Explosive in Detroit terror case could have blown hole in airplane, sources say

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 Carrie Johnson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 29, 2009

A dangerous explosive allegedly concealed by Nigerian student Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab in his underwear could have blown a hole in the side of his Detroit-bound aircraft if it had been detonated, according to two federal sources briefed on the investigation.

Authorities said they are still analyzing a badly damaged syringe that Abdulmutallab allegedly employed as a detonating device on Christmas Day. But preliminary conclusions indicate that he allegedly used 80 grams of PETN -- almost twice as much of the highly explosive material as used by convicted shoe bomber Richard C. Reid.

A day after Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said there was "no indication" the incident was connected to a larger plot, there were increasing signs that the failed bombing may have represented one of the most serious terrorist threats in the United States since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

President Obama interrupted his vacation in Hawaii to declare that authorities "will not rest until we find all who were involved and hold them accountable." He also said he had ordered a review of the nation's terrorist watch-list system.

In a statement, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, a group based in Saudi Arabia and Yemen, asserted responsibility for the attempt to destroy the Northwest Airlines jet, saying it was a response to U.S.-backed airstrikes against the group in Yemen. Meanwhile, Yemen's government confirmed that Abdulmutallab was in the country from early August to early December after obtaining a visa to study Arabic at a language institute, and said that he had previously studied at the school.

The suspect, 23, has told federal investigators that he had ties to al-Qaeda and that he had traveled to Yemen to collect the incendiary device he tried to use on the plane.

The Obama administration suffered blistering criticism for another day from national security experts and from Republican lawmakers, who demanded changes to the airline screening system and the use of more intrusive technology to detect explosives. Napolitano acknowledged on NBC's "Today" show Monday that "our system did not work in this instance. No one is happy or satisfied with that."

In London, Britain's home secretary, Alan Johnson, told the BBC that Abdulmutallab had been placed on a watch list in May and had been banned from entering the country. A British government source said the move came after Abdulmutallab, who in 2008 graduated from University College London, applied for a new visa to attend a college that was not deemed legitimate by authorities there.

Johnson said he also suspected Abdulmutallab may have been working with others: "We don't know yet whether it was a single-handed plot or were there other people behind it -- I suspect it's the latter rather than the former."

Law enforcement officials in the United States, Yemen, Nigeria and Britain spent a fourth day tracking the contacts and travel of Abdulmutallab, who is incarcerated on terrorism-related charges in Milan, Mich., 45 miles south of Detroit, until a bond hearing next week. His public defender, Miriam Siefer, did not return calls for comment.

Authorities remain particularly interested in the development of Abdulmutallab's radical beliefs. They are tracking Web postings and other communications he may have had with clerics in Yemen, including Anwar al-Aulaqi, who corresponded with the alleged Fort Hood, Tex., shooter, Maj. Nidal M. Hasan, months before the Nov. 5 gunfire rang out on the Army's largest base, sources said.

Abdulmutallab's relatives issued a statement from their home in Abuja, Nigeria, describing attempts by his father, a prominent banker, to warn Nigerian intelligence agencies and the U.S. Embassy there "about a month and a half ago" and to seek help in regaining contact with his son.

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