Who is Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab? Federal authorities say the man suspected of trying to detonate explosives on Northwest Flight 253 as it neared Detroit was a 23-year-old engineering student at University College London. They say he is a Nigerian citizen, and he has reportedly claimed he was on a mission for al-Qaeda and that he had received instructions from Yemen. On Saturday, Abdulmutallab was charged with attempting to destroy the aircraft and with placing a destructive device on the plane.
While authorities caution that it is too early to conclude anything about the substance of Abdulmutallab's reported claims, Yemen has recently been the focus of U.S. concerns about the expansion of al-Qaeda, and Nigeria is struggling with Islamist insurgencies.
The Nigerian connection is especially troubling because, if the al-Qaeda link is true, then the huge West African country, which is sharply divided between Muslims and Christians, may indeed have become a new recruiting ground for the cause of Osama bin Laden a situation Western officials have been concerned about for some time. Furthermore, the oil-rich yet impoverished sub-Saharan African nation sits on a religious fault line, its 150 million people split almost evenly between Muslims in the north and Christians in the south. Bin Laden is widely admired in the arid, Muslim north. It has become fashionable for some Muslims to name their sons after him, while his picture adorns T-shirts and posters.
As TIME's Alex Perry wrote in July 2009, over the past few years, young Nigerian Muslim activists, most of them educated and from the middle class, have aggressively embraced a stricter version of Islam, rejecting anything Western and Christian. In the middle of 2009, the government cracked down hard on one group nicknamed the Nigerian Taliban officially called Boko Haram killing its leader and scores of his followers. Boko Haram had begun life in 2001 as a peaceful group focused on the study of the Koran, according to Abdulmumin Sa'ad, a Muslim scholar and professor of sociology at the University of Maiduguri. "The idea was that there is a lot of sin in the larger society, and their parents had amassed a lot of ill-gotten wealth," says Sa'ad, who taught some of the militants. Boko Haram may have been quelled, but the sentiments that gave it impetus remain very active in Nigeria.
In that regard, the Associated Press reported that a prominent Nigerian banker named Alhaji Umaru Mutallab said Saturday that he was meeting with security officials there because he feared his son was the suspect. "I believe he might have been to Yemen, but we are investigating to determine that," Mutallab told the AP. The Nigerian newspaper This Day reported Saturday that Abdulmutallab had been known to have extremist religious views since attending high school at the British International School in Lome, Togo, saying he had the nickname Alfa, a local term for an Islamic scholar. The newspaper also cited family sources as saying that after Abdulmutallab left university in London, he relocated to Egypt and then Dubai, where he cut ties with his family.
Abdulmutallab apparently wrote on visa documents that he was traveling to the U.S. for a religious ceremony. On Friday afternoon, Representative Peter King, the ranking Republican on the House Homeland Security Committee, said in television interviews that Abdulmutallab's name had appeared in databases as having a connection to terrorists. It is still unclear how long he had lived in London or when he had lived in Nigeria.
Little is known thus far about Abdulmutallab's time in London, aside from the fact he was believed to have been an engineering student at the prestigious University College London. The university issued a statement Saturday saying that a student by the name of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab had been enrolled in the mechanical-engineering course at the school from September 2005 to June 2008, although it stressed that it could not confirm the student was the same man being questioned in Detroit. In his interview with the AP, Alhaji Umaru Mutallab said his son had been a university student in London but had left Britain to travel abroad. He said his son had not lived in London "for some time," but he wasn't sure exactly where he had gone.
British intelligence and police officials also delved into Abdulmutallab's background on Saturday, trying to piece together clues about his activities and associations during his three years in London. Officers from the Metropolitan Police focused their attention on a seven-story mansion block in a well-to-do area of central London, conducting a search of a basement apartment owned by the Mutallab family near the university reported to be worth $4 million where the suspect, if he is indeed the son of the Nigerian banker, once lived. Home Secretary Alan Johnson didn't release any details of the search, saying only that London police are "working with their American colleagues on the investigation to uncover the full background to the incident."
The incident occurred about 11:30 Christmas morning, as Northwest Airlines Flight 253, carrying 278 passengers from Amsterdam, was in its final descent into Detroit's international airport. According to the FBI affidavit, a few minutes before the events began, Abdulmutallab went into the bathroom for about 20 minutes then, upon returning to his seat, complained that he had an upset stomach and put a blanket over himself. Suddenly, passengers heard a loud pop and then saw smoke and flames coming from Row 19. "What are you doing? What are you doing?" one woman shouted toward the man, later identified as Abdulmutallab. A male passenger leaped toward Abdulmutallab and pulled him to the floor. Flight attendants apparently rushed to the scene with fire extinguishers. One flight attendant reportedly asked Abdulmutallab what he had, to which he allegedly replied, "Explosive device." According to the FBI complaint, one passenger saw the remains of a partly melted syringe in Abdulmutallab's possession and took it away from him, shook it to stop it from smoking and threw it on the floor of the aircraft. Abdulmutallab was then placed in a headlock and pulled into the first-class section. "He didn't show any reaction to pain, any feeling of shock or nervousness," one female passenger who sat across from Abdulmutallab told television reporters after the plane landed, shortly before noon. Abdulmutallab was taken to a hospital in Ann Arbor, Mich.
The FBI has described the material apparently used in the syringe as PETN, which it called a "high explosive." PETN is an ingredient in Semtex plastic explosives; it was also reportedly used by the "shoe bomber" Richard Reid in his abortive Christmas 2001 terrorism attempt. Representative King said the device was "somewhat sophisticated," that it was more than a firecracker and that "it should have been detected." Federal officials swiftly called the incident an attempted act of terrorism. President Obama, vacationing in Hawaii, ordered strengthened security on international flights. The Department of Homeland Security said it had amplified screening measures.
It's unclear why Abdulmutallab chose the flight to Detroit. The city's airport is the 13th busiest in North America and is the hub for Northwest and Delta airlines. Since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, federal authorities have intensified security for the bridges and tunnels that connect Detroit to Windsor, Ont.
With reporting by Justin Bergman / London and Alex Perry