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U.S. knew of man in attack on airliner

DETROIT — A 23-year-old Nigerian man who claimed ties to al-Qaida was charged Saturday with trying to destroy a Detroit-bound airliner, just a month after his father warned U.S. officials of concerns about his son's religious beliefs.

The suspect claimed he obtained explosive chemicals and a syringe that were sewn into his underwear from a bomb expert in Yemen associated with al-Qaida, a law enforcement official told the New York Times. The official spoke on the condition of anonymity because the investigation is ongoing.

Rep. Jane Harman, D-Calif., chairwoman of a House Homeland Security subcommittee, said there were "strong suggestions of a Yemen-al-Qaida connection and an intent to blow up the plane over U.S. airspace."

The Justice Department charged that Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab willfully attempted to destroy or wreck an aircraft.

According to the affidavit filed in U.S. District Court in Detroit, a preliminary analysis of the device showed it contained PETN, a high explosive also known as pentaerythritol, the same material convicted shoe bomber Richard Reid used when he tried to destroy a trans-Atlantic flight in 2001 with explosives hidden in his shoes.

Officials said it was possible that had the chemical mixture detonated, it might have brought down the aircraft.

FBI agents recovered what appeared to be the remnants of a liquid-filled syringe, believed to have been part of the explosive device, from the vicinity of Abdulmutallab's seat.

Abdulmutallab's name was not unknown to U.S. authorities. An official briefed on the attack told the New York Times that the United States has known for at least two years that Abdulmutallab could have terrorist ties. His name was inserted last month into the U.S. intelligence community's central repository of information on known or suspected international terrorists after his father, a prominent Nigerian banker, told officials at the U.S. Embassy in Nigeria that he was concerned about his son's increasingly extremist religious views.

About 550,000 individuals are registered in the database, called the Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment, or TIDE. A subset of that is the Terrorist Screening Data Base, or TSDB, which has about 400,000 individuals.

By contrast, fewer than 4,000 names from the TSDB are on the "no fly" list, and an additional 14,000 on a "selectee" list that calls for mandatory secondary screening, an Obama administration official told the New York Times. At the time Abdulmutallab's name was recorded in the TIDE database in November, the official said, "there was insufficient derogatory information available" to warrant putting him in the TSDB, no-fly or selectee lists, and so he was not on any watch list when he boarded the plane bound for Detroit.

Abdulmutallab was issued a regular visitor's visa by the U.S. Embassy in London in June 2008, according to the administration official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the investigation is ongoing. Abdulmutallab was granted a two-year visa, which is still valid, the official said. He had traveled to the United States once before, to Houston in August 2008.

U.S. District Judge Paul Borman read Abdulmutallab the charges in a conference room at the University of Michigan Medical Center in Ann Arbor, Mich., where he is being treated for burns.

The suspect smiled when he was wheeled into the hospital conference room. He had a bandage on his left thumb and right wrist, and part of the skin on the thumb was burned off.

The judge sat at the far end of a 10-foot table, the suspect at the other end.

Borman asked the defendant if he was pronouncing his name correctly. Abdulmutallab responded, in English. "Yes, that's fine." The judge asked him if he understood the charges against him. He responded in English: "Yes, I do."

The judge said the suspect would be assigned a public defender and set a detention hearing for Jan. 8.

In Nigeria, Alhaji Umaru Mutallab, the suspect's father, told the Associated Press, "I believe he might have been to Yemen, but we are investigating to determine that."

The father was chairman of First Bank of Nigeria from 1999 through this month. The banker said his son is a former university student in London but had left Britain to travel abroad.

Abdulmutallab attended one of West Africa's best schools, the British School of Lome in Togo. After high school, he went to Britain to study mechanical engineering.

It was while still in high school that he began preaching to fellow students about Islam, according to a report in ThisDay, a Nigerian newspaper.

A search was conducted Saturday at an apartment building in a posh West London neighborhood where the suspect is said to have lived.

President Barack Obama ordered a review of the law enforcement and intelligence databases related to the no-fly list to make sure the procedures still make sense, an administration official told the Associated Press, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject.

Information from the Associated Press and the New York Times was used in this report.

U.S. knew of man in attack on airliner 12/26/09 [Last modified: Saturday, December 26, 2009 11:23pm]
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