The man accused of trying to blow up an airliner over Detroit has claimed he was just one of a string of recruits trained in Yemen and poised to attack, as the regional wing of al-Qa'ida said last night that it was behind the failed Christmas Day bombing.
In an online statement, al-Qa'ida in the Arabian Peninsula – believed to be an alliance of militants based in Saudi Arabia and Yemen – said it had armed Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab with an explosive device in retaliation for a crackdown on the group.
Yemeni forces, helped by US intelligence, carried out two airstrikes against al-Qa'ida operatives in the country this month – the second just a day before the attempted bombing of Northwest Airlines Flight 253.
Making his first public statement, three days after the Christmas Day scare, US President Barack Obama vowed to "dismantle and defeat the violent extremists who threaten us, whether they are from Afghanistan or Pakistan, Yemen or Somalia, or anywhere where they are plotting attacks against the US homeland. We will not rest until we find all who were involved and hold them accountable," he told reporters in Hawaii where he has been holidaying with his wife, Michelle, and daughters, Malia and Sasha.
Yesterday reports surfaced that the would-be bomber Abdulmutallab might have had an accomplice at Amsterdam's Schiphol Airport, where he was in transit from Lagos to Detroit.
Fellow passengers Kurt and Lori Haskell told reporters that they saw the suspect board the Northwest Airlines flight in Amsterdam on Friday morning with the help of a tall, well-dressed man aged about 50.
The US couple also suggested that the Nigerian had been allowed to board without a passport. The mystery man told airline agents that Abdulmutallab had "lost" the document, they said. "The guy said: 'He's from Sudan and we do this all the time'," Mr Haskell recalled. Dutch authorities said they would be trawling through airport CCTV footage to verify the reports. "At this moment we have no information on whether there was another guy," a military police spokesman said.
In London, the Home Secretary, Alan Johnson, said he suspected that Abdulmutallab had not been working alone. "We don't know yet whether it was a single-handed plot or [whether there were] other people behind it – I suspect it's the latter rather than the former," he told the BBC. Mr Johnson confirmed that Abdulmutallab, who graduated from University College London in 2008, was refused a student visa last May because the new course he wanted to attend was bogus. It was also revealed last night that Abdulmutallab was president of the UCL Islamic society between 2006 and 2007.
With Abdulmutallab's family in Nigeria also saying they had reported his disappearance to security agencies months ago, after becoming concerned about his increasing militancy, questions were being asked as to why he still had a valid US visa. Mr Obama said he had ordered an urgent review.
American fears of a sustained terror campaign have been stoked by reports that Abdulmutallab told investigators there were more "just like me" who would soon strike.
ABC News cited FBI sources as saying that the Nigerian had spent a month in Yemen, where his training had included lessons in how to detonate the device, and how to evade airport security screening procedures by sewing the explosive PETN into the fabric of his underpants.
"He managed to penetrate all devices and modern advanced technology and security checkpoints in international airports bravely without fear of death," the al-Qa'ida statement said. He had been "relying on God and defying the large myth of American and international intelligence, and exposing how fragile they are." As well as claiming credit for the Detroit plot, the statement urged the killing of Western embassy workers in the region as part of an "all-out war on Crusaders".
Friday's attempted bombing, which would have killed all 289 people on board the plane, only failed because the 80 grams of PETN failed to detonate properly, allowing Abdulmutallab to be overpowered by passengers and crew. The militant group blamed the hitch on a technical fault.
The Obama administration admitted for the first time yesterday that the country's system for preventing terrorist attacks had failed miserably. "No one is happy or satisfied," said the Homeland Security Secretary, Janet Napolitano. She said an extensive review was under way. Mr Obama said security measures had been stepped up at airports and that air marshals had been added to planes entering and leaving the US.
The thwarted Christmas terror attack has thrown the global spotlight on to Yemen, a highly fragmented and unstable nation on the Arabian peninsula. Washington has been pressing Yemen to take tougher action against local al-Qa'ida militants for more than a year, and this month has seen two major hits. On 17 December, 30 militants were reported killed in a government airstrike which opposition groups claim killed 50 civilians, including women and children.
Then on Christmas Eve – the day before Abdulmutallab struck – Yemen's military targeted a gathering of top militant leaders. A possible fatality there was reported to be US-born radical cleric Anwar Al-Awlaki, who has been linked to the US Army officer who shot dead 13 people at Fort Hood, Texas, last month. Major Nidal Malik Hasan had reportedly corresponded via email with Al-Awlaki.
That attack on the militant leaders in Yemen was what prompted the Detroit strike, according to the al-Qa'ida statement. Abdulmutallab was yesterday at a US federal prison in Milan, Michigan, awaiting trial. A court hearing scheduled for yesterday morning was postponed until 8 January at the prosecution's request. Although that prevented the public from getting further clues as to how Abdulmutallab – son of one of Nigeria's wealthiest men – became the latest face of international terrorism, further details about his alleged radicalisation emerged in emails that he apparently sent over the past six years.
The messages, also obtained by ABC News (but not, so far, quoted directly by the news organisation), apparently saw him wrestle with the question of whether his religion permitted him to attend a high-school prom, and worry about a string of low college test scores. He also expressed strong opposition to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Timeline to a terror strike: Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab
*Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab leaves The British School, an expensive preparatory school in Lomé, the capital of Togo, with high marks in his international baccalaureate.
*He has a reputation for Islamic scholarship and is seen as so religious by fellow pupils that they call him The Pope. Towards the end of his studies, aged 17, he becomes the leader of the Islamic Religious Society at the school.
September 2005 to June 2008
*Completes a three-year engineering and business finance degree at University College London.
*Lives in a £3m central London apartment owned by his family.
*Does the "bare minimum" of work at university, according to fellow students. He is seen to spend a lot of time praying and avoids socialising.
*Visits East London Mosque – known to host hardline preachers – at least three times.
*Granted a multiple-entry visa by the US embassy in London allowing him to enter America.
January to July 2009
*Attends Wollongong University, a branch of an Australian public university in Dubai, for about seven months.
*The Nigerian is denied a British visa by the UK Border Agency. In his application he claims he plans to attend a six-month course, starting in September, but authorities suspect it is a bogus establishment. He is placed on a UK immigration watch list.
*Travels to Yemen, where his mother's family comes from, in search of an extremist education. He has told investigators that al-Qa'ida operatives there supplied him with the explosive device and trained him on how to detonate it.
*He travels to Ghana on 16 December and buys a $2,831 return ticket from Lagos to Detroit via Amsterdam from a KLM office in Accra.
*On Christmas Eve he arrives in Lagos where he spends one day before boarding a plane to Amsterdam carrying a small shoulder bag, an American visa and an explosive device concealed on his body.
......... Miranda Bryant