The plane took off – and then they realised who was in seat 19A

New details reveal the moment US analysts finally managed to 'join the dots'

He removed his shoes, passed through the metal detectors and, with a ticket bought with cash in Ghana a few days before, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab boarded his flight on Christmas Eve from Lagos to Detroit via Amsterdam with no further ado. What happened shortly before his arrival in the US on Christmas Day we all know: flames and smoke but no full detonation. Disaster averted, if only barely.

His passage through security screening was one of several new details of his deadly odyssey that surfaced yesterday, courtesy of the authorities in Nigeria, who are anxious to shed any blame for the incident. "The security agencies did all that was required under the law to ensure that Nigeria complied with international standards," that country's Attorney General, Michael Aondoakaa, told reporters in Abuja.

But we also learned something else more shocking, further illuminating the extent of America's intelligence "screw-up", as President Barack Obama put it. It now appears that the analysts whose job it is to cross-reference the names of passengers arriving in the US from overseas with terror watch-lists realised there was something possibly not right with the passenger in seat 19A when he was in the air over the Atlantic. But there was not much to be done at that point – except to question him upon landing.

When the plane did land, of course – the worst of all outcomes having been prevented in part by the bravery of the crew and other passengers – officials had more to do than ask questions. They arrested him at once.

The task of mortified intelligence experts now is to trace more fully the suspect's steps in the days, weeks and months before he boarded the plane in Lagos, a journey into darkness that took him from London to his native Nigeria and from there to Yemen, Ethiopia and Ghana.

A version of those travels was offered yesterday by a Deputy Prime Minister of Yemen, Rashad al-Alimi. It accords in part with what officials have already gleaned, in part from information offered by the suspect himself. Most importantly, the plot itself does appear to have been hatched during meetings in Yemen between Abdulmutallab and operatives linked to al-Qa'ida.

Moreover, officials in Yemen concede that among the people the suspect may have met in Yemen is Anwar al-Awlaki, the radical American Muslim cleric who was already very much on the radar of the CIA and the FBI because of emails he exchanged with Major Nidal Malik Hasan, the US Army psychiatrist behind the Fort Hood massacre on 5 November. Here too is another area where US intelligence seemingly failed to "connect the dots", to use President Obama's phrase.

But the Yemeni government, which is also anxious to minimise the damage to its standing, stressed that the explosive device did not come from Yemen but instead from Nigeria. That may be a stretch, if indeed he was in Lagos airport for only 30 minutes, as officials there contend.

Officials in Yemen believe that Abdulmutallab arrived in the country in August 2009. They say that he was driven to the airport to leave the country on 21 September but that he then disappeared.

It is after that date that he is believed to have met "al-Qa'ida elements" to agree details of the Christmas plot. All the details appear to have been agreed by 4 December, when he allegedly departed Yemen, en route to Ghana, where he bought his plane tickets.

All in all, quick work to set up a suicide mission that almost triggered the worst terror attack in America since 9/11. Yet all those weeks – from 21 September until 24 December, it would seem – offered clue after clue that something very bad was afoot. But, as US officials point out, it's easier to see them in hindsight.

Suggested Topics
Life & Style
Sampling wine in Turin
food + drink...and abstaining may be worse than drinking too much, says scientist
Arts & Entertainment
Game of Thrones writer George R.R. Martin has been working on the novels since the mid-Nineties
books
Sport
Jose Mourinho, Chelsea players celebrate Demba Ba's goal and Gus Poyet
sportLive coverage of today's final game between Chelsea and Sunderland
News
Easter a dangerous time for dogs
these are the new ones. Old ones are below them... news
VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
News
Brand said he
people
Sport
Roger Federer celebrates his victory over Novak Djokovic in the Monte Carlo Masters
sport
Arts & Entertainment
Kingdom Tower
architecture
Voices
Actor Zac Efron
voicesTopless men? It's as bad as Page 3, says Howard Jacobson
Arts & Entertainment
The monster rears its head as it roars into the sky
film
Voices
For the Love of God (2007) The diamond-encrusted skull that divided the art world failed to sell for
its $100m asking price. It was eventually bought by a consortium
which included the artist himself.
voicesYou can shove it, Mr Webb – I'll be having fun until the day I die, says Janet Street-Porter
Sport
Mercedes driver Lewis Hamilton of Britain drives in the rain during the qualifying session of the Chinese Formula One Grand Prix in Shanghai
sport
Extras
indybestFake it with 10 best self-tanners
Arts & Entertainment
Madonna in her music video for 'Like A Virgin'
music... and other misheard song lyrics
News
Much of the colleges’ land is off-limits to locals in Cambridge, with tight security
educationAnd has the Cambridge I knew turned its back on me?
Sport
Steven Gerrard had to be talked into adopting a deeper role by his manager, Brendan Rodgers
sportThe city’s fight for justice after Hillsborough is embodied in Steven Gerrard, who's poised to lead his club to a remarkable triumph
News
peopleOrlando Bloom the pin-up hero is making a fresh start
News
Who makes you happy?
happy listSend your nominations now for the Independent on Sunday Happy List
Life & Style
The North Korean TV advert for Taedonggang beer, that became a YouTube hit
food + drinkAnd what did it take to set up a taste test back in Wiltshire?
Arts & Entertainment
filmLife for Leslie Mann's can be challenging sometimes
Voices
For music lovers: John Cusack with his vinyl collection in 'High Fidelity'
voices...but don't forget rest of the year
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Apprentice IT Technician

£150.00 per week: QA Apprenticeships: This company is a company that specializ...

1st Line Technical Service Desk Analyst IT Apprentice

£153.75 per week: QA Apprenticeships: This company is an innovative outsourcin...

1st Line Helpdesk Engineer Apprentice

£150.00 per week: QA Apprenticeships: This company has been providing on site ...

Sales Associate Apprentice

£150.00 per week: QA Apprenticeships: We've been supplying best of breed peopl...

Day In a Page

How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe: Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC

How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe

Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC
Video of British Muslims dancing to Pharrell Williams's hit Happy attacked as 'sinful'

British Muslims's Happy video attacked as 'sinful'

The four-minute clip by Honesty Policy has had more than 300,000 hits on YouTube
Church of England-raised Michael Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith

Michael Williams: Do as I do, not as I pray

Church of England-raised Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith
A History of the First World War in 100 moments: A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife

A History of the First World War in 100 moments

A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife
Comedian Jenny Collier: 'Sexism I experienced on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

Jenny Collier: 'Sexism on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

The comedian's appearance at a show on the eve of International Women's Day was cancelled because they had "too many women" on the bill
Cannes Film Festival: Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or

Cannes Film Festival

Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or
The concept album makes surprise top ten return with neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson

The concept album makes surprise top ten return

Neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson is unexpected success
Lichen is the surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus, thanks to our love of Scandinavian and Indian cuisines

Lichen is surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus

Emily Jupp discovers how it can give a unique, smoky flavour to our cooking
10 best baking books

10 best baking books

Planning a spot of baking this bank holiday weekend? From old favourites to new releases, here’s ten cookbooks for you
Jury still out on Manchester City boss Manuel Pellegrini

Jury still out on Pellegrini

Draw with Sunderland raises questions over Manchester City manager's ability to motivate and unify his players
Ben Stokes: 'Punching lockers isn't way forward'

Ben Stokes: 'Punching lockers isn't way forward'

The all-rounder has been hailed as future star after Ashes debut but incident in Caribbean added to doubts about discipline. Jon Culley meets a man looking to control his emotions
Mark Johnston: First £1 million jackpot spurs him on

Mark Johnston: First £1 million jackpot spurs him on

The most prize money ever at an All-Weather race day is up for grabs at Lingfield on Friday, and the record-breaking trainer tells Jon Freeman how times have changed
Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail. If you think it's awful, then just don't watch it'

Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail'

As the second series of his divisive sitcom 'Derek' hits screens, the comedian tells James Rampton why he'll never bow to the critics who habitually circle his work
Mad Men series 7, TV review: The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge

Mad Men returns for a final fling

The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge
Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground as there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit

Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground

Technology giant’s scientists say there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit