DETROIT - A 23-year-old Nigerian man who claimed ties to al-Qaeda was charged yesterday with trying to destroy a Detroit-bound jet on Christmas Day, as authorities learned that his wealthy father had warned U.S. officials of concerns about his increasingly radical religious beliefs.
The suspect said he had received training and instructions from al-Qaeda operatives in Yemen, a law enforcement official said on condition of anonymity because the investigation is continuing.
The Justice Department charged that Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab willfully tried to destroy or wreck an aircraft, and that he placed a destructive device in the Northwest Airlines Airbus A330-300 that was carrying him and 278 other passengers, plus 11 crew, from Amsterdam.
U.S. District Judge Paul Borman read Abdulmutallab the charges at the University of Michigan Medical Center in Ann Arbor, where the suspect was being treated for burns.
On the plane, he had a device containing a high explosive attached to his body, an FBI affidavit filed in federal court in Detroit said. It said that as Northwest Flight 253 descended toward Detroit Metro Airport, Abdulmutallab set off the device - sparking a fire instead of an explosion.
The affidavit said a preliminary analysis showed the device contained PETN, a colorless high explosive also known as pentaerythritol. This was the same material convicted shoe bomber Richard Reid used when he tried to destroy a transatlantic flight in 2001 with explosives hidden in his shoes.
PETN is often used in military explosives and found inside blasting caps. But terrorists like it because it is small and powerful.
FBI agents recovered what appeared to be the remnants of a liquid-filled syringe, believed to have been part of the explosive device, from the vicinity of Abdulmutallab's seat. It said a more thorough analysis of the syringe was under way.
The affidavit, based on interviews with all the passengers and crew members, said Abdulmutallab had gone to the restroom for about 20 minutes before the incident.
Returning to his seat, he said he had an upset stomach and pulled a blanket over himself. Passengers then heard popping noises similar to firecrackers and smelled an odor.
Some passengers saw his "pants leg and the wall of the airplane on fire," the affidavit said. "Passengers and crew then subdued Abdulmutallab and used blankets and fire extinguishers to put out the flames."
The affidavit said flight attendant Dionne Ransom-Monroe told FBI agents that she asked Abdulmutallab what he had had in his pocket and that he replied, "Explosive device."
A senior U.S. counterterrorism official, speaking to the Los Angeles Times on condition of anonymity, said federal authorities had been alarmed enough upon learning of the incident Friday to send an alert to about 128 other planes flying from Europe to the United States to take steps to prepare for similar attacks. All landed without incident.
Yesterday, Abdulmutallab smiled when he was wheeled into a hospital conference room for his hearing, wearing a light green hospital robe and blue hospital socks. He had a bandage on his left thumb and right wrist, and part of the skin on the thumb was burned off.
Judge Borman sat at the far end of a 10-foot table, Abdulmutallab at the other end.
The judge asked if he was pronouncing the suspect's name correctly. Abdulmutallab responded, in English, "Yes, that's fine." The judge asked if he understood the charges against him. The suspect again replied in English, "Yes, I do."
The judge said the suspect would be assigned a public defender and set a detention hearing for Jan. 8.
Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. made clear the United States would look beyond Abdulmutallab. He vowed to "use all measures available to our government to ensure that anyone responsible for this attempted attack is brought to justice."
Abdulmutallab, who had a valid U.S. visa, lived in a posh London neighborhood, but a law enforcement official said he acknowledged receiving training and instructions from al-Qaeda operatives in Yemen, his mother's native country.
Abdulmutallab appeared in the Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment database maintained by the U.S. National Counterterrorism Center, said a U.S. official who received a briefing. The database has about 550,000 names and includes people with known or suspected ties to a terrorist group. But it is not a list that would bar a person from boarding a U.S.-bound airplane.
U.S. authorities said Abdulmutallab came to the attention of intelligence officials in November when his father went to the U.S. Embassy in Abuja, Nigeria, to express concerns about his son's increasingly militant views and unusual behavior.
One government official said the father had no specific information that would put his son on the "no-fly list" or on the list for additional airport security checks.
Nor was the information sufficient to revoke his U.S. visa, granted in June 2008 and valid through June 2010. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity.
In Nigeria, the father, Alhaji Umaru Mutallab, said, "I believe he might have been to Yemen, but we are investigating to determine that."
The father, recently retired as chairman of First Bank of Nigeria, said his son had been a university student in London but left Britain to travel abroad. Abdulmutallab began Friday's trip in Nigeria and connected at Amsterdam's Schiphol Airport to the Northwest flight.
In London yesterday, police and forensics experts were seen going in and out of the seven-story Mutallab family mansion, where Abdulmutallab had lived while attending school.
University College London said in a statement that a student by the same name studied mechanical engineering there between September 2005 and June 2008.
In Detroit, the FBI was scouring the large Yemeni American community for information as to why Abdulmutallab was headed there. FBI officials had no comment on the status of the investigation.
President Obama, on vacation in Hawaii, was briefed yesterday on developments in the case.