Published December 27, 2009
U.S. law enforcement and intelligence officials are fanning out across the globe, tracking down leads on a 23-year-old Nigerian man accused of trying to blow up a Northwest Airlines flight on Christmas Day.
Umar Farouk Abdul Mutallab was moved out of a hospital in Michigan Sunday afternoon and sent to a "secure location in Eastern Michigan," U.S. Marshals spokesman Kevin Pettit said.
Mutallab had been hospitalized after burning himself while trying to ignite an explosive device during the descent of Northwest Airlines Flight 253, on its way from Amsterdam to Detroit. Passengers and flight crew apprehended Mutallab, who was allegedly carrying a powerful explosive.
Now investigators want to know Mutallab's links to Al Qaeda and also Imam Anwar Awlaki, a Muslim cleric tied to Fort Hood suspected shooter Nidal Hasan. Authorities had thought Alwaki had been killed last week in a recent air strike by Yemeni authorities on a terrorist hideout in Yemen, but it's now unclear whether he was taken out.
According to one source, Mutallab spent time in Yemen after studying a university in London. It is unclear how long he was there, but believed to be a matter of weeks at least and could have been "many months."
U.S. officials have traveled to Nigeria to learn more about the suspect as well as to London, where Mutallab reportedly was denied a visa to return because he listed as his destination a school that doesn't exist.
Back in Hawaii, President Obama received an update early Sunday morning from his counterterrorism chief and national security staff. Obama is vacationing with his family but keeping a close eye on developments, his spokesman said.
Homeland Security and Counterterrorism Adviser John Brennan and National Security Staff Chief of Staff Denis McDonough updated the president "on the security measures being taken to keep the traveling public safe, the most recent intelligence regarding that incident as well as on the reviews the president ordered into watch lists and detection capabilities," said White House spokesman Bill Burton.
The president has already ordered a review of the various airline watch lists designed to prevent suspected terrorists and others from boarding U.S. flights. Mutallab, 23, reportedly had been added to the Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment in November, a watch list containing 550,000 names.
The White House said Mutallab ended up on the list after his father, Umaru Mutallab, a well-known banking executive, went to the U.S. consulate office in Nigeria to warn officials about his son's recent Muslim radicalization.
The younger Mutallab was not included in the more refined no-fly list of 4,000 people who are kicked off flights to the United States, or on the list of 15,000 who must go through more rigorous screening before being allowed to board.
The president "wants to review the information that we had and ensure that the procedures, some of which are several years old, for how information gets on lists -- that that's reviewed properly -- as well as the detection capabilities that would have allowed an individual like this to board a plane in Amsterdam with explosive chemicals," Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said.
Kemi Omololu-Olunloyo, a former "Radio Nigeria" reporter familiar with the Mutallab family, said Umaru Mutallab was a hero of sorts in his country prior to turning in his son, whom he reportedly had disowned. The elder Mutallab had helped save many people's bank accounts when the Nigerian economy collapsed, and he is highly regarded for his compassion and caring.
Nigerian Information Minister Dora Akunyili told reporters Sunday that the younger Mutallab entered Nigeria on Christmas eve before quickly leaving.
"The man in question has been living outside of the country for a while," she said. "He sneaked into Nigeria on the 24th of December 2009 and left the same day."
While the terror plot was foiled, Mutallab's position on the flight was no accident, said a former senior homeland security official. The suspect was seated in 19A -- over the fuel tanks, atop the wing and next to the skin of the aircraft. If there had been an explosion, the official who was not briefed on the current FBI case, said it could have been accelerated by the fuel, damaging the wing, puncturing the skin and bringing down the plane.
Nonetheless, Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said the system worked because "everything happened that should have."
"The passengers reacted correctly, the crew reacted correctly, within an hour to 90 minutes, all 128 flights in the air had been notified. And those flights already had taken mitigation measures on the off- chance that there was somebody else also flying with some sort of destructive intent. So the system has worked really very, very smoothly over the course of the past several days," Napolitano told ABC's "This Week".
But some lawmakers say Napolitano needs a reality check.
"The fact is the system did not work," Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y. , the ranking Republican on the House Homeland Security Committee, said on CBS' "Face the Nation." "He made it on the plane, with explosives and he detonated the explosives."
"We didn't act sufficiently on the information that was made available to us," Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., told Fox News. Smith said the "disconnect" comes from having a "specific warning from someone who knew him well" and the failure "to treat that list more seriously. ... If you are on that list, you should receive greater scrutiny."
Rep. Pete Hoekstra, R-Mich., the ranking member of the House intelligence committee, added that the miscues on the incident fall on the shoulders of the Obama administration.
"The Obama administration came in and said, 'We're not going to use the word "terrorism" anymore. We're going to call it "manmade disasters,"' trying to, you know, I think, downplay the threat from terrorism," Hoekstra told "Fox News Sunday."
"That threat is here in the United States," Hoekstra continued. "It is lone wolf individuals. It is people that have become radicalized that have had some contact with Al Qaeda. And then it is the threats that come from Al Qaeda central. Homegrown terrorism, the threat to the United States, is real. I think this administration has downplayed it. They need to recognize it, identify it. It is the only way we are going to defeat it."
Gibbs said he hopes lawmakers won't politicize the investigation, and are "as interested in ensuring that safety and security as the president is."
"I think the best new year's resolution that we might be able to make in the new year is to make the security of the American people a nonpartisan issue not a political football that we punt back and forth.
Gibbs said homeland security officials met on Christmas day and decided not to raise the threat level in the United States but to increase detection capabilities and air marshals on flights going in and out of the United States. No air marshal was on Flight 253.
Fox News' Catherine Herridge, Eve Zibel and Mike Levine and The Associated Press contributed to this report.