Accused Christmas Bomber Listened to Music, Slept

NPR – February 17, 2010

A Michigan college student who sat next to Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab on a Detroit-bound flight on Christmas Day says the accused terrorist’s actions suggested he was in over his head. Jay Howard says that Abdulmutallab mostly slept and listened to music during the flight and seemed surprised when asked about the smoke that apparently came from under his blanket.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:
The man at the center of this story, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, remains in federal custody in Michigan. It’s been nearly two months now since he allegedly tried to blow up Northwest Flight 253. On that flight, Abdulmutallab was in seat 19A. In 19B was Jay Howard, a 21-year-old college student from Grand Rapids, returning home from a semester abroad. He spoke with my co-host Michele Norris about that flight.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:
Melissa, Jay Howard says there was nothing unusual about Abdulmutallab. He said he was just an average seatmate.

Mr. JAY HOWARD (Student): I had gotten in first, so when he came by, I had to stand up and let him in. And then he thanked me for getting up for him, and we sat down together.

NORRIS: Throughout that flight, their interaction was minimal. Abdulmutallab told Howard he felt ill. And he mostly listened to music and slept. Then 10 minutes into the plane’s final descent, everything changed.

Mr. HOWARD: Well, there was a large pop – like, almost everyone on the plane, I’m sure, I heard it. So, I was very curious to what had happened because it sounded very close to me. So, I was looking around and I noticed that my neighbor, Umar, had his blanket up over him, up to his chin and but I saw that there was smoke coming from underneath his blanket. And I also noticed a repulsive smell. And so I kind of questioned him, and I asked him about the smoke but he didn’t respond. And so, I removed his blanket from him and smoke dispersed throughout the plane.
And he had his hand down his pants. So, when he removed his hands from his pants, fire erupted. And he and another passenger, who had come over from a couple of rows away, tried to put it out together. So…

NORRIS: Well, if I can just reach back for a minute, when you asked him about the smell, when he had the blanket pulled up to his chin, did he just ignore you?

Mr. HOWARD: Well, he didn’t exactly ignore me. At that point, I just what I got out of him was that he didn’t exactly know either but, of course, he did know. He seemed very surprised and shocked at what was happening, like he didn’t know.

NORRIS: As you can hear, Jay Howard is very calm in describing a scary situation, but he says many of the other passengers were quite frantic. And I noticed something talking to him: He kept referring to Abdulmutallab by his first name, Umar, as if they were friends.

Mr. HOWARD: I only call him that because I mean, I don’t want to call him a terrorist because he hasn’t been treated as a terrorist and it wasn’t a national threat, and so using Umar seems to be more human.

NORRIS: You have an interesting perspective – that you choose not to see him as a terrorist, and you don’t see what he did as presenting a threat.

Mr. HOWARD: Well, I mean, it was a threat, of course, it was a threat because initially, he was trying to blow up the plane but he didn’t succeed. I mainly treat him this way because of how he reacted towards what he was doing. And what his actions told me on the plane was that he was in over his head, and that he didn’t exactly know what he was doing would entail.

NORRIS: That plane, of course, landed in Detroit. Jay Howard was questioned by the FBI. He was told not to say much about the incident. His clothes were taken for chemical analysis to help determine what Abdulmutallab’s bomb was made of. FBI agents bought new clothes for Howard on the spot, but given the limited retail options at an airport, Howard’s replacement ensemble was far from his usual style.

Mr. HOWARD: It’s was a long-sleeve, yellow polo with blue stripes across it and blue pants. And they didn’t find any shoes for me. And so I actually ended up wearing these enormous slippers that were like, golf-shoe style. It was so funny, it looked like I was just going to go golfing or something. Everyone was kind of giving me a strange look in the airport.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HOWARD: So, they had no idea what my day was like.

NORRIS: Jay Howard has since put the day behind him. He is focusing on his studies. He’s not following Abdulmutallab’s case very closely. And Melissa, he says he doesn’t dwell on what-if scenarios.

BLOCK: And we’ll continue retracing Abdulmutallab’s steps tomorrow on

MORNING EDITION, with a report on the Nigerian’s radicalization in London.

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