/ 28 December 2009

US probes if al-Qaeda linked to airplane incident

The Obama administration said on Sunday it was investigating whether al-Qaeda was involved in a Christmas Day attempt to blow up a passenger jet and sought to head off Republican attacks over its anti-terrorism measures.

The Nigerian suspect, Umar Abdul Mutallab, was moved to prison from a hospital. He was not expected to appear at a 7pm GMT) court hearing on Monday in Detroit, where prosecutors plan to seek an order to obtain his DNA.

Mutallab (23) is charged with attempting to blow up a Northwest Airlines jumbo plane as it approached Detroit on a flight from Amsterdam with almost 300 people on board.

Asked whether al-Qaeda was involved, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano told ABC’s This Week programme, ”That is now the subject of investigation and it would be inappropriate for me to say and inappropriate to speculate.

”Right now, we have no indication that it is part of anything larger,” Napolitano told CNN’s State of the Union.

CNN quoted an unidentified source ”with knowledge of the investigation” as saying the suspect carried enough explosive material to blow a hole in the plane had it been detonated.

The incident exposed still-raw nerves in the United States eight years after the September 11 hijacked plane attacks, as well as the political divisions that have emerged since. A sick passenger on the same Amsterdam-to-Detroit flight caused a major security scare at the Detroit airport on Sunday while Republicans began criticising the Obama administration over anti-terrorism efforts.

A US law enforcement official, speaking on condition of anonymity, confirmed media reports that Mutallab had told investigators al-Qaeda operatives in Yemen had given him the device and told him how to detonate it.

In Yemen, al-Qaeda vowed to take revenge over raids against the group this month that it said were carried out by US warplanes. The group’s internet statement, dated December 20, appeared shortly after Napolitano’s comments.

On Friday, Mutallab was overpowered by passengers and crew after setting alight an explosive device attached to his body, and was treated for burns at a Michigan hospital. He was released and transferred to a prison on Sunday morning.

Security worries
Republicans appearing on Sunday television programs questioned whether the Obama administration was doing enough to monitor security threats, noting that Mutallab’s father had reported concerns about his son to the US Embassy in Nigeria.

”There’s much to investigate here. It’s amazing to me that an individual like this who was sending out so many signals could end up getting on a plane going to the US,” Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell said on ABC.

”Radicalisation is alive. It is well. They want to attack the United States,” Representative Peter Hoekstra, ranking Republican on the House Intelligence Committee, told Fox News Sunday. ”I think this administration has downplayed it.”

President Barack Obama, on vacation in Hawaii, appealed through spokesperson Robert Gibbs for Republicans and Democrats to avoid a political fight.

”I hope that everyone will resolve in the new year, to make protecting our nation a nonpartisan issue rather than what normally happens in Washington,” Gibbs said on NBC.

Security officials were investigating how Mutallab had been able to get explosive materials on to the plane despite higher security worldwide since the September 11 2001, attacks. Al-Qaeda was held responsible for those attacks.

In Sunday’s incident, the crew of that same flight reported an emergency because of an unruly passenger. The crew was worried the passenger, also from Nigeria, was spending too long in the bathroom but authorities later determined he was ill.

The US government created a record of Mutallab last month in its central repository of information of about 550 000 known and suspected international terrorists.

Gibbs told CBS’ Face the Nation there was not enough information on Mutallab to move him beyond that list.

The US law enforcement official said Mutallab’s visa had been issued long before he was added to the database.

Napolitano said authorities were reviewing rules on who goes on lists to identify people who might pose threats and also would review screening policies and technologies.

Security questioned
Airports and airlines in the United States and around the world have tightened security after the foiled attack. Napolitano and Gibbs sought to reassure travellers that they would be safe.

Peter King, the top Republican on the House of Representatives Homeland Security Committee, said the system did not work.

”He made it on the plane with explosives and he detonated explosives,” King told CBS. ”If that had been successful, the plane would have come down and would have had a Christmas Day massacre with almost 300 people murdered. So this came within probably seconds or inches of working.”

An initial FBI analysis found the device used by Mutallab contained PETN, also known as pentaerythritol, one of the explosives carried by ”shoe bomber” Richard Reid in his failed attempt to blow up a US passenger jet just before Christmas in 2001, months after the September 11 attacks.

The device was a packet of powder and a liquid-filled syringe sewn into the suspect’s underwear, media reports said.

A Dutch passenger, Jasper Schuringa, was credited with subduing Mutallab as he was igniting the explosives.

Mutallab started his journey in Nigeria’s commercial hub of Lagos, where he boarded a KLM flight to Amsterdam before going through another security checkpoint at Schiphol airport, Dutch counterterrorism agency NCTb has said. – Reuters