DETROIT/WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A Nigerian man who said he had links to al Qaeda was charged on Saturday with trying to blow up a U.S. passenger plane with high explosives as it prepared to land in Detroit, U.S. officials said.
The suspect, who was being treated for extensive burns at a Michigan hospital, was overpowered by passengers and crew on the Christmas Day flight from Amsterdam. The passengers, two of whom suffered minor injuries, disembarked safely from the Delta Air Lines plane.
“We believe this was an attempted act of terrorism,” a White House official told Reuters.
The Justice Department identified the suspect as Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, 23, from Nigeria, and said he had been charged with attempting to blow up the plane by setting alight an explosive device that was attached to his body.
The charges were read to Abdulmutallab during a hearing at the hospital, where he appeared in a wheelchair. Another hearing will be held on Monday in federal court in Detroit and bail will not be considered until January 8.
An initial FBI analysis found the device contained PETN, also known as pentaerythritol, one of the explosives carried by “shoe bomber” Richard Reid in his failed attempt to blow up a U.S. passenger jet months after the September 11, 2001 attacks.
“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,” said U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder.
Investigators were trying to confirm Abdulmutallab’s claims of links to al Qaeda, which carried out the September 11 attacks.
Citing U.S. officials, the Wall Street Journal said the Nigerian told investigators that al Qaeda operatives in Yemen had given him the device and told him how to detonate it.
The New York Times quoted a senior Obama administration official as saying Abdulmutallab came to the attention of U.S. authorities a few weeks ago after his Nigerian father told them his son was becoming a militant Muslim.
“The information was passed into the system, but the expression of radical extremist views were very nonspecific,” the official told the newspaper.
Passengers and crew aboard the plane said Abdulmutallab spent about 20 minutes in the bathroom as it approached Detroit and then covered himself with a blanket after returning to his seat, the Justice Department said.
They heard popping noises and smelled a foul odor and some saw Abdulmutallab’s trouser leg and the wall of the plane on fire, it said. When asked by a flight attendant what he had in his pocket, the suspect replied “explosive device,” it added.
ABC said the device consisted of a six-inch packet of powder and a syringe containing a liquid, which were sewn into the suspect’s underwear so they would be near his testicles and unlikely to be detected.
The FBI found remnants of a syringe near his seat.
In Nigeria, Abdul Mutallab, son of a prominent former banker Umaru Mutallab, told Reuters the suspect was his brother. He said their father was planning to meet with police in Nigeria.
President Barack Obama, on vacation in Hawaii with his family, held a secure conference call with security officials and was monitoring the situation, the White House said. He has ordered air travel security to be tightened.
Jennifer Allen, 41, said passengers boarding the same flight in Amsterdam on Saturday were frisked and she was asked to remove tissue from a pocket. “It was a thorough pat-down. It wasn’t a quick rub,” she said.
While the weak economy has dominated Obama’s policy agenda in his first year in office, the latest incident is certain renew attention on threats of attacks in the United States.
Republicans have accused Obama of fueling those threats by pushing to close down the prison camp at the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay, where a number of foreign terrorism suspects are detained, and move them to the United States for trial.
Congressional Republicans have so far aimed most of their fire at Obama’s bid to revamp the U.S. healthcare system, but they are likely to make the Detroit case a big topic on the television talks shows on Sunday.
“The reported act of terrorism — whether directly related to al Qaeda or not — and the response to it will be the focus of an oversight hearing next month,” Representative Bennie Thompson, chairman of the House of Representatives Committee on Homeland Security, said in a statement.
Investigators in Nigeria, the Netherlands and the United States were trying to piece together how the accused Nigerian was able to bring dangerous materials aboard the plane, and British police were searching premises in central London.
The suspect was believed to have studied in Britain.
University College London said it had a record of a student by the name of “Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab” who was enrolled between September 2005 and June 2008.
Dutch counter-terrorism agency NCTb said Abdulmutallab boarded a KLM flight from Lagos to Amsterdam, and went through a security checkpoint while in transit at Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport.
European airports tightened security checks on U.S.-bound flights in response to the failed attack.
Northwest Airlines flight 253, a Delta-owned Airbus 330, was carrying about 278 passengers when it left Amsterdam bound for Detroit. Delta Air Lines has taken over Northwest.
The U.S. Department of Homeland Security said it was boosting security at airports for domestic and international flights after the incident and advised passengers they may experience more scrutiny.
One DHS official said there was a range of security measures available that can be implemented, from bomb-sniffing dogs to behavior detection as well as other techniques.
“The mix is meant to be unpredictable so passengers aren’t seeing the same thing at airports,” the official said.
The Nigerian government ordered security agencies to investigate the incident and said they would cooperate fully with the American authorities.
Additional reporting by Nick Tattersall in Lagos; Bernie Woodall in Detroit; Ben Berkowitz in Amsterdam, Rosalba O'Brien and William Maclean in London. Writing by Emily Kaiser and Paul Simao; editing by Chris Wilson