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Plane suspect was listed in terror database after father alerted U.S. officials

A Nigerian man, claiming to be linked to al-Qaeda, allegedly tried to set off an incendiary device aboard a trans-Atlantic airplane on Christmas Day as it descended toward Detroit's airport. The White House called it an attempted act of terrorism.

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By Dan Eggen, Karen DeYoung and Spencer S. Hsu
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 27, 2009

A Nigerian man charged Saturday with attempting to blow up a U.S. airliner on Christmas Day was listed in a U.S. terrorism database last month after his father told State Department officials that he was worried about his son's radical beliefs and extremist connections, officials said.

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The suspect, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, was added to a catch-all terrorism-related database when his father, a Nigerian banker, reported concerns about his son's "radicalization and associations" to the U.S. Embassy in Nigeria, a senior administration official said. Abdulmutallab was not placed on any watch list for flights into the United States, however, because there was "insufficient derogatory information available" to include him, another administration official said.

Abdulmutallab was granted a two-year tourist visa by the U.S. Embassy in London in June 2008. He used the visa to travel previously to the United States at least twice, officials said.

On Friday, Abdulmutallab, 23, was subdued by passengers and crew members onboard Northwest Airlines Flight 253 after he allegedly ignited an explosive device that set afire his pants leg and part of the airplane during preparations to land in Detroit.

The incident marks the latest apparent attempt by terrorists to bring down a U.S. aircraft through the use of an improvised weapon, and set in motion urgent security measures that disrupted global air travel during the frenetic holiday weekend.

The case also reignited a partisan debate within Washington over whether the Obama administration was doing enough to guard against terrorist attacks after the shootings last month at Fort Hood, Tex., and other incidents.

Passengers on international flights bound Saturday for the United States were required to undergo more stringent searches before boarding and were ordered to remain glued in their seats for the final hour of many flights. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said domestic passengers may notice additional security measures in coming days, but she did not specify them.

Abdulmutallab was charged Saturday in U.S. District Court for Eastern Michigan with attempting to destroy an aircraft and with placing a destructive device onboard a plane, each of which is punishable by up to 20 years in prison. U.S. District Judge Paul D. Borman informed Abdulmutallab of the charges during a hearing at the University of Michigan Health System in Ann Arbor, where he is being treated at the burn unit.

The suspect was rolled into a conference room in a wheelchair for the hearing. Asked whether he understood the charges against him, he replied, "Yes, I do." When a federal prosecutor asked how he was doing, Abdulmutallab replied, "I feel better."

The suspect allegedly told FBI agents after his arrest that he had received training and explosive materials from al-Qaeda-linked terrorists in Yemen, a claim that U.S. law enforcement officials were still attempting to verify Saturday. The FBI said the device strapped to Abdulmutallab contained PETN, or pentaerythritol, which is the same plastic explosive used by al-Qaeda operative Richard C. Reid in his December 2001 attempt to destroy a U.S.-bound airliner by igniting a homemade bomb in his shoe.

A senior administration official said Abdulmutallab, who had studied engineering at University College London, was issued a two-year U.S. tourist visa in June 2008 in London and did not raise any red flags during screening before boarding Northwest Flight 253 at Amsterdam's Schiphol airport, one of the most heavily secured air facilities in the world.

Administration officials acknowledged Saturday that Abdulmutallab's name was added in November to the Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment, or TIDE, which contains about 550,000 individuals and is maintained by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence at the National Counterterrorism Center. TIDE is a catch-all list into which all terrorist-related information is sent.


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