Echoes of 2001 shoe bomber in Detroit attack

In both cases, passengers and crew subdued the alleged bomber before the explosive material could fully ignite. In the Detroit attack, passengers heard popping noises and saw suspect Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab's pants on fire when they intervened, according to court documents.

US Marshal's Service/AP
Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab in Milan, Mich.

If nothing else, the alleged Christmas Day bomber was truthful when asked a direct question.

Shortly after passengers and crew subdued him and extinguished flames climbing the wall of Flight 253, a flight attendant asked Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab what he had in his pocket.

“Explosive device,” he told her, according to court documents filed in the case.

The details are contained in a six-page account of the dramatic mid-air confrontation on Christmas Day.

Mr. Abdulmutallab, a 23-year-old Nigerian, was arrested and charged with attempting to set off a bomb aboard a commercial jetliner. The explosive material was apparently concealed in his underpants.

The incident has raised questions about how he could elude elaborate US and international security checks. It also sets the stage for a terrorism trial in US District Court in Detroit.

On Monday, federal prosecutors canceled a scheduled court hearing in the emerging case against Abdulmutallab. Prosecutors were seeking a court order to obtain DNA material from him. No explanation for the request or the delay was given.

Abdulmutallab is next scheduled to appear in court on Jan. 8 for a bond hearing. He is not expected to be released on bond pending his trial given the severity of the charges against him, but the hearing may provide new details about his alleged crime, particularly how the young Nigerian obtained his make-shift bomb.

Authorities have said he is answering questions, and some reports say he obtained the high explosive in Yemen.

Case resembles shoe bomber

The criminal case against him will likely resemble that of attempted shoe bomber Richard Reid.

In both cases, passengers and crew were able to intervene and subdue the alleged bomber before the concealed explosive material could fully ignite. Mr. Reid pleaded guilty to attempting to detonate his shoe bomb while en route from Paris to Miami in 2002. He is serving a sentence of life without the possibility of parole.

Abdulmutallab is being represented by federal public defenders. He has not yet entered a plea in the case.

Prosecutors have initially charged him with attempting to destroy an aircraft and placing a bomb on an aircraft. He faces up to 40 years in prison under those two charges.

According to an FBI affidavit presented to US District Judge Paul Borman, Abdulmutallab boarded Northwest Airlines Flight 253 in Amsterdam on Christmas Eve. The flight, scheduled to arrive Christmas Day in Detroit, carried 279 passengers and 11 crew aboard.

According to witnesses, Abdulmutallab set off a device just before landing, which resulted in a fire and an explosion, the FBI affidavit says. Abdulmutallab was restrained by the flight crew and other passengers. The airplane landed at Detroit “almost immediately after,” the affidavit says.

Mid-air drama

The affidavit includes details of the midair struggle as recounted to the FBI by passengers and flight attendants.

“In general, those individuals who were on the flight and who were able to see Abdulmutallab report that prior to the incident, Abdulmutallab went to the bathroom for approximately twenty minutes,” the affidavit says. “Upon returning to his seat, Abdulmutallab stated that his stomach was upset, and he pulled a blanket over himself. Passengers then heard popping noises similar to firecrackers, smelled an odor, and some observed Abdulmutallab’s pants leg and the wall of the airplane on fire.”

The affidavit continues: “Passengers and crew then subdued Abdulmutallab and used blankets and fire extinguishers to put out the flames.”

“One flight attendant… stated that she asked Abdulmutallab what he had in his pocket, and he replied ‘explosive device',” the affidavit says. “A passenger stated that he observed Abdulmutallab holding what appeared to be a partially melted syringe, which was smoking. The passenger took the syringe…, shook it to stop it from smoking, and threw it to the floor of the aircraft.”

FBI agents later recovered the syringe. Authorities believe there was something in the syringe to ignite the explosive device.


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