British intelligence officials knew that the Nigerian man suspected of trying to bomb a Detroit-bound airliner had ties to UK extremists, but did not consider him enough of a high risk to alert US authorities, a senior British official said on Sunday.
Officials realized about a year after Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab came to London to study in 2005 that he was in contact with Islamic extremists whose communications were being monitored, a senior government official told reporters on Sunday.
But there were no signs that Abdulmutallab wanted to target the US or was considering turning toward violence, the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of his work.
“It was clear he was reaching out to radical extremists in the UK, but there was nothing to indicate he was violent,” the official said. “There is a very large number of people in the UK who express interest in radical extremism but never turn to violence. He only pinged up on our radar because of other people we were interested in.”
Officials say Abdulmutallab, a 23-year-old Nigerian who spent time in Yemen, sneaked an explosive device aboard his Northwest Airlines flight from Amsterdam to Detroit on Christmas Day but was not able to ignite it as planned.
US President Barack Obama has said there was a systemic failure to prevent the attack and ordered a thorough review of security shortcomings. The president has summoned Homeland Security officials to meet him in the White House today.
The British official said even though there are no set profile characteristics to indicate whether a suspect is likely to turn violent, the overall risk a person poses can be assessed by looking their associates, travel patterns, threats and activities.
He declined to name the extremists that Abdulmutallab had contacted.
“Obviously if there was any indication that he was likely to target the US, we would have immediately alerted our US counterparts,” the officials told reporters in an interview. “But the fact is that many start on this journey of extremism and few complete it.”
He said it wouldn’t make sense to alert US authorities to every person who showed up on the “fringes of extremism” and said Abdulmutallab’s actual radicalization appeared to have come in the time he spent in Yemen.
It is believed Abdulmutallab received training in Yemen five months before the failed attack.
A US intelligence official said US counterterrorism officials are looking into what knowledge allies may have had about Abdulmutallab. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to publicly discuss foreign intelligence.
The disclosure came as British Prime Minister Gordon Brown announced that full body scanners would be introduced in British airports and that the UK would dedicate funding for an anti-terror police unit in Yemen.
It was unclear when the scanners would be introduced.
Counterterrorism police and security officials, meanwhile, are still piecing together a detailed trail of Abdulmutallab’s communications when he studied engineering at the University College of London (UCL) between 2005 and 2008. He was denied a second student visa in May last year after saying that he wanted to study at an institution that the government said was bogus.
Abdulmutallab, who was president of the UCL’s Islamic Society in 2007, is said to have written several e-mails talking about jihad.