EXCLUSIVE: FBI agents reveal underwear bomber Abdulmutallab wore explosive underwear for three weeks
A rare look inside the mind of a suicide bomber
4:03 PM, Sep 27, 2012
2:26 PM, Sep 28, 2012
DETROIT (WXYZ) - In an exclusive interview with two FBI agents who cracked the case, 7 Action News Investigator Scott Lewis has new details that never came to light because "Underwear Bomber" Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab pleaded guilty to avoid a trial.
Abdulmutallab is the Nigerian man who tried to take down a jumbo jet over metro Detroit on Christmas Day in 2009.
Among other surprises the agents revealed that Abdulmutallab was working for Al-Qaeda, but he was not recruited by the terrorist organization.
FBI agents also say the Underwear Bomber might have inadvertently foiled his own plot because of his obsession about making sure the bomb would not be detected.
FBI agent Ted Peissig cracked the case with an immediate confession. Peissig, who has experience in explosives and interrogation, got the bomber to confess shortly after the incident.
Agent Mike Connelly, an ex-military interrogator, then followed a trail to the Middle East that uncovered critical intelligence in the war on terror, and gave agents a rare glimpse inside the mind of a suicide bomber.
The story began on Christmas Day in 2009, a day of celebration and peace. While many Detroiters were celebrating the holiday, a potential catastrophe was unfolding in the sky over metro Detroit.
A Nigerian-born suicide bomber, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab was preparing to take down a flight from Amsterdam with explosives hidden in his underwear. He'd been instructed to detonate the bomb over a populated area to maximize the death toll.
In Abdulmutallab's mind it was an act of martyrdom and jihad. He had no feelings for the men, women and children around him who were about die, according to the FBI agents.
"He did not bat an eye in saying if that plane was going to go down, it was going to go down. That was God's call. That wasn't his call. His responsibility was just to detonate the bomb, and whatever happened, happened," says agent Connelly.
As the huge jumbo jet carrying over 300 people was approaching Detroit, Abulmutallab disappeared into the restroom to wash himself, a ritual for his passage into the next life. When he returned to his seat he told the guy sitting next to him that he wasn't feeling well.
"And pulled a blanket almost completely concealing himself up to the chin," Agent Peissig tells 7 Action News.
Using a plastic syringe, Abdulmutallab injected a mixture of liquids and solids into the explosive chemicals already packed into his underwear.
But Instead of exploding, the bomb burst into flames, setting his clothes and the blanket on fire, seriously burning him.
The FBI later recreated what might have happened if the device had gone off as planned. They set off a similar amount of the same kind of explosives in a field, causing a significant blast.
The lead investigator says even though the bomb on the plane didn't explode, it still could have brought the big plane down.
"In speaking with the pilots collectively, there's no greater emergency on a plane than fire," says Peissig. "To them, that is the worst thing that can happen. The planes themselves are no longer cable controlled, they're wire controlled. They could lose complete control of the plane if the flame impinged on the wiring," he explains.
When the bomb ignited, the plane was over Woodhaven, Michigan, a populated area downriver from Detroit.
"So not only the potential casualties of three hundred or some people on the plane, that if it would have come down, then you've got that catastrophe on the ground as well," says Peissig.
After it landed, Abdulmutallab was wisked off the plane and rushed to the University of Michigan Hospital, with serious burns.
FBI agents Mike Connelly and Ted Peissig were enjoying Christmas with their families when they got the call to head to Detroit Metro Airport.
"The call was talking basically about possible fireworks on an aircraft," recalls Peissig.
On the way, Peissig, an expert on explosives and interrogation, was diverted to U of M Hospital when the FBI learned it was likely a bomb on the plane.
"We needed to know what kind of device, details about the device, who was behind this, were there other actions like this going to happen as well which is kind of a footprint of Al-Qaeda," recalls Peissig.
And he needed the information quickly in case other suicide bombers were in the air. With this was a major public safety threat, the FBI decided not to give Abdulmutallab his Miranda rights.
"While it was debated whether that was a good strategy ultimately it figured out to be a very good one," said Peissig.
Surprisingly Abdulmutallab admitted he was a suicide bomber affiliated with Al-Qaeda. He told them what kind of device it was, said he was acting alone, and there were no other suicide bombers in the air.
"The world was on notice at that point; we may be under attack. We were able to share information pretty rapidly to alleviate some of that concern," Peissig says.
Agents say Abdulmutallab is exceptionally bright, well educated and good on his feet. On the way to the U.S. there were several times when he could have been tripped up and detected but he smooth-talked his way through. His obsession to detail is what apparently caused his suicide mission to fail.
Agents say he wore the underwear bomb for three weeks straight to get comfortable with it and make sure it would not be detected. They say he removed his specially modified underwear only to shower.
"So basically for three weeks he wore this garment, these underwear with this device in it. We think ultimately that is probably what caused the disruption in the sequence of events in the explosion," recalls Peissig.
So why did he choose Detroit for his deadly act? It all came down to dollars and cents.
By the time he got to Amsterdam for the final leg of his mission, he had only enough money to fly to two American cities.
"By the time that he made his decision it had come down to Houston or Detroit. And when he bought a ticket, it ended up being Detroit," says Connelly.
While Abdulmutallab readily and proudly told agents about his suicide mission and the bomb he wore, he was clearly lying about other details, including who had sent him.
"He gave us a kind of pre-determined cover story and some names that didn't gibe with what we understood," Peissig said.
The FBI had a lot more work to do to find out who else was involved in the planning and what else might be in the terror pipeline down the road.
Abdulmutallab himself, maybe unknowingly, pointed them in the right direction.
"One final thing that I asked him before leaving: Is this something then that you had approved or authorized by your parents? And he said, 'Oh no, my parents would never approve of it.' And I thought that was interesting," Peissig recalls.
And that interesting comment was one reason agent Connelly went directly to Nigeria to talk to Abdulmutallab's family. That visit eventually opened the door to almost daily conversations with the Underwear Bomber.
Over a period of months, the agents extracted detailed and chilling information about Abdulmutallab and his mission. It's a rare glimpse into the mind of a suicide bomber.
The FBI agents who worked the case say they don't often get a chance to interrogate a suicide bomber, especially one who ended up singing like a canary about what he did, how he did it, and why.
7 Action News Investigator Scott Lewis asked FBI agent Ted Peissig, "Would you look at this guy and say, 'He's a terrorist?'"
"I think, in no way shape or form," says Peissig.
"In his tone, his conversation, he's very reserved," adds agent Connelly. "He's deliberate in his speech."
"The witnesses remarked about how he just looked like a simple young school boy," says Peissig.
But appearances don't match reality in the case of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab. Agents say he was an extreme fanatic and a very dangerous man.
He was hell-bent on taking down a jumbo jet over Detroit with no consideration for the hundreds who would die in the plane and on the ground.
"He is completely different from any terrorist that I've had the ability to talk to," explains Connelly. "Different because of his absolute devotion to Jihad. The degree of conviction that he had to the cause is unparalleled."
Within hours of the failed bombing, Abdulmutallab had confessed and admitted he was working for Al-Qaeda. But he also gave the FBI misinformation in an elaborate cover story.
"Probably less than 10 percent of what he said the first day was actually truthful," says Connelly, who, with another agent, packed up and headed for Nigeria, to visit Abdulmutallab's hometown.
"Our responsibility was to primarily find out who sent him, whether there were any other attacks and determine if there was a motivation for why he did what he did," he explains.
When they met the Underwear Bomber's family, they were surprised to find how different they were from him.
"A tremendous extended family," says Connelly. "They had a great amount of national pride and pride in their religion. They were shocked at what he had done."
Abdulmutallab's father, a wealthy banker, and his mom care deeply for their son. They sent him to the finest private schools.
But at a young age, Abdulmutallab became obsessed with radical Islam, seeking out information online.
"He almost was going through his life, especially from the high school years on with the thought that this was something that he really wanted, which is to participate in Jihad," says Connelly.
Abdulmutallab became a devoted follower of Anwar al-Awlaki, an American-born recruiter and motivator for Al-Qaeda working in Yemen.
But the surprising twist is that Abdulmutallab was not recruited by Al-Qaeda. He recruited Al-Qaeda.
"And he sought out Al-Qaeda relentlessly," says Connelly. "He persisted and persisted and he was almost turned away at times, you know, by Al-Qaeda. But he refused to relent."
"I think it was kind of a gift, the way they viewed it, the way Al-Qaeda viewed it when he came to them seeking to do this act of Jihad," adds Peissig.
Abdulmutallab left Britain where he was working on a Master's Degree in engineering and headed for an Al-Qaeda training camp in Yemen and cut off contact with his parents.
"They received a final text from him when he was in Yemen, and then they couldn't get a hold of him again," says Connelly. "They were distraught."
For Abdulmutallab, convincing Al-Qaeda he was for-real took some doing. They scrutinized him at their training camp for a long time.
"And I think once they evaluated that his conviction was absolute, they determined that his best role was going to be as a suicide bomber," says Connelly.
Asked where Abdulmutallab got the money to do this, Connelly says, "He brought his own money to Yemen."
Armed with information he got from his trip to Nigeria, agent Connelly returned to Detroit, somehow got into Abdulmutallab's head and got him to talk - about everything.
"And to be able to kind of get into that mindset and have him tell you for months, every day for months, who he is and why he did what he did was really important I think," says Connelly.
Abdumutallab told agent Connelly he viewed Christians as ignorant, and Muslims who didn't participate in Jihad as traitors.
"He had more anger toward American Muslims, and really Muslims around the world that don't participate in Jihad than he did against Christians," explains Connelly.
During his almost-daily conversations with the Underwear Bomber, Connelly got invaluable intelligence. Abdulmutallab even gave up the names of other terrorists in the pipeline. In his mind, he was doing them a favor. He believed if the others were tracked down and killed it would be the ultimate honor for them, they would become martyrs.
The confession that agent Peissig got on the first day without reading Abdulmutallab his Miranda rights held up in court. He was convicted and sentenced to three life terms.
Agents believe the Underwear Bomber confessed because he was proud of what he did and wanted the world to know.
"Ted and his team did an outstanding job of convicting him, and that was important," Connelly. "That was critical. You know, because he would do the exact same thing again today if he was provided the opportunity, without batting an eye. And we even asked him that."
While Peissig and Connelly led the charge, they worked closely with other lawmen, locally and around the world, and developed some lasting relationships to help in America's battle against terror.
Peissig says a large part of the camp where the Underwear Bomber trained has now been eliminated.
Abdulmutallab's mentor, Anwar Al-Aulaqui was killed by a U.S. drone attack in September of last year.
Just recently agents Peissig and Connelly were given the Attorney General's award, the highest honor an agent can get for their work on this case.