Terror on Flight 253

Wealthy, quiet, unassuming: the Christmas Day bomb suspect

The inside story of the privileged student who embraced al-Qa'ida and tried to blow a transatlantic jet out of the sky - and the lessons for us all

With his wealth, privilege and education at one of Britain's leading universities, Abdul Farouk Abdulmutallab had the world at his feet – able to choose from a range of futures in which to make his mark on the world.

Instead, the son of one of Nigeria's most important figures opted to make his impact in a very different way – by detonating 80g of explosives sewn into his underpants, and trying to destroy a passenger jet as it came in to land at Detroit Airport on Christmas Day.

As he was charged by US authorities last night with attempting to blow up an airliner, a surprising picture emerged of the would-be bomber.

Abdulmutallab, 23, had lived a gilded life, and, for the three years he studied in London, he stayed in a £2m flat. He was from a very different background to many of the other al-Qa'ida recruits who opt for martyrdom.

The charges were read out to him by US District Judge Paul Borman in a conference room at the medical centre where he is receiving treatment for burns. Agents brought Abdulmutallab, who had a blanket over his lap and was wearing a green hospital robe, into the room in a wheelchair.

Abdulmutallab's father, Umaru, is the former economics minister of Nigeria. He retired earlier this month as the chairman of the First Bank of Nigeria but is still on the boards of several of Nigeria's biggest firms, including Jaiz International, a holding company for the Islamic Bank. The 70-year-old, who was also educated in London, holds the Commander of the Order of the Niger as well as the Italian Order of Merit.

Dr Mutallab said he was planning to meet with police in Nigeria last night after realising his son had joined the notorious roster of al-Qa'ida terrorists, and is said to have warned the US authorities about his son's extreme views six months ago.

Police in London were collaborating with the American-led investigation into the would-be bomber. Scotland Yard detectives were searching his flat and two others in the same mansion block in Marylebone, central London. They later cordoned off the street lined with Rolls-Royce, Jaguar and Mercedes cars. Police were also understood to be searching the basement of the building.

Abdulmutallab was reportedly on a security watch list, but those who studied with him expressed shock that the person who seemed so quiet and unassuming – a devout Muslim but not radical – apparently came close to perpetrating a Christmas Day massacre.

Fabrizio Cavallo Marincola, 22, who studied mechanical engineering beside Abdulmutallab – nicknamed Biggie – at University College London, said that he graduated in May 2008 and showed no signs of radicalisation or of links to al-Qa'ida. "We worked on projects together," he said. "He always did the bare minimum of work and would just show up to classes. When we were studying, he always would go off to pray.

"He was pretty quiet and didn't socialise much or have a girlfriend that I knew of. I didn't get to talk to him much on a personal level. I was really shocked when I saw the reports. You would never imagine him pulling off something like this."

After graduating, Abdulmutallab tried to return to Britain but his visa request was refused. He applied to return for a six-month course, but was barred by the UK Border Agency which judged that the college he applied to was "not genuine".

Reports from Nigeria suggested that Abdulmutallab's family had seen a very different person to the one studying at UCL. He apparently cut all contact with his family after university, but is thought to have visited Egypt and then Dubai.

"I believe he might have been to Yemen, but we are investigating to determine that," his father said.

More details have also emerged of what happened on flight 253 prior to landing at Detroit. Abdulmutallab went to the bathroom for about 20 minutes. When he returned, he said his stomach was upset and pulled a blanket over himself. The 278 passengers on the eight-hour Delta Airways flight from Amsterdam were first alerted that something was wrong when they heard what was described as "a firecracker in a pillowcase".

One passenger, Jasper Schuringa, who was the first on the plane to tackle and subdue the suspect, told CNN: "I basically reacted directly. when you hear a pop on the plane, you are awake. I just jumped. I didn't think, I just went over there and tried to save the plane – and we did."

Mr Schuringa, who had burns to one of his hands, added: "A fire started under his seat. I was calling for water, water. But then the fire was getting a little worse. So I grabbed the suspect out of the seat, because, if there was any more explosives on him, that would have been very dangerous. And then the flight attendants came. We took him to first class and stripped him to make sure he had no more weapons on him. "It was very quick. Everyone was panicking," he said of the scene on the descending aircraft.

Mr Schuringa, who was due to connect in Detroit to a Miami flight for a Christmas holiday, said of the suspect: "He was shaking. He didn't resist anything. It's just hard to believe that he was trying to blow up this plane. He was in a trance. He was very afraid."

Mr Schuringa also said that when he first grabbed the suspect he saw a burning liquid dripping on to the floor.

The high explosive Abdulmutallab used was identified by the FBI as Pentaerythritol, better known as PETN – a major component of Semtex. He injected a detonating liquid into the PETN with a syringe, but the bomb failed to explode.

The revelation of Abdulmutallab's background has confounded terror experts. Dr Magnus Ranstorp of the Center for Asymmetric Threat Studies at the Swedish National Defence College said that the attempted bombing "didn't square".

"On the one hand, it seems he's been on the terror watch list but not on the no-fly list," he said. "That doesn't square because the American Department for Homeland Security has pretty stringent data-mining capability. I don't understand how he had a valid visa if he was known on the terror watch list.

"Why didn't he go to the toilets to detonate the bomb? Why would he try to set it off 20 minutes before he's going to land? It could probably have been successful had the person not been amateurish. I think this is a sign that it's much more difficult now for al-Qa'ida to pull off something serious."

Chaim Koppel, a security consultant, added: "I think the explosive was supposed to go bang rather than just start a fire. The terrorists probably didn't mix it well enough. Maybe they didn't do enough practice runs, but the more the guy is trained, the more exposed he is to MI5, MI6, the FBI and other security agencies, so he probably didn't receive enough training."

Nigerian newspapers reported that Abdulmutallab's father, who lives in Katsina, Nigeria, had informed the US embassy of his son's activities because he had become so concerned about his religious views.

A source said Dr Mutallab was "devastated" at the news but also "surprised" his son had been allowed to travel after he had reported him to the authorities. Abdulmutallab had allegedly become noted for his extreme religious views when he was at the British International School in Togo, where he is said to have preached Islam to his friends.

An official briefing on the attack said the US had known for at least two years that the suspect could have terrorist ties. Abdulmutallab has been on a list that included people with known or suspected contacts or ties to a terrorist or terrorist organisation. The list is maintained by the US National Counterterrorism Center and includes about 550,000 names.

The impact of the intended attack will lead airports and governments to again review security measures as terrorists seek more ingenious ways of smuggling explosives through sophisticated security measures.

Police know that the KLM ticket that Abdulmutallab travelled on was purchased on 16 December, with cash, in Nigeria. The departure airport was changed from Accra to Lagos shortly afterwards. When he took his window seat, number 19A, he had only one piece of hand luggage and none in the hold – unusual for someone who was allegedly planning a two-week stay in Detroit.

Abdulmutallab also smuggled the explosives through security at Schiphol airport, the connecting point for the flight from Nigeria. "There were no irregularities at the security check," an official for the National Co-ordinator for Counterterrorism said. "It cannot be excluded that potentially dangerous items were brought on board, especially objects that cannot be read by current technology."

Officials with the federal Transport Security Authority in the US said that while enhanced security measures had been imposed at airports across the country and abroad after the attempted bombing, it had no plans to alter basic procedures or requirements for passengers. But at least one US senator said she intended to convene urgent hearings on what new steps might have to be taken to protect international air travel. Senator Susan Collins of Maine said: "This incident is a disturbing reminder that the terrorist threat is still very real."

Some airlines will be introducing tough new security checks.

Alan Johnson, the Home Secretary, said: "With the full support of the Prime Minister, Transport Secretary, Foreign Secretary and ministerial colleagues, we will ensure that the UK continues to have in place the most appropriate security measures to protect the public from the terrorist threat, wherever it originates from."

Expert's view: The latest in a line of near disasters

The failed attempt to blow up flight 253 as it came in to land at Detroit airport is the latest in an ominous pattern of terror attacks that have emerged from, or have been attempted in, the United Kingdom over the past few years.

Dr Sally Leivesley, a leading terror expert who advises governments and businesses, said yesterday there have been several incidents where detonators have failed to ignite devices, with a major terror attack averted through luck or human error.

They include Richard Reid, who was overpowered on a transatlantic flight as he attempted to detonate a bomb hidden in his shoe; the failed attacks on London transport of July 2005 which came two weeks after the 7/7 bombings; the attempted attack on Glasgow airport in August 2007; the discovery of two cars packed with gas and petrol in London the day before the Glasgow attack; and an incident in Exeter in 2008 when a man failed to detonate a device in a café's toilets.

"The devices may not be competent," Dr Leivesley said. "Scientists will now try to replicate the method in the laboratory and then we'll know. The reason it didn't go off may be a fault with the device, or human error. The reports so far suggest that the bomber sat quietly after the incident, but had suffered third-degree burns on his leg. That suggests to me that he may have been sedated in order not to appear anxious, but that may have impaired his ability."

The other disturbing development, she added, is the use of the body to conceal explosives. In August a terrorist tried to assassinate the Saudi Prince Mohammed bin Nayef with explosives implanted in his body.

"The bomber suffered third-degree burns on his leg," Dr Leivesley said. "It's possible that a part of the explosive was hidden either inside the inner thigh or wrapped over that area with skins. With baggy clothing, it could be missed during a search, as could a syringe hidden in the groin. There are no metal components involved, so it wouldn't trigger a security device. He would then use the syringe to inject a liquid which would detonate the explosive."

Another significant factor is the report that the bomber was an engineering student at University College London. Dr Leivesley said that al-Qa'ida was recruiting people with engineering qualifications as well as highly placed scientists, particularly in the nuclear field.

"Al-Qa'ida is finding it difficult to recruit young people," she said. "And, interestingly, the election of Barack Obama is a factor in that, because, whatever you think of him as a president, the fact of him shows young people that there is an alternative to killing yourself. Al-Qa'ida is, however, targeting more highly skilled people."

Andrew Johnson

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