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Suspect in Northwest Airlines bomb plot had round-trip ticket

It had been widely reported that Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab had a one-way fare. Obama administration officials brief congressional aides on the Christmas Day attack.

January 13, 2010|By Peter Nicholas and Sebastian Rotella

Reporting from Washington — The alleged Christmas Day airline bomber had purchased a round-trip ticket -- not a one- way fare, as has been widely reported -- the Obama administration told congressional aides in a closed briefing Tuesday.

According to a person who attended the meeting, the administration also said it was not unusual for international air travelers to buy their tickets using cash, as Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab had done. Up to 20% of overseas flights are cash transactions, Department of Homeland Security officials told House and Senate aides.

Abdulmutallab has been charged with smuggling explosives, concealed in his underwear, aboard a Northwest Airlines flight from Amsterdam to Detroit. The device failed to detonate but caused a fire that injured the Nigerian-born suspect.

After the incident, some experts said Abdulmutallab's supposed purchase of a one-way ticket should have aroused suspicions -- and may have been among the clues missed by U.S. and international law enforcement officials.

At least some of the Sept. 11 hijackers purchased one-way tickets.

"It's pretty obvious that if you want to avoid suspicion, you don't buy a one-way ticket," said a congressional aide who requested anonymity when discussing the meeting.

Domestic security officials told aides that airlines typically do not inform federal officials before a flight that a passenger has bought a ticket with cash.

U.S. border security officials rely heavily on passenger manifests, which are generated only an hour or two before takeoff, for in-depth checking of passengers against government databases. The manifests are considered the strongest screening tool because they are based on passport information and attempt to ensure that all those being screened will actually be on the flight.

But officials also conduct preliminary screening based on reservation lists, known as passenger name records, which can be available up to 72 hours before a flight, according to a senior Homeland Security official. The reservation records include biographical information and sometimes details such as credit card and phone numbers.

The volume and timeliness of that data, however, depend on airline procedures and privacy laws. In some countries, the advance information includes up to 34 pieces of data, but in others there is considerably less, officials said.

peter.nicholas@latimes.com

sebastian.rotella@latimes.com

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