A Taylor attorney who was aboard a terrorist-targeted Christmas Day flight to Detroit says he was not surprised to hear al-Qaida claim responsibility for the attempted bombing Monday because he does not believe the man now in federal custody acted alone.
Kurt Haskell said he and his wife, Lori, were playing cards near the boarding gate in Amsterdam when he saw a well-dressed man who appeared to be of Indian descent come to the assistance of the man he later learned was Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab. The 23-year-old Nigerian was having trouble boarding the plane he is accused of trying to blow up because he had no passport, Haskell said.
“I think what I saw was his handler … getting him on the plane,” said Haskell, who was returning from a safari in Uganda.
The Indian man, who looked about 50 years old, told ticket agents Abdulmutallab did not have a passport but needed to get on the plane, the Haskells said.
The ticket agent told the man nobody was allowed to board without a passport, to which the well-dressed man replied: “We do this all the time; he’s from Sudan,” Lori Haskell said, adding she and her husband believe the man was trying to pass Abdulmutallab off as a Sudanese refugee.
The two were then directed down a corridor to talk to a manager, she said.
“This meant nothing to me until this man tried to blow up the plane,” Kurt Haskell said.
Abdulmutallab is charged with attempting to destroy an aircraft and placing a destructive device aboard an aircraft. He allegedly had chemical explosives concealed under his clothing. His attempt to detonate them as the plane approached Detroit created a fire, but he was restrained by passengers and flight crew who put out the blaze, federal authorities say.
The FBI and federal prosecutors would not comment Monday on the Haskells’ story, but foreign media reports said military police in the Netherlands were examining security video to check the account of an airport accomplice. Some foreign media reports quoted the military police as saying Abdulmutallab boarded the flight without going through passport control.
U.S. officials have said Abdulmutallab had a multi-entry visa to the United States. They have not specifically said whether he had a passport, but visas are typically, though not always, stamped into passports.
Edward Hasbrouck, author of the travel book series “The Practical Nomad” and an expert on international travel, said something about the story does not add up.
If Abdulmutallab did not have the proper travel documents, it is not clear how he got from Lagos, Nigeria, to the Netherlands, because someone from KLM, as well as government officials, would have checked his documents, Hasbrouck said.
In-transit passengers in Amsterdam are subjected to searches of their carry-on bags and pat-downs and sometimes, but not always document checks, he said. If Abdulmutallab’s travel documents became an issue in Amsterdam, airline officials would have a strong incentive not to let him board because they would be charged with the costs of detainment and deportation, plus administrative fines, if he was refused entry to the United States, he said.
Still, refugees who lack proper documentation are sometimes permitted to enter the United States without a passport, Hasbrouck said.
“Maybe he had some evidence that he had a visa to the U.S., but not the actual visa or not the passport,” he said.
Kurt Haskell said he does not believe the well-dressed man ever boarded the flight because he looked for him when the FBI gathered all the passengers for questioning at Detroit Metropolitan Airport.
“I think that it was all completely planned,” Lori Haskell said.
“I totally don’t think it was one guy.”
She said that as the plane approached Detroit, she heard a popping sound she first thought was ice on the landing gear. Then a flight attendant walked by and said, almost to herself: “Does anyone hear that buzzing sound? I think I smell smoke.”
Commotion then followed as smoke began to fill the cabin, flames shot up the wall of the plane, and passengers jumped on Abdulmutallab and, along with cabin crew, put out the fire, Haskell said.
Kurt Haskell said he saw a third man, who also appeared to be of Indian descent and looked about 30 years old, get taken away for FBI questioning and later led away in handcuffs after dogs detected something in his luggage after the flight landed.
He said one FBI agent later told passengers authorities had “those responsible” in custody.
The FBI in Detroit said only one man was arrested, and prosecutors in Detroit have refused to say whether there are other suspects in the case.
Staff Writers Nathan Hurst and Deb Price contributed.
“Sharp Dressed Man” Helped Umar Mutallab on Plane Without Passport