Nigerian man charged with trying to blow up airliner

Sunday, December 27, 2009

A Northwest Airbus A330 with Delta Air Lines livery (Delta and Northwest have merged), similar to the one involved in the incident aboard Flight 253.
Image: Gietje.

U.S. authorities have charged Nigerian Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab with trying to blow up a plane on its descent into the city of Detroit, Michigan on Friday. The man, who comes from a prominent Nigerian family, was read the charges in a hospital Saturday, where he is being treated for burns.

The charges were read by United States District Judge Paul Borman while Abdulmutallab was being held at the University of Michigan Medical Center in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

Abdulmutallab was asked if he understood the charges against him, and he answered in English that he did. Witnesses reported he was in a wheelchair with a blanket over his lap.

The U.S. government accuses the Nigerian national of bringing an explosive device onto Friday's Northwest Airlines Flight 253 plane from Amsterdam in the Netherlands. A preliminary analysis by federal authorities indicates he used a syringe to detonate a highly explosive substance, identified as PETN. Abdulmutallab said he got the explosives in Yemen from an Al Qaeda bomb maker who sewed the device into his underwear.

Passengers have told investigators the man went into the bathroom for 20 minutes before landing and complained about stomach problems before pulling a blanket on himself.

Just as the plane was getting ready to land, they heard a pop, smelled smoke and then saw the man on fire. A Dutch passenger, Jasper Schuringa, jumped on the Nigerian to subdue him, and a fire extinguisher was used to put out the fire.

The House Committee on Homeland Security chairman, Bennie Thompson, said it was a very close call. "We're just fortunate nothing happened. This was a serious situation," he said. Thompson said Congress will look into the matter soon. "As soon as we reconvene from the holiday recess, we will start looking into the circumstances around the Northwest flight incident."

Nigeria's acting ambassador to the United States, Babagana Wakil, immediately issued a statement, which he read to the Voice of America over the phone. "Expectedly, the embassy is already in contact with relevant U.S. authorities over the incident to facilitate any preliminary investigations to get to the bottom of this unfortunate development. Officers from the embassy have already flown to Michigan to gain consular access to the individual under investigation, and to offer the mission's cooperation to federal and local authorities," he said.

The suspect's family members in Nigeria said they were shocked. The suspect's father, an accountant and businessman, was previously a very well known banker in Africa's most populous nation. Friends and family said Adbulmutallab had studied in Togo and London, and that he had recently made several trips to Yemen. His father had, apparently, made concerns with his son's extremist connections known to the U.S. Embassy in Nigeria.

Adbulmutallab told the FBI he met with a radical Yemeni cleric he corresponded with online. The cleric is not believed to be Anwar al-Awlaki, an American-born Imam connected to Major Nidal Malik Hasan who carried out the Fort Hood shooting last month.

Friday, the White House said it believed it was an attempted act of terrorism. U.S. media reports say the suspect told interrogators he had affiliations with Al Qaeda.

The charges that were read against him Saturday carry a penalty of up to 20 years in prison.

Meanwhile, security screening measures have upgraded in the wake of the foiled attack, including only allowing one carry-on bag for international passengers, banning anyone from moving around the airplane during the last hour of the flight and additional "unpredictable" measures that will vary from airport to airport.



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