Al-Qaida link probed in jet incident

Nigerian man charged with trying to blow up plane

December 27, 2009|By Josh Meyer | Tribune Newspapers

WASHINGTON — — U.S. counterterrorism officials were looking at possible connections Saturday between al-Qaida-linked militants in Yemen and a 23-year-old Nigerian man charged with attempting to destroy a Northwest Airlines plane on its final approach to Detroit Metropolitan Airport.

According to a criminal complaint and FBI affidavit, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab carried a destructive device aboard Flight 253 on Christmas Day in what authorities said was an attempted terrorist attack that could have killed all 290 people aboard.

In filing charges Saturday, the Justice Department alleged Abdulmutallab had a device containing the explosive pentaerythritol tetranitrate attached to his body. The court documents also said FBI agents had recovered what appeared to be the remnants of a syringe from the vicinity of the suspect's seat that was believed to be part of the device.

"Had this alleged plot to destroy an airplane been successful, scores of innocent people would have been killed or injured," Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. said in announcing the charges. "We will continue to investigate this matter vigorously, and we will use all measures available to our government to ensure that anyone responsible for this attempted attack is brought to justice."

A senior U.S. counterterrorism official said that in Abdulmutallab's initial interviews with the FBI and Customs and Border Protection agents, the suspect "was saying he was acting alone."

Abdulmutallab, who was burned in the Friday incident, was under protective guard at a Detroit-area hospital Saturday. Under questioning, he seemed cooperative, "but who knows if he's telling the truth. Maybe that's the instructions you get [from al-Qaida] for when you get caught," said the senior official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he, like others, was not authorized to discuss the expanding international investigation publicly.

Federal authorities had been alarmed enough, the official added, to send an alert Friday to about 128 other planes flying from Europe to the United States to prepare for similar attacks.

Another U.S. intelligence official said that while Abdulmutallab said he had acted alone, there was evidence tying him to al-Qaida's regional network of militants based in Osama bin Laden's ancestral home of Yemen.

"There is an association, but when you say [al-Qaida] leaders, it's hard to say with certainty," the intelligence official said. "Who organized and who launched him? I can't give you a definitive judgment."

That official said Abdulmutallab, an engineering student, had told his family in London last August that he wanted to go to Yemen to study; he reportedly had been in that country until earlier this month.

According to the intelligence official, Abdulmutallab said he was trained while in Yemen to make explosives that could escape detection - and that militants had given him the materials for Friday's attempted attack.

In October, al-Qaida's network in Yemen released the 11th edition of its official magazine. In it, top commander Abu Basir al-Wahishi advised supporters to use all available weapons at their disposal to kill Westerners who were "apostates," or unbelievers. Two suggested venues: "in airports in the western crusade countries that participated in the war against Muslims; or on their planes."

A Yemeni official said Saturday that the Obama administration had formally requested that government's help in the investigation. "We are cooperating completely on this issue," said the official, adding that Yemen lacked sophisticated databases needed to track the thousands of students who make religious pilgrimages to the country every year.

"The whereabouts and exact details of what he did in Yemen are still unknown, but the investigation will clear up these things in the coming days, " the official said.

Interviews with passengers and the crew of Flight 253 revealed that, prior to the incident, Abdulmutallab went to the bathroom for about 20 minutes and returned to his seat complaining of an upset stomach. He pulled a blanket over himself, and passengers heard popping noises similar to firecrackers, smelled an odor, and some observed his pants leg and the wall of the airplane on fire, an affidavit filed by FBI Special Agent Theodore James Peisig said.

Passengers and crew then subdued Abdulmutallab and used blankets and fire extinguishers to put out the flames. "Passengers reported that Abdulmutallab was calm and lucid throughout. One flight attendant asked him what he had had in his pocket, and he replied, 'Explosive device,' " the affidavit said.

President Barack Obama convened a secure call at 6:20 a.m. Saturday from Hawaii to get a briefing from John Brennan, his homeland security adviser, and top national security council adviser Denis McDonough. "He received an update on the heightened air travel safety measures being taken to keep the American people safe and on the investigation," the White House said in a statement. "The president will continue to actively monitor the situation."

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