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Airports raise global safety levels after terror attack on US jet is foiled

Police search London address as bomber suspect is revealed to have links to al-Qaida

Security at airports around the world was stepped up yesterday after a student from a London university tried to blow up a transatlantic airliner carrying 290 passengers and crew minutes before it was due to land in the US.

Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, a 23-year-old from a powerful Nigerian banking family, who studied engineering at University College London, was restrained by other passengers while trying to ignite an explosive device attached to his body on a flight from Amsterdam to Detroit.

Last night he was charged with trying to destroy an American plane. A judge read the charges to Abdulmutallab in a conference room at the medical centre where he is receiving treatment for burns. Agents brought him into the room in a wheelchair, a blanket over his lap and wearing a green hospital robe. In an affidavit filed with the charge, passengers said Abdulmutallab had gone to the toilet on the plane for about 20 minutes and then returned to his seat, pulling a blanket over himself and saying that his stomach was upset.

The FBI said initial checks showed the device contained pentaerythritol, the same explosive used by British "shoe-bomber" Richard Reid. He tried to blow up an airliner in 2001 using material hidden in his shoes.

Yesterday MI5 was trying to establish whether Abdulmutallab had links to known Islamist groups in the UK. In May he was barred from returning to Britain when he attempted to apply for a new course at a bogus college. "He was refused entry on grounds that he was applying to study at an educational establishment that we didn't consider to be genuine," said a Whitehall official. Scotland Yard confirmed it was liaising with American authorities as searches were carried out at properties in central London, including a student hall of residence and a flat in Belgravia.

America has known for at least two years that Abdulmutallab could have terrorist ties as he is on a "terrorist identities" list of 550,000 names maintained by US authorities. However, he had not been placed on a no-flight list, a US law enforcement source said yesterday. After the incident Barack Obama issued an order for extra security on all planes going to America.

US intelligence officials said that Abdulmutallab had claimed al-Qaida instructed him to detonate the device when the plane was over American soil. Officials are investigating the suspect's links with terrorists based in Yemen, a major stronghold for al-Qaida and home to the extremist cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, who regularly addresses British university Islamic societies via video links.

Passengers on board Northwest Flight 253 told how they overpowered Abdulmutallab, who suffered serious burns while trying to ignite his device.

The attempt was thwarted by film producer Jasper Schuringa, who hit Abdulmutallab, pulled the explosive device from between his legs, then ripped his clothes off to make sure there were no other bombs. The Dutchman then helped flight attendants restrain Abdulmutallab before returning to his own seat. Fellow passengers gave Schuringa a round of applause. Abdulmutallab "didn't show any reaction to pain or any feeling of shock" as the flames engulfed him, said another passenger, Melinda Dennis.

Abdulmutallab is the son of the recently retired chairman of First Bank of Nigeria, Alhaji Umaru Mutallab, who was due to meet Nigerian security officials late yesterday. He said his son had left London to travel. "I believe he might have been to Yemen, but we are investigating that," he said.

Yesterday Britons travelling to the US were told their hand luggage allowance had been reduced to one item and all passengers were being body-searched.

A Department for Transport spokeswoman said: "The US authorities have requested additional measures for US-bound flights."

The incident has raised fresh questions about security screening at airports. The Dutch security service, NCTb, said it could not rule out the potential for dangerous items to pass through security, especially objects that "current security technology cannot detect".

"Security is not 100% at airports anywhere," said aviation expert Chris Yates. "The processes are relatively robust but we can't head off every single threat."


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Airports raise global safety levels after terror attack on US jet is foiled

This article appeared on p1 of the Focus section of the Observer on Sunday 27 December 2009. It was published on guardian.co.uk at 00.58 GMT on Sunday 27 December 2009. It was last modified at 00.58 GMT on Sunday 27 December 2009.

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