional wing has its base in the impoverished country and continues to attract Islamist militants from abroad.
Saleem’s institute keeps close tabs on its students, screening academic records, keeping track of their movements while they are in the country, and making them sign a declaration that they would adhere to the centre’s rules.
Of the 9,000 students who have passed through his school over the past two decades, Saleem said only one of them was radical, and that was John Walker Lindh.
Dubbed the “American Taliban,” Lindh was captured in 2001 during the Afghanistan war and jailed under a U.S. plea deal for 20 years for fighting alongside the Taliban.
The Yemeni government has made it clear that it does not believe Abdulmutallab was radicalized in Yemen, but that this happened in London, where he was a student.
But in the immediate aftermath of the attempted bombing, it banned visas issued at arrival in the airport.
Foreign Minister Abubakr al-Qirbi told Reuters that Yemen had also begun to screen individuals applying for tourist visas from its embassies abroad.
That U.S. and many European citizens could previously obtain visas at the airport had turned out to be a major security problem for the government, he said.
“That’s how some of these extremist groups managed to get into the country,” the minister said.
BAD FOR BUSINESS
While security concerns have kept potential students away for several years now, language schools say that enrolments have fallen sharply in the months since the failed plane attack, particularly as the government tightens visa restrictions.
Pictures displayed in the reception of the Sanaa Institute for the Arabic Language tell of better times. One shows a class listening attentively to the teacher, while in another a group of students poses in the now-empty garden outside.
“We are on the verge of bankruptcy,” said Badi, adding that he had only two students left, one from South Korea and the other from the United States.
Belman Sihombing, a chef from Indonesia who came to study Arabic with his wife and daughter, said his family only managed to obtain their visas with help from the school’s director.
“The visa was a problem from my embassy in my country. They wouldn’t give it to us because of the Nigerian trying to bomb the United States, so all embassies don’t give visas,” he said.
Saleem said recent events had hit his institution badly too.
This summer, Saleem’s center, which is accredited with over 100 universities across the world, will host 32 students, compared to 85 last year and 230 students in 2008, he said.
Concern over security in Yemen, which is also facing rising violence between government forces and separatists in the south and has just ended a bloody round of fighting with northern rebels, has long been an issue for his business.
“It was really building up, but the Nigerian was the worst case,” he said. “If I didn’t own the building we are in, then we would have closed by now.”
(Editing by Lin Noueihed)