LONDON – The Nigerian man charged with trying to bomb a U.S. airliner had many Christian friends and was so well-respected in high school that classmates nicknamed him "the Pope," his former teacher said Sunday.
But Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab also showed signs of inflexibility, said Michael Rimmer, a Briton who taught history at the British International School in Lome, Togo.
He said that, in a 2001 discussion about the Taliban in Afghanistan, Abdulmutallab was the only one to defend their actions — something he attributed at the time to a desire to play the devil's advocate.
He also noted that during a school trip to London, Abdulmutallab became upset when the teacher took students to a pub and said it wasn't right to be in a place where alcohol was being served.
Rimmer said that overall, his impression of Abdulmutallab had been an extremely positive one — noting in particular an incident in which the youngster chose to give 50 pounds to an orphanage rather than spend it on souvenirs in London.
"At one stage, his nickname was 'The Pope,'" Rimmer said. "In one way it's totally unsuitable because he's Muslim, but he did have this saintly aura.
"In all the time I taught him we never had cross words," Rimmer said from London in a telephone interview. "Somewhere along the line he must have met some sort of fanatics, and they must have turned his mind."
Rimmer described the institution — an elite college preparatory school, attended by children of diplomats and wealthy Africans — as "lovely, lovely environment" where Christians often joined in Islamic feasts and some of the best Christmas carolers were Muslims.
Abdulmutallab showed no signs of intolerance toward other students, Rimmer said, explaining that "lots of his mates were Christians."
The Briton noted that he has not seen or heard from his former pupil since 2003, when he was about 15, but added that other students had been in touch to express their shock.