WASHINGTON — The Justice Department on Saturday charged a 23-year-old Nigerian with attempting to destroy a Northwest Airlines jetliner with the same highly explosive chemical that convicted shoe-bomber Richard Reid used in a similar, unsuccessful attempt seven years earlier.
Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab covered himself with a blanket and succeeded in igniting a fire before other holiday travelers aboard Northwest Flight 253 subdued him and smothered the flames as the plane approached Detroit's Metropolitan Airport on Christmas Day, an FBI affidavit said.
He was charged in federal court in Detroit with willfully attempting to destroy an aircraft and with placing a destructive device on the plane, each punishable by up to 20 years in prison.
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The affidavit provided chilling details of how Abdulmutallab apparently used a syringe to mix chemicals and succeeded in creating enough flames to ignite his pant legs and the wall of the plane.
Abdulmutallab told authorities that he was acting at the behest of al Qaida in attempting to destroy the Airbus A330-300 jet carrying 279 passengers and 11 crewmembers from Amsterdam.
The chemical in question was PETN, short for pentaerythritol, a colorless, organic compound which is similar to nitroglycerin. The affidavit did not indicate what chemical was in the syringe.
Among incidents known to the public, this was the closest that an alleged terrorist had come to destroying a U.S. jetliner since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Reid was subdued on Dec. 22, 2001 while trying to ignite PETN in his shoe, but passengers quickly overwhelmed him.
The incident underscored that despite massive security improvements including scans of passengers' shoes since Reid's attempt, terrorists are still trying to find ways to seize or destroy U.S. jetliners. It was not immediately clear whether any technology can spot PETN when it's insulated, for example by a plastic container.
The affidavit, based on interviews with all the passengers and crewmembers, said that Abdulmutallab went to one of the plane's toilets for about 20 minutes before the incident.
Returning to his seat, he said that he had an upset stomach and pulled a blanket over himself. Passengers then heard popping noises similar to firecrackers and smelled an odor.
Some passengers "observed Abdulmutallab's pants leg and the wall of the airplane on fire," the affidavit said.
"Passengers and crew then subdued Abdulmutallab and used blankets and fire extinguishers to put out the flames," it said.
A flight attendant, Dionne Ransom-Monroe, told FBI agents that she asked Abdulmutallab what he had had in his pocket and he replied, "Explosive device," the affidavit said.
Meantime, a passenger saw that he was holding what appeared to be a partially melted syringe, still emitting smoke. The passenger took the syringe from him, "shook it to stop it from smoking and threw it to the floor of the aircraft," it said.
The FBI later recovered "what appears to be the remnants of the syringe," it said. The FBI did not identify the content of the syringe, but said a more thorough analysis is now under way.
The plane landed immediately and U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents seized Abdulmutallab, who was taken to the University of Michigan Medical Center for treatment of burns.
Additional charges appear likely. Following his foiled attempt, Reid was given a sentence of life in prison without parole. He is incarcerated at the federal "Supermax" prison in Florence, Colo.
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