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

By Carrie Johnson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 29, 2009; A01

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.

"The disappearance and cessation of communication which got his mother and father concerned to report to the security agencies are completely out of character and a very recent development," the statement said.

Authorities said there was no reason to suspect Abdulmutallab of dangerous activity until his father visited the embassy in Abuja on Nov. 19. The next day, under a program called Visa Viper, mandated by Congress to ensure all terrorism-related information is promptly reported to Washington, the embassy sent a cable saying the father was "concerned that his son was falling under the influence of religious extremists in Yemen," a State Department official said.

The State Department, under existing procedures, passed the Viper information to the National Counterterrorism Center for entry in its terrorism database. Neither the State Department nor the NCTC, officials said Monday, checked to see if Abdulmutallab had ever entered the United States or had a valid entry visa -- information readily available in separate consular and immigration databases. "It's not for us to review that," the State Department official said.

According to the Department of Homeland Security, Abdulmutallab has twice obtained U.S. visas, and before this month had visited the United States once in 2004 and once in 2008.

An intelligence official said that because Abdulmutallab had not previously been entered into the system as a terrorism suspect, procedures did not include such checks. Administration officials said these apparent gaps are among those to be studied in the review Obama has ordered.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, said there should have been swift action after a prominent Nigerian alleged that his son was becoming radicalized.

"It seems to me that when this happens, the person should go automatically on the no-fly list," she said. "I'd rather, in the interest of protecting people, overreact rather than underreact."

"The Obama administration is flying solo on national security right now," said Rep. Peter Hoekstra (Mich.), ranking Republican on the House Intelligence Committee. Hoekstra said he wants to know more about Abdulmutallab's e-mail and other connections to radical clerics to determine whether red flags may have been missed.

"He also had no baggage. They knew he had been to Yemen. Come on, come on, come on. That is pretty suspicious," said Rep. Sue Myrick (R-N.C.), also a member of the House intelligence panel.

State Department spokesman Ian Kelly said that at the time the latest visa was issued, "there was nothing in his application nor in any database at the time that would indicate that he should not receive a visa. He was a student at a very reputable school. He had plenty of financial resources, so he was not an intending immigrant. There was no derogatory information about him last year."

In its statement, translated by SITE Intelligence Group, a Bethesda-based analytic service, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula praised Abdulmutallab. It said he had "penetrated all modern and sophisticated technology and devices and security barriers in airports of the world, with courage and bravery, without fearing death and with seeking the help of Allah."

A senior Yemeni government official insisted that al-Qaeda affiliates in the country are not getting stronger. But the branch's assertion of responsibility, the official said, underscores that fighting terrorism is a global issue and that Yemen needs help in tackling terrorists inside its borders. The statement of responsibility, if deemed credible by U.S. intelligence agencies, may mark the first time al-Qaeda affiliates outside Afghanistan or Pakistan have targeted American soil.

One of the top leaders of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula is Said al-Shihri, 36, a Saudi national. He was captured in Pakistan in December 2001 and spent six years in the U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, before being transferred to Saudi Arabia in November 2007.

In Saudi Arabia, he entered a highly praised rehabilitation program that uses dialogue and art therapy to persuade former militants to renounce extremism. But after graduating, Shihri crossed the border into Yemen and rejoined al-Qaeda.

Correspondent Sudarsan Raghavan in Sanaa, Yemen; special correspondents Karla Adam in London and Aminu Abubakar in Nigeria; staff writers Anne E. Kornblut in Hawaii and Karen DeYoung and Carol D. Leonnig in Washington; and staff researcher Julie Tate in Washington contributed to this report.

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