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Somali plane bomber was known as religious but not extremist

Storyline:National News, Security

MOGADISHU, Somalia (AP) — He was a teacher at an Islamic school, known in his hometown in northwestern Somalia as a talkative, religious man with a sense of humor.

He has also been identified as a suicide bomber who tried to bring down an airliner.

Abdullahi Abdisalam Borleh boarded a plane on Feb. 2 with a bomb which exploded at 11,000 feet. The blast created a hole in the fuselage of the Airbus 321, just above the wing, and Borleh was blown out, his body falling to earth and landing in the Somali town of Balad.

Borleh said he was going abroad for health reasons, according to Sheikh Mohamed Abdullahi, a mosque imam in Hargeisa near where Borleh was from, and who met with him in January. Abdullahi estimated Borleh’s age at between 50 and 52, described him as “chatty,” and said that he had a leg problem that required him to sometimes walk with a cane.

“He travelled to Mogadishu to obtain a passport to go to either Turkey or India for medical reasons,” Abdullahi said in a telephone interview. “He was probably travelling overseas to straighten his leg.”

On Saturday, al-Shabab, Somalia’s Islamic extremist rebels, claimed responsibility for the attempt to destroy the plane with 81 passengers and crew aboard. The al-Qaida-linked group mocked efforts to prevent such attacks and threatened more “to purify this Muslim land from the filth of the disbelievers.”

“Despite all their security measures … the Mujahideen can and will get to them,” the group said.

There are mounting signs that al-Shabab had inside help.

A senior civil aviation security officer who supervised operations of screening machines at Mogadishu airport was one of 20 people arrested after he was seen on CCTV accompanying another man who handed the laptop believed to contain the bomb to Borleh after he had gone through security. The other man, identified as an airport employee, was also among those arrested.

“It was a meticulously planned and coordinated plot, and the bomber would never have gone beyond any security screening without the assistance of well-placed insiders facilitating his limitless access into the airport,” said a senior Somali counterterrorism official who insisted on anonymity for his own safety.

Borleh may also have had help from other official quarters.

A Somali federal official recommended that the government issue Borleh a passport, said a senior intelligence official in Somaliland, the autonomous region where Borleh was from. Borleh had been on security agents’ radar, “but we had never considered him to be dangerous,” the official told The Associated Press by phone from Hargeisa, Somaliland’s capital. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to speak to the media.

Officials are also looking at a lead that runs straight to Somalia’s foreign ministry.

A senior Somali immigration official said Borleh had obtained a Turkish visa to work in Turkey as a foreign ministry adviser, and provided the AP with a copy of a letter allegedly sent from the Somali Embassy in Ankara, Turkey, to the Turkish Embassy in Somalia’s capital. The letter asked the Turkish Embassy to facilitate a visa for Borleh to be “an advisor to the Minister of Foreign Affairs and Investment Promotions.”

But the Somali Embassy in Ankara denied making such a request to the Turkish Embassy in Mogadishu and called the document a fake. The Somali Foreign Ministry and Minister of Foreign Affairs and Investment Promotion Abdusalam H. Omer did not comment, despite repeated requests from AP over five days.

It is possible that al-Shabab, in a display of sophisticated deception, wrote the letter on official or official-looking stationery and sent it to the Turkish Embassy. The embassy declined to comment to AP on whether it had received the letter or acted on it.

Having the visa would have been key to getting aboard a flight, which originally was on Turkish Airlines. In its statement claiming responsibility, al-Shabab lashed out at Turkey, which has been a strong supporter of the Somali government.

The flight on Feb. 2 was supposed to have been on Turkish Airlines, but the airline canceled because of bad weather from a previous departure point, and Dubai-based Daallo Airlines was instead used. Flight 159 consequently took off an hour late, a delay which may have saved the passengers and crew.

If the bomb had gone off at cruising altitude, as it might have if it was rigged to a timing device set to coincide with the original flight time, the result could have been catastrophic, with the plane possibly disintegrating because of the vast difference between air pressure inside and outside at 30,000-plus feet.

Instead the blast happened earlier, at a lower altitude. Borleh was the only fatality and the plane’s controls were unaffected by the blast allowing the pilot able to fly the plane back to Mogadishu safely.

The statement from al-Shabab did not mention Borleh. Some intelligence officials believe he knowingly carried the bomb aboard, though that has not been conclusively established.

Borleh was seen as very religious but not a firebrand in his northwestern town of Borama, far from the battlegrounds of al-Shabab, which operates mostly in southern Somalia. While the extremist group doesn’t have a presence in the town near the Ethiopian border, intelligence officials say there are a few al-Shabab sympathizers there.

Borleh taught the Quran and Islamic ethics to local children but acquaintances said he didn’t discuss politics. He favored a long mustache and usually wore trousers cut to just below the knee. He was married and had children, though how many isn’t clear.

“He was a normal and humorous man, and he rarely talked about persecutions against Muslims in East Africa,” said a local journalist who met Borleh before he travelled to Mogadishu.

Abdullahi, the Muslim preacher in Hargeisa, is still trying to come to grips with what happened.

“It’s hard to believe he committed the crime being reported by media,” Abdullahi said.

With officials still trying to fill in the blanks, the man who fell from Flight 159 remains a cipher.