A man who claimed to be an agent of Al-Qaeda was charged on Saturday with trying to blow up a Northwest Airlines flight on Christmas Day as it was preparing to land in Detroit, said officials.
The Justice Department said 23-year-old Abdulmutallab had a device containing a high explosive attached to his body on Flight 253 from Amsterdam. As the flight neared Detroit’s airport on Friday, Abdulmutallab set it off — but it sparked a fire instead of an explosion, said the government.
A preliminary analysis of the device shows that it contained PETN, also known as pentaerythritol, according the affidavit filed in federal court in Detroit.
Abdulmutallab allegedly told passengers that his stomach was upset, then pulled a blanket over himself, said the affidavit. Passengers then heard popping noises that sounded like fireworks and smelled smoke before at least one passenger climbed over seats and tackled Abdulmutallab.
“Had this alleged plot to destroy an airplane been successful, scores of innocent people would have been killed or injured,” said U.S. Attorney-General Eric Holder in a statement.
In Nigeria, a prominent banker said he feared that it was his son — a former university student in London who had left Britain to travel abroad — committed the unsuccessful attack.
Alhaji Umaru Mutallab told AP on Saturday he didn’t know exactly where his son was but planned to speak with Nigerian authorities.
“I believe he might have been to Yemen, but we are investigating to determine that.”
Abdulmutallab claimed to have been instructed by Al-Qaeda to detonate the plane over U.S. soil, said a U.S. law enforcement official. But others cautioned that such claims could not be verified immediately. Another official said the U.S. had known for at least two years that Abdulmutallab could have had terrorist ties and his name was on a list that includes people with known or suspected ties to a terrorist organization.
All the officials spoke on condition of anonymity because the investigation was continuing.
London’s Metropolitan Police also was working with U.S. officials, said a spokeswoman who spoke on condition of anonymity in line with department policy. A search was under way on Saturday at an apartment building where Abdulmutallab is said to have lived in a posh West London neighbourhood.
Intelligence and anti-terrorism officials in Yemen said they were investigating claims by the suspect that he picked up the explosive device and instructions on how to use it in that country. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they are not authorised to speak to the media.
Dutch tourist Jasper Schuringa, one of the 278 passengers onboard the Northwest Airlines flight, said on Saturday he heard a pop, saw smoke and climbed over seats to stop the suspect.
“I didn’t think. I just went over there to try to save the plane,” Mr. Schuringa, of Amsterdam, told CNN.
Officials in the Netherlands said an initial investigation showed that routine security procedures were followed at Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam with no irregularities. Abdulmutallab’s name was on the passenger manifesto that was forwarded and approved by U.S. authorities before takeoff.