Nigeria banker fears son is alleged plane attacker
Associated Press Writer
DETROIT – A prominent Nigerian banker said Saturday he feared his son was the man authorities say tried to blow up a plane as it prepared to land in Detroit before nearby passengers – who saw a glow and heard what sounded like firecrackers – tackled him.
The suspect tried ignite the explosive device onboard a Northwest Airlines plane from Amsterdam just before it landed in Detroit on Friday, officials said. Travelers who say they smelled smoke and heard a popping noise said at least one man climbed over a seat and jumped on the man.
An official said the U.S. had known for at least two years that that the suspect – identified as a Umar Farouk Abdul Mutallab – could have had terrorist ties and was on a list that includes people with known or suspected ties to a terrorist organization.
Mutallab claimed to have been instructed by al-Qaida to detonate the plane over U.S. soil, said a U.S. law enforcement official. But others cautioned that such claims could not be verified immediately. All the officials spoke on condition of anonymity because the investigation was continuing.
In Nigeria, the father told The Associated Press that his son, a former university student in London, had left Britain to travel abroad and may have gone to Yemen, an unstable country on the tip of the Arabian Peninsula where al-Qaida has increasingly found safe havens.
Alhaji Umaru Mutallab said he didn’t know exactly where his son was and planned to speak with Nigerian authorities Saturday.
“I believe he might have been to Yemen, but we are investigating to determine that,” said the elder Mutallab, who served as chairman of First Bank of Nigeria from 1999 through this month. He said he would provide more details later Saturday as he learned more from authorities.
London’s Metropolitan Police also was working with U.S. officials, said a spokeswoman who spoke on condition of anonymity in line with department policy. A search was under way Saturday at an apartment building where Mutallab is said to have lived in a posh West London neighborhood.
University College London issued a statement saying a student named Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab studied mechanical engineering there between September 2005 and June 2008. But the college said it wasn’t certain the student was the same person who was on the plane.
The White House said it believed it was an attempted act of terrorism and stricter security measures were quickly imposed on airline travel. Dutch anti-terrorism authorities said the U.S. has asked all airlines to take extra precautions on flights worldwide that are bound for the United States.
The incident was reminiscent of Richard Reid, who tried to destroy a trans-Atlantic flight in 2001 with explosives hidden in his shoes, but was subdued by other passengers.
Intelligence and anti-terrorism officials in Yemen said they were investigating claims by the suspect that he picked up the explosive device and instructions on how to use it in that country. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to speak to the media.
Passenger Syed Jafry, a U.S. citizen who had flown from the United Arab Emirates and was one of the 278 passengers onboard Northwest Airlines Flight 253, said the incident occurred during the plane’s descent. Jafry said he was seated three rows behind the passenger, saw a glow and then smelled smoke.
It was another passenger, who Jafry described as being in his 20s or early 30s and having a medium, stocky build, who quickly jumped toward the man who had started the fire.
“He did a good job with his power, tackled him and put him under arrest,” Jafry said Saturday.
Melinda Dennis, another passenger who was seated in the front row of the plane, said the man involved was brought to the front row and seated near her. She said his legs appeared to be badly burned and his pants were cut off. She said he was taken off the plane handcuffed to a stretcher.
Multiple law enforcement officials also said the man appeared badly burned on his legs, indicating the explosive was strapped there. The components were apparently mixed in-flight and included a powdery substance, multiple law enforcement and counterterrorism officials said.
An intelligence official said he was being held and treated in an Ann Arbor, Mich., hospital. A spokeswoman for the University of Michigan Medical Center in Ann Arbor said one passenger from the flight was taken there, but referred all inquiries to the FBI.
A law enforcement official said evidence seized from the suspect – including his tattered clothes – have been sent to the FBI laboratory at Quantico, Va. The official also spoke on condition of anonymity because discussion of the ongoing investigation is not authorized.
The list that Mutallab had been on is maintained by the U.S. National Counterterrorism Center and includes about 550,000 names, an official said. People on that list are not necessarily on the no-fly list, and New York congressman Peter King says Mutallab was not on the no-fly list. Dutch anti-terrorism authorities said Mutallab was traveling on a U.S. visa valid through the first half of 2010.
Officials in the Netherlands said an initial investigation showed that routine security procedures were followed at Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam with no irregularities. Mutallab’s name was on the passenger manifesto that was forwarded and approved by U.S. authorities before takeoff.
U.S. federal officials said there would be heightened security for both domestic and international flights at airports across the country, but the intensified levels would likely be “layered,” differing from location to location depending on alerts, security concerns and other factors.
Some airlines in the U.S. have told passengers new rules require them to stay in seats one hour before landing.
U.S.-bound travelers were undergoing body searches at Amsterdam’s airport, and passengers flying to the United States from London’s Heathrow said they received text messages informing them that the hand baggage allowance had been reduced to one item.
“The extra measures apply worldwide on all flights to the U.S. as of now and for an indefinite period,” says Judith Sluiter, spokeswoman for the Dutch National Coordinator for Counterterrorism.
President Barack Obama was notified of the incident and discussed it with security officials, the White House said. Officials said he is monitoring the situation and receiving regular updates from his vacation spot in Hawaii.
Nigeria’s information minister, Dora Akunyili, condemned the attempted bombing. She said the government has opened its own investigation into the suspect and will work with U.S. authorities.
“We state very clearly that as a nation we abhor all forms of violence,” Akunyili said in a statement issued Saturday.
Associated Press Writers Corey Williams in Detroit; Lara Jakes in Baghdad; Jon Gambrell in Lagos, Nigeria; Arthur Max in Amsterdam; Jennifer Quinn in London; Ahmed al-Haj in Yemen; and Larry Margasak and Devlin Barrett in Washington contributed to this report.
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