Security agencies in Britain are investigating reports that Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the young Nigerian accused of attempting to blow up a transatlantic airliner, contacted radical Muslims while studying at university in London, The Independent understands.
Mohammed Mutallab, a cousin of the arrested man, has claimed that the 23-year-old came under the influence of extremist groups while in this country, and associates claim he visited the East London Mosque, which has attracted criticism for hosting Muslim hardline preachers, three times.
MI5 and Special Branch are looking through intelligence records to see whether Abdulmutallab surfaced at the “fringes” of any terrorist plots in Britain.
Abdulmutallab was denied a British visa in May this year by the UK Border Agency – he claimed he planned to attend a six-month course, but the educational establishment turned out to be bogus.
Security agencies are trying to establish what may have been his real motive for trying to enter the UK. The supposed six-month course was to begin in September 2009, which would have placed him in this country in time for the projected Christmas attack. He will be asked whether the original plan was to board a flight from Britain.
On 24 December, Abdulmutallab travelled from Nigeria to Amsterdam and then on to Detroit with an explosive device attached to his body. Shortly before the flight was due to land in the US on Christmas Day, he allegedly attempted to detonate the device beneath a blanket but was overpowered. He has been charged with attempting to bring down an airliner.
After receiving treatment for burns he was last night released from hospital and into the custody of federal marshalls. President Barack Obama ordered a full review of civil aviation security precautions as investigators sought to answer an array of troubling questions about the botched bombing on Christmas Day of a Northwest Airlines jetliner as it approached Detroit airport with almost 300 people on board.
US and British security agencies will look at how Abdulmutallab was placed on the lowest-risk terrorist watchlist by US authorities in November 2009 – and not the no-fly list – despite his father having alerted authorities about the behaviour of his son.
He is known to have recently spent time in the Yemen, where his mother’s family comes from, travelling via Dubai, before going back to Lagos via other staging posts for the Detroit flight.
The son of the wealthy Nigerian banker had in 2008 completed a three-year degree in engineering with business finance at University College London (UCL). He successfully applied for a multiple entry visa from the US Embassy in London last year.
Scotland Yard’s anti-terrorist branch yesterday carried out searches at UCL offices and at two flats owned by Abdulmutallab’s family in London’s West End, worth around £3 million, where he stayed while an undergraduate.
Abdulmutallab’s radical views are believed to developed while he was still a schoolboy in Togo in west Africa before he came to the UK. Security officials say “there is no reason to believe that he changed his views” during his stay in the UK, and there is as yet no evidence that he was involved in plotting acts of violence while in London.
Earlier this year, the East London Mosque was the venue for a pre-recorded talk by Anwar al-Awlaki, a radical cleric based in the Yemen, who the US Department for Homeland Security says acted as spiritual mentor to three of the 9/11 hijackers.
However, Abdulmutallab was not in the UK at the time, and the mosque authorities stressed that they dissociated it from al-Awlaki’s views at the event, which was organised by an outside organisation.
Abdulmutallab’s ticket to Detroit from Lagos, via Amsterdam, was bought at the offices of the Dutch airline KLM in Accra, the Ghanian capital, on 16 December with an 8 January return date. After leaving the UK the student is believed to have visited Dubai, Egypt, Ethiopia, Ghana and Yemen. He is said to have told the FBI after his arrest that he had attempted to blow up the Detroit bound aircraft at the instructions of a high-level al-Qa’ida operative in the Yemen.
Most urgently, US investigators were probing information offered by the suspect himself in debriefings by the FBI that his mission was set up for him by terror contacts in Yemen who may themselves be associated with al-Qa’ida. They are also seeking to see if US intelligence missed a warning of the attack in a video posted online by an al-Qa’ida operative in Yemen just four days before Christmas.
Six months ago Abdulmutallab’s father, Umaru Mutallab, warned officials at the American embassy in Lagos that he was deeply concerned that his son had been “radicalised” while abroad. The US State Department insisted that the information had been passed on to the relevant intelligence and counter-terrorism bureaus. However, it was not passed on to the authorities in Britain.
Nigerian police reportedly searched the family home in Katsina, northern Nigeria, yesterday.
Serious shortcomings in the system to protect passengers are coming to light. The suspect took his flight unimpeded from Lagos to Detroit connecting through Amsterdam even though the US, and he managed to smuggle his device through screening at two airports.
The scare occurred as the plane was descending into Detroit on Friday afternoon. Other passengers reacted swiftly on board the Airbus when flames were seen shooting from the suspect’s seat. The criminal complaint against him said that he had attempted detonate an explosive substance known as PETN. Had it gone off in the way apparently intended, it could have downed the aircraft.
“The President has asked the Department of Homeland Security to answer the, quite frankly, the very real question about how somebody with something as dangerous as PETN could have gotten onto a plane in Amsterdam,” Robert Gibbs, the White House spokesman told ABC News.
The president, who is on holiday in Hawaii, is also seeking a review of the current watchlist system that is meant to raise a red flag when anyone on them attempts to travel. It seems that Mr Abdulmutallab had been added in November this year to a third-tier list that generally has about 550,000 names on it. Two other, shorter lists exist for people considered to be more dangerous, however.
Abdulmutallab’s name was put into the US’s Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment, or TIDE. About 550,000 individuals are registered in the database. A subset of that is the Terrorist Screening Data Base, or TSDB., which carries about 400,000 names.
Fewer than 4,000 names from the TSDB are on the “no-fly” list, while an additional 14,000 are on a “selectee” list that calls for mandatory secondary screening, an Obama administration official said. Abdulmutallab’s name was recorded in the TIDE database in November, but “there was insufficient derogatory information available” to warrant putting him in the TSDB no-fly or selectee lists, an official said.
Janet Napolitano, the Homeland Security Secretary, said that not enough information had been gleaned about the suspect, who had secured a multiple-entry tourist visa from the US Consulate in London in 2008, to warrant his being put on a more serious “no-fly” list. The authorities require “information that’s specific and credible if you’re actually going to bar someone” from air travel, she told CNN.
Mrs Napolitano conceded, however, that in the light of the Christmas Day scare the watchlist system was already being re-appraised while passengers in the US and Europe were already noticing a tightening of security. She downplayed any notion the incident could be part of a wider plot. “Right now we have no indication that it is part of anything larger. But obviously the investigation continues,” she said. “And we have instituted more screening and what we call mitigation measures at airports.”
Neither she nor the White House would comment directly on the suspect’s claims regarding support from Yemen. But Congresswoman Jane Harman, the chair of a House Homeland Security subcommittee, said there were “strong suggestions of a Yemen-al-Qaida connection”.
The failed attack will inevitably heighten concern in Washington that Yemen is emerging as a new haven for anti-US terror conspirators. The US gave the government some $70 million in military aid this year and its agencies are known to have been directly involved in executing two deadly airstrikes last week on suspected al-Qa’ida targets inside the country.
The video now under scrutiny was posted on 21 December and was seemingly intended first to eulogise those al-Qa’ida operatives who killed in those strikes. But the speaker on the video also threatened the US saying “we are carrying a bomb to hit the enemies of God”.
PETN: The explosive
PETN, or pentaerythritol tetranitrate, is a highly explosive, colourless crystalline organic compound from the same chemical family as nitroglycerin. It was used by the "shoe bomber" Richard Reid, who tried to blow up a transatlantic flight eight years ago. The German government patented PETN and began production in 1912. German forces used it in the First World War. Easily detonated, and valued for its shattering force and efficiency, PETN is the least stable of the common military explosives, but it retains its properties in storage for longer than nitroglycerin or cellulose nitrate. Terri Judd