Family of airplane suspect had raised concerns about him

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.
By Joby Warrick and Ellen Nakashima
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 27, 2009

He grew up amid extraordinary privilege, a wealthy Nigerian banker's son who attended top international schools and had traveled to the United States. But some time this year, according to relatives' accounts, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab became an enemy of the West.

As a college student living in London and Dubai, Abdulmutalab had worried his family with his embrace of an increasingly radical view of Islam. Then, a few months ago, he renounced his wealthy lifestyle, broke all ties with his parents and disappeared. Family members suspected he had gone to Yemen, his mother's native country.

On Friday, Abdulmutallab surfaced again when he was arrested for attempting to set off a bomb hidden in his clothing while flying in a jetliner packed with holiday travelers. The 23-year-old told U.S. investigators he was striking a blow for a Yemeni branch of al-Qaeda, a group that two months ago called on its followers to kill "apostates" and Westerners using all means, including home-brewed explosives on airplanes.

To what degree Abdulmutallab was involved with the group remained under investigation. But U.S. counterterrorism and law-enforcement officials said Saturday that the suspect appeared to have been both equipped and motivated to carry out a deadly attack. They said he also had the advantage of easy access to U.S. and European targets, owing to his Western education, fluency in English and a multiple-entry U.S. visa.

U.S. sources said the suspect's mode of attack -- detonating a few grams of the powerful military explosive PETN, or pentaerythritol, hidden on his body -- is similar to tactics used by another failed suicide bomber with known links to al-Qaeda's Yemeni branch.

In August, Abdullah Hassah Tali Assiri tried to assassinate a member of Saudi Arabia's royal family using PETN explosives hidden in his underwear, according to a published account by terrorism expert Peter Bergen, citing a Saudi official. Assiri had crossed into Saudi Arabia from Yemen and passed through two security checks before blowing himself up less than a yard from Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, the head of the kingdom's counterterrorism operations, who escaped with minor injuries.

Federal investigators were just beginning to comb through the Nigerian suspect's finances, contacts and travels in an effort to "work backwards to try to trace his steps for the last several weeks and months," a law enforcement source said. Although authorities were operating under the theory that he acted alone, they did not rule out the possibility that others -- including al-Qaeda operatives -- may have known about or helped the man in the weeks leading up to the Detroit incident, the source said.

The investigation will include interviews with the accused's friends and relatives in Nigeria and London. Some family members have spoken publicly to say they were saddened by the news of Abdulmutallab's arrest, but not particularly surprised.

His father, Alhaji Umaru Mutallab, the recently retired chairman of one of Nigeria's top banks and a frequent visitor to the United States, acknowledged in several media interviews that the suspect is his son. He said he had alerted Nigerian and U.S. Embassy officials six months ago about his son's increasingly militant views and unusual behavior, and was surprised to learn that the young man had been allowed to travel to the United States.

In an interview with the Associated Press, he said he thought his son "might have been to Yemen" in the months since he severed ties with the family.

A Nigerian newspaper, This Day, quoting relatives, said the family had been "uncomfortable with the boy's extreme religious views," leading to the decision to alert law enforcement officials.

A U.S. official said the father's warning did not go unheeded. "We didn't sit on the information. It was shared across the interagency," said the official, who spoke on the condition on anonymity, referring to the group of U.S. agencies tasked with preventing terrorist attacks.

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