The Nigerian national who tried to blow up a transatlantic airliner on Christmas Day over Detroit used a syringe and an explosive chemical hidden under his clothes to set a fire aboard the plane, according to a criminal complaint charging the self-described jihadi with attempting to destroy the aircraft.
The explosive device under Umar Farouk Abdul Mutallab's clothing contained a dangerous chemical called PETN, also known as pentaerythritol, the complaint says.
The explosive chemical cannot be detected by magnetometers, which Abdul Mutallab passed through in both Nigeria and Amsterdam, said Rep. Peter King, the ranking Republican member of the House of Representatives Homeland Security Committee.
"If this had worked right the plane would have come down," said King (R-Seaford).
Abdul Mutallab was not subjected to a full-body scan with machines given to Nigeria last year and available at Amsterdam's airport, where Abdul Mutallab switched planes. The machines might have detected the explosive device.
He also brought on board an undisclosed liquid to set off the explosion but in a small enough quantity that it was allowed as carry-on, King said.
The 23-year-old, who reportedly told officials that he was acting on orders from al-Qaida, is being charged in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan with willfully attempting to destroy an aircraft and willfully placing a destructive device on the aircraft, the complaint says.
The suspect was arraigned in a hospital confrence room sitting in a wheelchair, he had been taken after being injuried in the explosion.
Federal authorities say Northwest Flight 253, which left Amsterdam with 279 passengers and 11 crew members, was in a descent to the Detroit airport, before noon on Christmas Day when Mutallab returned from a cabin bathroom, where he had been for about 20 minutes.
Upon returning to his seat, Mutallab said he had an upset stomach and put a blanket over himself.
That's when passengers heard popping noises that sounded like firecrackers, smelled an odor and saw his pant legs and the wall of the plane ablaze, the complaint says.
"One flight attendant stated that she asked Abdul Mutallab what he had in his pocket, and he replied, 'explosive device,'" according to the complaint.
Passengers and the crew extinguished the blaze and subdued Abdul Mutallab, authorities said.
"A passenger stated that he observed Abdul Mutallab holding what appeared to be a partially melted syringe, which was smoking," the complaint says.
"The passenger took the syringe from Abdul Mutallab, shook it to stop it from smoking and threw it to the floor of the aircraft."
The FBI found remnants of the syringe on the floor near where Abdul Mutallab had been sitting.
Frank Cilluffo, director of the Homeland Security Policy Institute at George Washington University, said the incident in Detroit raised many questions, including whether the attempted explosion was an experiment or part of a coordinated attack.
A key question is whether the suspected terrorist was acting alone or connected to a group, such as al-Qaida. If he was not acting alone, he raises serious questions.
"Was this a dry run?" Cilluffo asked. "Were they testing to see what they could pull off?"
Or, he said, it must be asked if the Detroit incident was just one of a series of planned attacks. "These things often happen in twos and threes," he said. "Was this part of a broader plot?"