He is young, educated, an engineer – and now a suspected al-Qaeda terrorist.
Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab embodies a new threat posed by the Islamic militant group. He is one of what the Americans, most notably, are calling “lone wolves.”
As their name suggests, these militants act alone, free to operate without much coordination and crucially all the more dangerous to pick up.
For some security analysts, that appears to have been the case with Doctor Nidal Hassan – the US army medic who shot dead 13 people at Fort Hood base last month.
Initial investigations suggest he had contact with
Islamic extremists in Yemen via the internet.
Another example is the Franco-Algerian physicist, Adlene Hicheur, who worked at CERN, the European nuclear research centre.
He was recently arrested, accused of planning attacks against the French military. Hicheur is alleged to have had contacts via decrypted messages with al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.
Experts say the profile of these “lone wolves” is all too similar: solid academic backgrounds, professionals; often born in the West or resident for several years; well integrated and devout Muslims, but secretly harbouring radical beliefs.
Another form of al-Qaeda that has been posing a threat over several years are regional groups.
Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab says he received orders from Yemen. The country Osama Bin Laden’s family originate from harbours many suspected terrorist cells. Last year a Yemeni army raid left 34 presumed al-Qaeda members dead
But al-Qaeda in the Islamic Magreb is also suspected of having groups scattered across the whole of central Africa. Its members in Mauritania and Mali have kidnapped several Europeans in the Saharan region.
By offering training, money and an expanded network, al-Qaeda has been able to widen its choice of targets and thus its influence in different regions.
Which may perhaps be why we hear next to nothing from its traditional leaders: Osama Bin Laden and his right-hand man, Ayman al Zawahiri. Once or twice a year they post messages via the internet or through Arab news channels.
Nevertheless, their lack of visibility seems not to have made al-Qaeda any weaker, with “lone wolves” and regional groups willing and able to strike.