The man who allegedly tried to blow up a transatlantic flight with explosives hidden in his shoes was a convert to Islam who attended the same south London mosque as an accused conspirator in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the mosque's leader said Wednesday.
Abdul Haqq Baker, chairman of the Brixton Mosque, said suspect Richard Reid converted to Islam while serving a jail sentence, and approached the mosque asking to learn the tenets of the religion.
"He was someone out of prison who wanted to learn," Mr. Baker said. "There was no indication ... he was linked with terrorist organizations."
During an American Airlines flight from Paris to Miami on Dec. 22, Mr. Reid allegedly tried to light a fuse protruding from his shoe. Flight attendants and passengers used belts to restrain him, and two doctors sedated him. The Boeing 767, carrying 197 people, was diverted to Boston with an escort of two fighter jets.
Baker said that for part of 1998, Reid attended the mosque at the same time as Zacarias Moussaoui, a Frenchman charged with conspiracy in connection with the Sept. 11 attacks. He said it was possible the two men had met.
Investigators are still attempting to confirm the suspect's identity. Richard Reid is the name listed on a British passport issued Dec. 7 by the British Embassy in Belgium, and London's Times newspaper and a French police official both have identified Reid as a British petty criminal with an English mother and a Jamaican father.
After the man's arrest Saturday, French officials initially said they thought he was a Sri Lankan named Tariq Raja, but on Tuesday, Sri Lanka's Ministry of Foreign Affairs said the man was not a Sri Lankan national.
George Fergusson, consul general at the British Consulate in Boston, said Tuesday that Reid's British passport appeared to be valid.
According to Baker, Reid - who, he said, also used the name Abdel Rahim - was initially a normal, streetwise London youth, but later developed extreme views.
Baker said he doubted Reid could have devised the shoe-bombing plot on his own. "I definitely believe there are individuals behind him and that he was a test and they were watching to see if he would succeed," he said.
Sen. Richard Shelby, the top Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee, said the FBI still has to determine whether the suspect was acting alone and where the explosives came from. "He certainly didn't get them at the corner grocery store," he said.
Meanwhile, airports around the country and in Europe are boosting security in the wake of the incident. Some are requiring passengers to send their shoes through X-ray machines. Airports in Paris have increased the number of bomb-sniffing dogs.
While Congress has ordered that US airlines have a system in place by Jan. 18 to inspect all checked baggage for explosives, walk-through devices that could detect explosives on passengers are still in the development stage.