Flight terror suspect Abdulmutallab charged with trying to blow up jet

MI5 probes 'London link' as US prosecutors claim former UK student boarded Flight 253 with device strapped to leg

A former London student has been charged with attempting to blow up a transatlantic airliner carrying 278 passengers on Christmas Day.

Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, a 23-year-old Nigerian, was charged in hospital late last night with attempting to destroy the aircraft during its final approach to Detroit airport, the US justice department said.

American prosecutors claim that Abdulmutallab, who finished an engineering course at University College London last year, had a device attached to his body when he boarded the plane in Amsterdam on Christmas Eve. He passed through the airport in transit after flying from Lagos.

Extra security measures have been brought in for passengers flying from British airports to the US. Travellers can carry only one piece of hand luggage, including duty-free items, face a pat-down body search before boarding planes and will have to remain in their seats for the final hour before arrival in the US.

Air Canada said its passengers would not be allowed access to carry-on baggage or to have any items on their laps during the last hour of the flight. British Airways advised passengers flying to the US to arrive at check-in with plenty of time to spare. Travellers to other destinations would not be affected.

Abdulmutallab, the son of a wealthy Nigerian banker, is alleged to have set off the device as the flight approached Detroit airport. The device caused a fire that burned Abdulmutallab's legs.

A preliminary FBI investigation found that the device contained an explosive known as PETN, or pentaerythritol. Agents recovered what appeared to be the remnants of a syringe found near Abdulmutallab's seat, which is thought to have been part of the device.

"Had this alleged plot to destroy an airplane been successful, scores of innocent people would have been killed or injured," said the US attorney general, Eric Holder. "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."

Abdulmutallab had been living in a mansion block in Mansfield Road, close to Oxford Street, London, while studying mechanical engineering between 2005 and last year. The block was cordoned off by police today.

Abdulmutallab was barred from returning to Britain when he tried to obtain another student visa, this time using a bogus college, Whitehall sources said. But he was not on the US no-fly list.

According to an affidavit, interviews with the passengers and crew of Northwest Airlines flight 253 revealed that before the incident Abdulmutallab went to the aircraft's bathroom for approximately 20 minutes. When he returned to his seat, he said he had an upset stomach and pulled a blanket over himself.

Passengers then heard what were described as popping noises similar to the sound of firecrackers. Some reported seeing Abdulmutallab's trouser leg and the inner wall of the aircraft on fire. He was overpowered by passengers and crew who used blankets and fire extinguishers to put out the flames.

The charges were read to Abdulmutallab in hospital, where he appeared in a medical gown and wheelchair. There will be a hearing on Monday at a federal court in Detroit, and bail will not be considered until a separate hearing on 8 January.

Citing US officials, the Wall Street Journal said the Nigerian told investigators that al-Qaida operatives in Yemen had given him the device and told him how to detonate it.

Nigeria's This Day newspaper cited family members as saying that the suspect's father, Umaru Mutallab, the retired chairman of First Bank in Nigeria, has been uncomfortable with his son's "extreme religious views" and had reported him to the US embassy and Nigerian security agencies six months ago.

The US government created a record on Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab last month in the intelligence community's central repository of information for known and suspected international terrorists, but there was not enough negative data to place him on a no-fly list, a US official said.

Jennifer Allen, 41, said passengers boarding the same flight in Amsterdam on Saturday were frisked and that she was asked to remove a ball of tissue from a pocket. "It was a thorough pat-down. It wasn't a quick rub," she said.

The Dutch counterterrorism agency, NCTb, said Abdulmutallab had boarded a KLM flight from Lagos to Amsterdam, and passed through a security checkpoint while in transit at Amsterdam's Schiphol airport.

Gordon Brown said the British government would take "whatever action was necessary" to protect airline passengers. Security sources said the police and MI5 were diverting extra staff and resources to the investigation as a matter of priority to establish the significance of the "London link".


James Sturcke

The GuardianTramp

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