Monday, December 28, 2009

Building the Criminal Case Against the Christmas Bomber

Investigators in the U.S., Europe, Africa and the Middle East are racing to determine how the son of a Nigerian banker became the first person in eight years to try to set off an explosive aboard a U.S. commercial airliner.

Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said Monday that the aviation-security system failed when the young man on a watchlist with a U.S. visa in his pocket and a powerful explosive hidden on his body was allowed to board a fight from Amsterdam to Detroit.

The Obama administration has ordered investigations into the two areas of aviation security -- how travelers are placed on watch lists and how passengers are screened -- as critics questioned how the 23-year-old man charged in the airliner attack was allowed to board the Dec. 25 flight.

News Hub: Terrorism Back on the Front Burner7:18WSJ's Adam Horvath recaps the latest in the terror news and explains what the longer term impact will be for travelers in the U.S. and abroad.

A day after lauding the system, Ms. Napolitano backtracked, saying her words had been taken out of context. "Our system did not work in this instance," she said on NBC's "Today" show. "No one is happy or satisfied with that. An extensive review is under way."

The White House press office, traveling with President Barack Obama in Hawaii, said early Monday that the president would make a statement from the Kaneoho Marine Base in the morning. White House spokesman Bill Burton didn't elaborate.

Lawmakers of both parties expressed concerns that the man charged in the Christmas Day attempt to bomb Northwest Flight 253, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, was able to board an Amsterdam-to-Detroit flight with a hidden cache of explosives.

The incident comes on the heels of nearly a dozen terrorism probes and alleged plots to come to light in recent months. The string of cases highlights the difficulty, more than five years after the 9/11 Commission called for better communication between intelligence, law-enforcement and security agencies, of identifying relevant information that could stop a terrorist attack.

One U.S. official briefed on the inquiry said investigators are still trying to determine whether the suspect's claims of links to al Qaeda in Yemen are accurate, and how strong those ties are.

Jitters over the case were heightened on Sunday by another incident involving a passenger on the same Northwest Airlines flight from Amsterdam, two days later. A Nigerian man was subdued by the flight crew after he began "acting belligerently," according to U.S. officials.

Delta Air Lines Inc., which acquired Northwest last year, said the crew of Sunday's Flight 253 asked authorities to meet the plane upon landing in Detroit because of a "verbally disruptive" passenger. All 257 passengers and 12 crew members got off the plane safely.

The Homeland Security Department said Sunday evening that "indications at this time are that the individual's behavior is due to legitimate illness, and no other suspicious behavior or materials have been found."

In the aftermath of the attempted Christmas bombing, federal agents are working with authorities in Britain, the Netherlands, Yemen and Nigeria to determine whether Mr. Abdulmutallab was part of a wider plot. Mr. Abdulmutallab told investigators he had affiliations with al Qaeda operatives in Yemen, who gave him the device and detonation instructions to blow up the plane, according to U.S. officials.

In a statement released Monday morning, Mr. Abdulmutallab's family in Nigeria said that after his "disappearance and stoppage of communications while schooling abroad," his father reached out to Nigerian security agencies two months ago. The statement said the father then approached foreign security agencies for "their assistance to find and return him home."

Law enforcement officials said there is no evidence yet to indicate that Mr. Abdulmutallab was part of, or in contact with, any terror cell in the U.S. or the U.K., and that early evidence indicates he was radicalized through contacts with extremists via the Internet.

Federal prosecutors are expected on Monday to request a judge's permission to obtain DNA from Mr. Abdulmutallab to compare with DNA found on remains of the device taken from the aircraft.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation said the device contained the explosive PETN, which convicted "shoe bomber" Richard Reid used in his 2001 attempt to bring down a trans-Atlantic flight.

The Flight 253 Bomb AttemptBomb Suspect Was on U.K. Watch List Statement from Suspect's Family Latest Airline Incident in Detroit Not a Terror Threat Terror Watch Lists Come Under Scrutiny A Primer in PETN Yemeni Groups Increased Aviation Threats Airlines Face Delays Amid Extra Security Incident Highlights Nigeria Concerns Suspect's Privileged Existence Took a Radical Turn Routine Turned to Mayhem on Terror Flight Bombing Bid Spurs Air-Security Questions .

The FBI's office in Yemen is working with authorities there to track any recent travel by Mr. Abdulmutallab in that country.

On Monday, Dutch authorities said they are aiming to complete an investigation by Wednesday into the plot. Broader questions of whether Mr. Abdulmutallab "had any helpers, his motivations, his plans," would be investigated by the FBI and the U.S. authorities, said Judith Sluiter, a spokeswoman for the Dutch counter-terrorism office NCTB.

A preliminary investigation found no security breaches, Dutch authorities said. However, "even when a security check is properly conducted," the NCTB said in a statement, "the possibility cannot be ruled out of potentially dangerous objects being brought on board, particularly in the case of objects that are difficult to trace with existing security technology, such as metal detectors."

U.S. officials said the accused man's father, a prominent banker in Nigeria, had warned officials at the U.S. embassy in Lagos, Nigeria, in recent weeks that he feared his son had been "radicalized" during trips outside the West African country.

The father's concerns about his son weren't specific, nor did they point to any imminent threat against the U.S., according to a U.S. official. But they were enough for U.S. authorities to add his name to a broad terrorism database, called Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment. People on the list are not precluded from boarding flights to the U.S. Mr. Abdulmutallab wasn't added to more sensitive databases, such as the so-called "no fly" watch list, that would have flagged him for additional screening or barred him from boarding a U.S.-bound flight.

In June 2008, the U.S. Embassy in London had issued a multiyear, multientry tourist visa to Mr. Abdulmutallab, when the Nigerian national was a student living in the U.K., said a U.S. official. Mr. Abdulmutallab later left the U.K. and traveled to Dubai and Yemen. He was denied entry to the U.K. in May 2009 by border officials who said the school he proposed to attend wasn't legitimate.

Suspect's JourneyView Interactive

..Rep. Peter King of New York, the top Republican on the House Homeland Security Committee, said in an interview that briefings from U.S. security officials indicate that "the government definitely knew about [the alleged attacker]. They had a file on him. The question now is why wasn't he on the no-fly list."

According to a federal criminal complaint, Mr. Abdulmutallab boarded a Northwest flight, shared with Dutch Airline KLM, in Lagos on Thursday, then transferred to the Northwest airliner Friday in Amsterdam, bound for Detroit. He had a device attached to his body, according to the criminal complaint.

As the Airbus 330-300 carrying 289 people was approaching Detroit, Mr. Abdulmutallab went to the restroom for about 20 minutes. On returning to his seat, he stated that his stomach was upset, and he pulled a blanket over himself, according to the complaint. As the plane was heading for a landing at Detroit Metropolitan Airport, the complaint alleges, Mr. Abdulmutallab set off the device, causing a fire. He was subdued by passengers.

—Alex Kellogg, John Miller and the Associated Press contributed to this article.

Write to Evan Perez at and Peter Spiegel at

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