WASHINGTON — The Justice Department on Saturday afternoon charged a 23-year-old Nigerian man with attempting to destroy a Northwest Airlines plane on its final approach to Detroit Metropolitan Airport on Christmas Day.
According to the criminal complaint and an FBI affidavit, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab carried a destructive device aboard Flight 253 in what authorities say was an attempted terrorist attack that could have killed all 279 people aboard.
In the court documents, the Justice Department alleged Abdulmutallab had a device attached to his body that contained the explosive PETN. FBI agents also recovered what appeared to be the remnants of a syringe from the vicinity of his seat that they believe was part of the device.
A senior U.S. counter-terrorism official said in his initial interviews with the FBI and Customs and Border Protection agents, Abdulmutallab "was saying he was acting alone, and not part of some larger connected plot." Abdulmutallab was burned in the attempt and is under protective guard at a Detroit-area hospital.
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In his initial interviews, 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 publicly what quickly had expanded into an international counter-terrorism investigation.
He added that federal authorities were alarmed enough to send an alert to about 128 other planes flying from Europe to the United States on Christmas Day to take steps to prepare for similar attacks — but that all of them landed safely and without incident.
Interviews of the passengers and 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, the affidavit 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 Justice Department said.
President Obama convened a secure call at 6:20 a.m. from Hawaii on Saturday 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 own 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, but there were indications his name was on the radar screens of some U.S. agencies long before Friday's incident, according to lawmakers and others briefed on the preliminary investigation.
U.S. counter-terrorism authorities also were investigating claims made by family members that Abdulmutallab's father in Nigeria was so concerned about his son's "extreme religious views" that he reported him six months ago to officials at the U.S. Embassy in the capital of Abuja and also to Nigerian security agencies, the U.S. official said.
Nigeria's This Day online newspaper reported the suspect was the son of Alhaji Umaru Mutallab, a former minister and former chairman of the prominent financial institution First Bank. The Web site said the father was planning to meet with Nigerian security agencies.
"The older Mutallab 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.
Tighter security rules
On Saturday, some airlines were telling passengers that new government security regulations prohibit them from leaving their seats beginning an hour before landing.
Air Canada said in a statement that new rules imposed by the Transportation Security Administration limit on-board activities by passengers and crew in U.S. airspace. The airline said that during the final hour of flight passengers must remain seated. They won't be allowed access to carryon baggage or to have any items on their laps.
Flight attendants on some domestic flights informed passengers of similar rules. Passengers on a flight from New York to Tampa on Saturday morning were also told they must remain in their seats and couldn't have items in their laps, including laptops and pillows.
Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said in a statement Saturday that passengers flying to the U.S. from overseas may notice extra security, but she said the measures "are designed to be unpredictable, so passengers should not expect to see the same thing everywhere."