WASHINGTON — U.S. counter-terrorism officials on Saturday were looking at possible connections 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 that was believed to be part of the device from the vicinity of the suspect's seat.
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 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. All those flights landed without incident.
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."
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, 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 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.
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 or even a "watch list," the intelligence official said. But he confirmed that Abdulmutallab's name did come up on the U.S. radar screen several months ago, after the youth'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 This Day online newspaper reported that 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 that the father reported his son because he had become extremely 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 the father's report was nothing more than the expressions of a concerned parent. It was not enough to raise the kind of alarm bells that would have stopped Abdulmutallab from traveling to the United States. "In and of itself, it has no meaning, as an isolated piece of information," the official said.