DETROIT/WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A Nigerian man with possible links to al Qaeda militants was charged on Saturday for trying to blow up a U.S. passenger plane with an explosive device on approach into Detroit, U.S. officials said.
The suspect, who was being treated for extensive burns at a Michigan hospital, was overpowered by passengers and crew on the Christmas Day flight from Amsterdam. The passengers, two of whom suffered minor injuries, disembarked safely from the Delta Air Lines plane.
“We believe this was an attempted act of terrorism,” a White House official told Reuters.
The Justice Department said in a statement that the man, whom it identified as Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, 23, from Nigeria, had been charged with attempting to blow up the plane by setting alight the explosive device that was attached to his body.
He was due to make a court appearance later on Saturday, it said.
A preliminary FBI analysis found that the device contained PETN, also known as pentaerythritol. That was one of the explosives carried by Richard Reid, the “shoe bomber” who was convicted of trying to blow up a plane headed to the United States months after the 2001 attacks.
“This alleged attack on a U.S. airplane on Christmas Day shows that we must remain vigilant in the fight against terrorism at all times,” Attorney General Eric Holder said in the statement.
“We will continue to investigate this matter vigorously, and we will use all measures available to our government to ensure that anyone responsible for this attempted attack is brought to justice.”
Investigators were trying to confirm the man’s claims that he has connections to al Qaeda, which carried out the September 11, 2001 attacks in the United States.
Citing U.S. officials, the Wall Street Journal said the Nigerian man had told investigators that al Qaeda operatives in Yemen had given him the device and instructions on how to detonate it.
ABC News reported that the suspect told FBI agents he had lived with an al Qaeda leader for about a month in Yemen, where he was trained in what to do and how to do it.
Passengers and crew said Abdulmutallab spent about 20 minutes in the plane’s bathroom as it approached Detroit and then covered himself with a blanket upon returning to his seat, the Justice Department said.
They then heard popping noises similar to firecrackers and smelled a foul odour, while some observed Abdulmutallab’s trouser leg and the wall of the plane on fire, it said. When asked by a flight attendant what he had in his pocket, the suspect replied “explosive device,” the statement added.
ABC said the explosive device consisted of a six-inch (15.25 cm) packet of powder and a syringe with a liquid, which were sewn into the man’s underwear so they would be near his testicles and unlikely to be detected.
The FBI found the remnants of a syringe near Abdulmutallab’s seat.
In Nigeria, Abdul Mutallab, son of prominent former banker Umaru Mutallab, told Reuters that the suspect was his brother. He said their father was planning to meet with police in Nigeria.
U.S. President Barack Obama, who is vacationing in Hawaii with his family, held a secure conference call on Saturday with two top security officials and was monitoring the situation, the White House said. Earlier, he instructed officials to step up air travel security.
Passengers arriving in Detroit on the same flight from Amsterdam on Saturday, a day after the incident, reported tighter security, which delayed the departure.
Jennifer Allen, 41, said all passengers boarding the flight in Amsterdam on Saturday were frisked, and the search was so thorough that she was asked by a female security guard to remove a ball of facial tissue from her pocket.
“It was a thorough pat-down. It wasn’t a quick rub,” she said.
Additional reporting by Todd Eastham, Jeremy Pelofsky, Mohammad Zargham and Jim Wolf in Washington; Nick Tattersall in Lagos; Peter Bohan in Chicago; Ben Berkowitz in Amsterdam, Rosalba O'Brien and William Maclean in London; Additional writing by Emily Kaiser in Washington; Editing by Paul Simao and Sandra Maler