But the education he sought was of a different sort: Nigerian officials say his interest in extremist Islam prompted his father, the former CEO of one of Nigeria's largest banks, to warn U.S. authorities. As Abdulmutallab was being escorted in handcuffs off the Detroit-bound airliner he , he told U.S. officials that he had sought extremist education at an Islamist hotbed in Yemen.
A portrait emerged Sunday of a serious young man who led a privileged life as the son of a prominent banker, but became estranged from his family as an adult. Devoutly religious, he was nicknamed "The Pope" for his saintly aura and gave few clues in his youth that he would turn radical, friends and family said.
"In all the time I taught him we never had cross words," said Michael Rimmer, a Briton who taught history at the British International School in Lome, Togo. "Somewhere along the line he must have met some sort of fanatics, and they must have turned his mind."
Abdulmutallab would seem to be the latest in a growing list of well educated, and well-to-do young men who have turned to radical Islam and then terrorism, reports CBS News correspondent Sheila MacVicar.
"People have been working for a long time to try to understand the process of radicalization, why it happens, why people at certain times in their lives suddenly find themselves attracted into extremist circles leading on sometimes to violent extremism," said Peter Clarke, a CBS News consultant and former head of counterterrorism at London Metropolitan Police
Abdulmutallab has been charged with trying to destroy a Northwest flight on Christmas Day with 278 passengers and 11 crew members on board. The detonator on his explosive apparently malfunctioned and he was subdued by other passengers.
Ken Wainstein, who became the first Assistant Attorney General for Homeland Security in 2006, told CBS News White House correspondent Mark Knoller that Abdulmutallab represents the kind of operative who could be "a goldmine" for al Qaeda.
Wainstein points out that Abdulmutallab speaks English, is Westernized, has multiple entry visa to the U.S. and can "fly under the radar."
Through an official, Abdulmutallab's father "expressed deep shock and regret over his son's actions."
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His family home sits in the city of Funtua, in the heart of Nigeria's Islamic culture. Religion figured into the family's life: His father, Alhaji Umar Mutallab, who had a successful career in commercial banking, also joined the board of an Islamic bank - one that avoids the kind of interest payments banned by the Quran.
The large house, surrounded by a wall and a metal fence just off the main road running through the city, stood empty, a common occurrence for a jet-set family that sought an education abroad for Abdulmutallab. Family members told The Associated Press they could not comment but expected the family to issue a statement.
Mutallab was working with the FBI and not expected to grant media interviews, Information Minister Dora Akunyili said.
The elder Mutallab was "a responsible and respected Nigerian, with a true Nigerian spirit," she said. He had been estranged from his son for several months and alerted U.S. officials last month about the youth's growing hard-line Islamic religious beliefs.
A close neighbor told the AP he believed Abdulmutallab did not get his extremist ideas from his family or from within Nigeria.
Basiru Sani Hamza, 35, said Abdulmutallab was a "very religious" and a "very obedient" to his parents as a boy in the well-to-do banking family.
"I believe he must have been lured where he is schooling to carry out this attack," Hamza said. "Really, the boy has betrayed his father because he has been taking care of all their needs."
Rimmer, a teacher at his high school in West Africa, said Abdulmutallab had been well-respected.
"At one stage, his nickname was 'The Pope,"' Rimmer said from London in a telephone interview. "In one way it's totally unsuitable because he's Muslim, but he did have this saintly aura."
But Abdulmutallab also showed signs of inflexibility, Rimmer said.
In a discussion in 2001, Abdulmutallab was the only one to defend the actions of the Taliban in Afghanistan, Rimmer said. At the time, Rimmer thought the boy was just playing 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 served.
Rimmer also remembered the youngster choosing to give 50 pounds to an orphanage rather than spend it on souvenirs in London.
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 where 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 still a teenager.
Abdulmutallab went on to study engineering and business finance at the University College London, where he graduated last year, the college confirmed.
Students at his prestigious university in London, where Abdulmutallab lived in a smart white stone apartment block in an exclusive area of central London, said Abdulmutallab showed no signs of radicalization and painted him as a lax student with deep religious views.
"We worked on projects together," Fabrizio Cavallo Marincola, a 22-year-old mechanical engineering student at University College, told The Independent newspaper. "He always did the bare minimum of work and would just show up to classes. When we were studying, he always would go off to pray.
"He was pretty quiet and didn't socialize much or have a girlfriend that I knew of. I didn't get to talk to him much on a personal level. I was really shocked when I saw the reports. You would never imagine him pulling off something like this."
Marincola declined further comment when contacted by the AP.