DETROIT/WASHINGTON - U.S. authorities on Saturday charged a Nigerian man with trying to blow up a U.S. passenger jet with high explosives and were investigating his claim that he had links to al Qaeda.
The suspect, who was being treated for burns at a Michigan hospital, was overpowered by passengers and crew on the Delta Air Lines plane from Amsterdam on Christmas Day.
The Justice Department identified the suspect as a 23-year-old Nigerian, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, and charged him with attempting to blow up the plane by setting alight an explosive device attached to his body.
Had this alleged plot to destroy an airplane been successful, scores of innocent people would have been killed or injured, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said in a 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.
The charges were read to Abdulmutallab during a hearing at the hospital, where he appeared in a medical gown and wheelchair. Another hearing will be held on Monday in federal court in Detroit and bail will not be considered until a separate hearing on January 8.
An initial FBI analysis found the device contained PETN, also known as pentaerythritol, one of the explosives carried by shoe bomber Richard Reid in his failed attempt to blow up a U.S. passenger jet days before Christmas in 2001, months after the September 11 attacks.
A senior U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said authorities were looking at the possibility that Abdulmutallab had ties to al Qaeda in Yemen.
Citing U.S. officials, the Wall Street Journal said the Nigerian told investigators that al Qaeda operatives in Yemen had given him the device and told him how to detonate it.
In Lagos, Abdul Mutallab, son of a prominent banker, told Reuters the suspect was his brother. A family friend said Abdulmutallab had made two trips to Yemen for short Arabic and Islamic courses.
Nigeria's This Day newspaper cited family members as saying the father, Umaru Mutallab, the retired chairman of First Bank in Nigeria, has been uncomfortable with his son's extreme religious views and reported him to the U.S. Embassy and Nigerian security agencies six months ago.
The U.S. government created a record of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab last month in the intelligence community's central repository of information on known and suspected international terrorists, but there was not enough negative data to put him on a no-fly list, a U.S. official said.
Passengers and crew aboard the plane said Abdulmutallab spent about 20 minutes in the bathroom as it approached Detroit and then covered himself with a blanket after returning to his seat, the Justice Department said.
They then heard popping noises and smelled a foul odour and some saw 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, he replied explosive device.
The device consisted of a six-inch (15-cm) packet of powder and a syringe containing a liquid, which were sewn into the suspect's underwear, according to media reports.
The FBI found remnants of a syringe near his seat.
President Barack Obama, on vacation in Hawaii with his family, held a conference call with security officials and was monitoring the situation, the White House said. He has ordered air travel security to be tightened.
Jennifer Allen, 41, said passengers boarding the same flight in Amsterdam on Saturday were frisked and 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.
While the weak economy has dominated Obama's policy agenda in his first year in office, the latest incident is certain to renew attention on threats of attacks in the United States.
Independent Senator Joe Lieberman, a critic of Obama's security policies, said he was troubled the suspect had received a U.S. visa after his father's alert and eluded security despite being in the U.S. database of terrorism suspects.
Investigators in Nigeria, the Netherlands and the United States were trying to piece together how Abdulmutallab was able to bring dangerous materials aboard the plane, and British police searched premises in central London where he was believed to have stayed while studying engineering there.
University College London said it had a record of a student by the name of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab who was enrolled between September 2005 and June 2008.
Dutch counter-terrorism agency NCTb said Abdulmutallab had boarded a KLM flight from Lagos to Amsterdam, and went through a security checkpoint while in transit at Amsterdam's Schiphol airport.
European airports tightened security checks on U.S.-bound flights in response to the failed attack.
Northwest Airlines flight 253, a Delta-owned Airbus 330, had almost 300 people aboard when it left Amsterdam for Detroit. Delta Air Lines has taken over Northwest.
The U.S. Department of Homeland Security boosted security at airports for domestic and international flights after the incident and advised passengers they may experience closer scrutiny.
One official said there was a range of security measures available that can be implemented, from bomb-sniffing dogs to behaviour detection as well as other techniques.
The mix is meant to be unpredictable so passengers aren't seeing the same thing at airports, the official said.
(Additional reporting by Nick Tattersall in Lagos; Bernie Woodall in Detroit; Adam Entous in Washington; Tabassum Zakaria in Hawaii; Ben Berkowitz in Amsterdam, Rosalba O'Brien and William Maclean in London; Writing by Paul Simao and Emily Kaiser; Editing by Chris Wilson)