Despite mounting evidence of a sophisticated international plot to bring down a U.S. airliner on Christmas Day, the man charged in the thwarted attack — who was on U.S. officials' radar for years — was never considered a sufficient threat to keep from flying.
The alleged Christmas Day terrorist had been in one of the U.S. government's largest terror databases since November, when his father brought him to the attention of embassy officials in Nigeria.
But Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab came to the attention of intelligence officials months before that, according to a U.S. government official involved in the investigation. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because the investigation is ongoing.
Still, none of the information the government had on Abdulmutallab rose to the level of putting him on the official terror watch list or no-fly list. On Christmas Eve, the 23-year-old Nigerian — who later claimed to law enforcement that he was operating on orders from Al Qaeda — was able to carry a concealed explosive device onto a U.S.-bound airplane.
A former Homeland Security official told Fox News that Abdulmutallab's seat selection does not appear to be accidental, and that he was sitting in one of the two most vulnerable parts of the plane. The suspect was sitting in seat 19A, which is over the fuel tanks, atop the wing and next to the skin of the aircraft.
There is a high likelihood an explosion could be accelerated by the fuel tank, the official said — and that it could damage the plane's structure and puncture the skin, bringing down the aircraft.
The official, who has not been briefed on the current investigation but was intimately involved in investigating the 2006 Liquid Explosives Plot, says that one of the first things Homeland Security considers is where suspects were sitting on the aircraft.
Officials warn it is still early in the investigation. But lawmakers are already calling for hearings, and the government may order a review. As President Obama received regular updates on the investigation from his staff, his national security and policy aides have been asking whether the policies the U.S. has in place are working. These internal discussions marked the informal start to what will likely become a formal executive branch inquiry into an attack that failed because the bomb did not go off as planned and not because the intelligence community stopped it.
Passenger accounts and law enforcement officials describe the events around the Christmas Day attack this way:
On December 24, Abdulmutallab traveled from Nigeria to Amsterdam and then on to Detroit with an explosive device attached to his body.
Part of the device contained PETN, or pentaerythritol, and was hidden in a condom or condom-like bag just below Abdulmutallab's torso. PETN is the same material convicted shoe bomber Richard Reid used when he tried to destroy a trans-Atlantic flight in 2001 with explosives hidden in his shoes. Abdulmutallab also had a syringe filled with liquid.
As the plane approached Detroit, Abdulmutallab went to the bathroom for 20 minutes. When he returned to his seat, he complained of an upset stomach and covered himself with a blanket.
Passengers heard a popping noise, similar to a firecracker. They smelled an odor, and some passengers saw Abdulmutallab's pant leg and the wall of the airplane on fire. Passengers and the flight crew used blankets and fire extinguishers to quell the flames. They restrained Abdulmutallab, who later told a flight attendant he had an "explosive device" in his pocket. He was seen holding a partially melted syringe.
The airplane landed in Detroit shortly after the incident.
On Saturday, federal officials charged the young man with trying to destroy the airplane. A conviction on the charge could bring Abdulmutallab up to 20 years in prison and a $250,000 fine.
U.S. District Judge Paul Borman read Abdulmutallab the charges in a conference room at the University of Michigan Medical Center in Ann Arbor, Mich., where the former London university student is undergoing burn treatment. Abdulmutallab smiled as he was wheeled into the room, his left thumb and right wrist bandaged and part of the skin on the thumb was burned off.
Abdulmutallab claimed to have received training and instructions from Al Qaeda operatives in Yemen, law enforcement officials said. He is also believed to have had Internet contact with militant Islamic radicals.
While intelligence officials said Saturday that they are taking seriously Abdulmutallab's claims that the plot originated with Al Qaeda's network inside Yemen, several added that they had to yet to see independent confirmation. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because the investigation is incomplete.
Four weeks ago, Abdulmutallab's father told the U.S. embassy in Abuja, Nigeria, that he was concerned about his son's religious beliefs. This information was passed on to U.S. intelligence officials.
Abdulmutallab received a valid U.S. visa in June 2008 that is good through 2010.
His is one of about 550,000 names in the Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment database, known as TIDE, which is maintained by the U.S. National Counterterrorism Center and was created in response to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Intelligence officials said they lacked enough information to place him in the 400,000-person terror watch list or on the no-fly list of fewer than 4,000 people who should be blocked from air travel.
Fox News' Catherine Herridge and The Associated Press contributed to this report.