US says aviation security system failed in Flight 253 case

White House orders investigation into watchlists and screening of air passengers after Flight 253 attack

The US homeland security secretary, Janet Napolitano, conceded today that the aviation security system failed when a young man on a watchlist with a US 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 travellers are placed on watch lists and how passengers are screened – as critics questioned how the 23-year-old Nigerian man charged in the airliner attack was allowed to board the flight on Christmas Day. President Barack Obama is expected to make a statement later today from Hawaii, where he is on holiday.

"Our system did not work in this instance," Napolitano said on NBC television's Today show. "No one is happy or satisfied with that. An extensive review is under way." Yesterday Napolitano said the security system had worked, but she said today that her words had been taken out of context.

Billions of dollars have been spent on aviation security since the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001, much of it on training and equipment that some security experts say could have detected the explosive device that Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab is accused of hiding on his body as he boarded Northwest Airlines Flight 253.

Investigators on both sides of the Atlantic are continuing to check Abdulmutallab's background, with the Dutch military police investigating the possibility that he had an accomplice.

Scotland Yard and MI5 want to establish how he was radicalised and by whom, and whether he had accomplices in the UK or the Arabian peninsula. He has told US officials that he met al-Qaida operatives in Yemen who gave him the explosive device and taught him how to use it.

Britain's home secretary, Alan Johnson, said he suspected Abdulmutallab may not have been working alone. "We don't know yet whether it was a single-handed plot or [there were] other people behind it – I suspect it's the latter rather than the former," he told BBC Radio 4's Today programme.

Johnson also confirmed that Abdulmutallab had been placed on a UK watch list after being refused a student visa in May for a bogus course. "If you are on our watch list then you do not come into this country," said Johnson. "You can come through this country if you are in transit to another country but you cannot come into this country."

Abdulmutallab was also on a US database of people suspected of terrorist ties in November, but there was not enough information about his activities to place him on a watchlist that could have kept him from flying.

Johnson said the issues being studied by British police and security services included "what happened when he was in this country, was he radicalised in this country, was there any association with whoever may have been behind this plot?"

Suspected al-Qaida activists in Yemen referred in a video recorded on 21 December to "a bomb to hit the enemies of God". It was not known if this was a general warning, or indicated a clear Yemeni link.

A US couple on Flight 253 said they saw a tall, well-dressed man aged about 50 with Abdulmutallab at Amsterdam's Schiphol airport before he boarded the plane.

Kurt and Lori Haskell claimed the man spoke for Abdulmutallab and attempted to get him aboard the flight without a passport, the Reuters news agency reported.

A Dutch military police spokesman said: "At this moment we have no information on whether there was another guy. We are checking all clues and information we get." The spokesman added that the military police and the Dutch counter-terrorism agency NCTb were reviewing CCTV recordings to check out the accomplice story.

Abdulmutallab's family said today that they had contacted international security services to raise concerns that he had been radicalised by Islamist extremists.

They said they became concerned after he disappeared about two months ago and cut off contact.

In a statement, the family said: "The disappearance and cessation of communication which got his mother and father concerned … are completely out of character and a very recent development."

Abdulmutallab's father, Umaru Mutallab, a former Nigerian government minister who recently retired as chairman of the First Bank group, "reported the matter to Nigerian security agencies about two months ago and to some foreign security agencies about a month and a half ago", the statement said.

The family added: "It was while we were waiting for the outcome of their investigation that we arose to the shocking news of that day."

The statement did not say where Abdulmutallab had been, although it emerged yesterday that he had dropped out of a postgraduate business course in Dubai, telling his family he had gone to Yemen to study Islam. It was then that he cut off contact with them, his family said.

Abdulmutallab was charged in hospital with trying to blow up Northwest Airlines Flight 253 as it approached Detroit from Amsterdam with almost 300 people on board. The former student, who studied mechanical engineering at University College London between 2005 and 2008, was also charged with placing a destructive device on the plane.

Scotland Yard detectives continued to search the former UCL student's luxury flat in a central London mansion block. Security sources said the police and MI5 were diverting extra staff and resources to the investigation in order to establish the significance of the "London link".

Obama has ordered a fresh review of US security, including airport screening, after it emerged that the American authorities had been warned about Abdulmutallab's extremist views by Mutallab.

Obama's spokesman said the president was seeking answers to why Abdulmutallab was placed on the least urgent of three US terror watchlists, rather than a higher category which would have prevented the Nigerian national flying.

In Britain passengers waiting to fly to America were hit by delays of up to three and a half hours at the weekend because of extra security checks, with people being frisked and having hand luggage searched. Some passengers reported having Christmas presents unwrapped, while others travelling to the US have reportedly also seen bans on the use of electronic equipment, including laptops and MP3 players, and in some cases in-flight entertainment has also been disrupted. People flying to the US were advised to arrive early and carry just one piece of hand luggage.

Whitehall officials said Abdulmutallab had not come to MI5's attention during his three years studying in London. One of his former teachers spoke of his shock, saying the suspect's nickname was once "the pope", and the university spoke of its "sadness".

Malcolm Grant, a provost at the university, said: "UCL is deeply saddened by these events. This is a university founded on equality and religious tolerance, and strongly committed today to respect for human rights. We are co-operating fully with the authorities in their further investigations."

The heightened state of security was underlined last night when the crew of another Amsterdam to Detroit plane, with the same flight number, reported an emergency incident after an "unruly" Nigerian man raised concerns by spending an unusually long time in the aircraft's toilet. He was detained by the FBI after the plane landed but turned out to have a "legitimate illness", officials from the department of homeland security said.

More details emerged yesterday about the apparent radicalisation of Abdulmutallab, a young man born into privilege in the Muslim-dominated north of Nigeria. He attended an elite British-curriculum boarding school in Lomé, the capital of Togo.

A former teacher of his recalled the then teenager expressing sympathy for the Taliban after the 9/11 attacks in 2001.

However, a friend from that time, James Ticknell, told the Guardian that while Abdulmutallab had been a devout Muslim, he was not in the least militant. "He was very decent and gentle, in fact a pacifist. His views on religion were very mainstream. When I realised the man on the plane was him, I felt disbelief," said Ticknell.


Chris McGreal in Washington, David Batty, Peter Walker and agencies

The GuardianTramp

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