Authorities probe possible Al Qaeda ties to foiled plane attack

U.S. counter-terrorism officials on Saturday were looking at possible connections between Al Qaeda-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 that Abdulmutallab had a device containing the explosive PETN, or pentaerythritol tetranitrate, attached to his body. The court documents also said that FBI agents had recovered what appeared to be the remnants of a syringe, believed to be part of the device, from the vicinity of the suspect’s seat.

“Had this alleged plot to destroy an airplane been successful, scores of innocent people would have been killed or injured,” Atty. Gen. 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. counter-terrorism 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, and not part of some larger connected plot.”

Abdulmutallab, who was burned in Friday’s 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 Qaeda] for when you get caught,” said the senior official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he, like others, was not authorized to publicly discuss the expanding investigation.

Federal authorities had been alarmed enough Friday, the official added, to alert about 128 other planes flying from Europe to the United States to prepare for similar attacks. All of those flights landed without incident.

Another U.S. intelligence official said that although Abdulmutallab said he had acted alone, there was evidence tying him to Al Qaeda’s regional network of militants based in Osama bin Laden’s ancestral home of Yemen.

“There is an association, but when you say [Al Qaeda] 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.”

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

According to the intelligence official, Abdulmutallab said that he was trained 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 Qaeda’s network in Yemen released the 11th edition of its official magazine. In it, top commander Abu Basir Wahishi advised supporters to use all available weapons 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 his government’s help in the investigation. “We are cooperating completely on this issue,” said the official, adding that Yemen lacked sophisticated databases 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.

According to the Justice Department, a judge informed Abdulmutallab of the charges against him during a hearing at the hospital.

Interviews with passengers and the crew of Flight 253 revealed that, before 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 members 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 Obama convened a secure call at 6:20 a.m. Saturday from Hawaii, where he spent Christmas with his family, to get a briefing from John Brennan, his homeland security advisor, and top National Security Council advisor 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.”

Authorities have been reviewing their databases to see whether Abdulmutallab had come to their attention in recent years. The suspect did not appear to be on any “no-fly” list or even a watch list, the intelligence official said. But he confirmed that Abdulmutallab’s name had been entered into a U.S. counter-terrorism database several months ago, after the young man’s father in Nigeria reported him to officials at the U.S. Embassy in the capital of Abuja and also to Nigerian security agencies.

Nigeria’s online newspaper ThisDay reported that the suspect was the son of Alhaji Umaru Mutallab, a former minister and former chairman of the prominent Nigerian financial institution First Bank. The website said that Mutallab reported his son because he was concerned about Abdulmutallab’s “extreme religious views.”

The father “was said to be devastated on hearing the news. . . . A source close to him said he was surprised that after his reports to the U.S. authorities the young man was allowed to travel to the United States,” the Nigerian news report said.

The intelligence official, however, said that the father’s report was nothing more than the expressions of a concerned parent. It was not enough to raise the kind of alarm that would have stopped Abdulmutallab from traveling to the U.S. “In and of itself, it has no meaning, as an isolated piece of information,” the official said.

He said that an apparent trip by Abdulmutallab to Houston in the summer of 2008 also did not raise suspicions. “He said he came here for business,” the official said. “That’s all we know.”

On Saturday, Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) said he was troubled that Abdulmutallab had escaped the attention of the State Department and law enforcement. The chairman of the Senate’s Homeland Security Committee, Lieberman said he wanted to know how Abdulmutallab “managed to retain a U.S. visa after such complaints, and why he was not recognized as someone who was reportedly named in the terrorist database.”

FBI forensic experts Saturday began analyzing the powder and liquid to see how potent it was and whether it might have come from Yemeni militants as Abdulmutallab claimed, the U.S. intelligence official said.

The impoverished Arab nation has emerged as a stronghold for Al Qaeda-linked militants whose threat to U.S. interests worldwide, officials said, is second only to the terrorist organization’s command-and-control center along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border.

ABC News quoted federal authorities as saying that the plot was organized and launched by Al Qaeda leaders in Yemen, who apparently sewed bomb materials into the suspect’s underwear before sending him on his mission.

The so-called shoe-bomber, Richard Reid, had carried the same explosive substance in his failed December 2001 attempt to blow up a jet heading from London to the United States. Friday’s explosive failed because the detonator may have been too small or was not in “proper contact” with the explosive material, investigators told ABC News.

Authorities in Britain searched an apartment Saturday in a posh residential area near where Abdulmutallab was thought to be a student at University College London, but had little comment. A Scotland Yard spokesman confirmed that authorities were “searching addresses in London” but gave no further details.

Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said Saturday that she was grateful to the passengers and crew aboard Northwest Flight 253 for reacting “quickly and heroically to an incident that could have had tragic results.”

Napolitano also said in a statement that the Homeland Security Department was working with federal, state and local law enforcement on additional security measures, “as well as our international partners on enhanced security at airports and on flights.”

“The American people should continue their planned holiday travel and, as always, be observant and aware of their surroundings and report any suspicious behavior or activity to law enforcement officials,” Napolitano said.

Times staff writers Janet Stobart in London and Alana Semuels in Hawaii contributed to this report.