Man Attempts to Set Off Explosives on Detroit-Bound Airplane

Suspect Claims al Qaeda Terrorism Link, but FBI, Investigators Are Suspicious


Dec. 25, 2009—

Federal officials and police are interviewing a Nigerian man, who allegedly tried to "explode" a powdery substance aboard a Northwest flight from Amsterdam to Detroit, injuring himself and two other passengers, law enforcement officials said.

The man said he was directed by al Qaeda to explode a small device in flight, over U.S. soil, ABC News has learned. Authorities have no corroboration of that information, and the credibility of the suspect's statements are being questioned, officials said.

The suspect was identified as Abdul Farouk Abdulmutallab, 23, who according to federal documents is an engineering student at University College of London.

He was flying from Nigeria to the United States for a religious seminar, according to his entry visa, which was issued June 16, 2008 and was good until June 12, 2010.

The government had no immediate plans after the incident to raise the threat level, a federal government source said. The threat level has been at "orange" since 2006.

The suspect had been in a law enforcement-intelligence database but was not on the government's no-fly list, according to a law enforcement official.

"The subject is claiming to have extremist affiliation and that the device was acquired in Yemen along with instructions as to when it should be used," a federal situational awareness bulletin stated.

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Delta spokeswoman Susan Chana Elliott said that "as the plane was getting ready to land" in Detroit "a passenger caused a disturbance" by trying to ignite what was initially reported to be firecrackers.

The man was "subdued immediately," Elliott said. Northwest is a wholly owned subsidiary of Delta.

"There was one guy, who sat on the other side, the right side of the wing because this was on the left side of the wing, and he jumped over the other people and he took care of it," said passenger Peter Smith.

The suspect told authorities that he had explosive powder taped to his leg and used a syringe of chemicals to mix with the powder that was to cause explosion. This is of concert because it is a method of mixing that is consistent with terror techniques.

Northwest Airlines flight 253 -- operated on a Delta airplane -- landed safely in Detroit at 11:53 a.m. The man, who flew from Nigeria to Amsterdam and then Detroit, was taken into custody at the Detroit airport and was interviewed by authorities there. He was then taken to an area hospital to be treated for burns.

An in-flight emergency was declared when a fire indicator light when on in the cockpit, according to the Federal Aviation Administration. The pilot asked for airport rescue and firefighting services, and for law enforcement to meet the flight at gate, the TSA said.

It is unclear how powerful the explosive could have been and what the man's intentions were. Initial reports were that fireworks or firecrackers had gone off on the plane.

The man suffered second-degree burns, which is consistent with a small fireworks device, police sources said.

One of the passengers is being treated at the University of Michigan Medical Center in Ann Arbor, according to hospital spokeswoman Tracy Justice, who was not sure if it was the suspect or one of the other passengers.

Man Tried to Ignite Explosives on Plane, Law Enforcement Says

Federal Bureau of Investigation Special Agent Sandra R. Berchtold from the Detroit office confirmed that the FBI was at the airport, but she would not comment further.

"All passengers have deplaned and out of an abundance of caution, the plane was moved to a remote area where the plane and all baggage are currently being rescreened," the Transportation Security Administration, which handles aircraft and airplane safety, said in a statement. "A passenger is in custody and passengers are being interviewed."

The aircraft was an Airbus A330-300, twin-engine jet carrying 278 passengers.

President Obama was notified of the incident by his military aide between 2 p.m. and 2:30 p.m. Detroit time or 9 a.m. in Hawaii, where the Obamas are vacationing, according to White House spokesman Bill Burton.

The president subsequently convened a secure conference call with John Brennan, his Homeland Security and Counter-terrorism adviser, and Denis McDonough, acting chief of staff for the National Security Council.

Obama then instructed that "all appropriate measures be taken to increase security for air travel."

"The President is actively monitoring the situation and receiving regular updates. There is currently no change to his schedule," Burton said in a statement.

TSA has a layered approach to security that the agency says allows it to surge resources as needed on a daily basis. It would not give specifics except that it has the ability to quickly implement additional screening measures including explosive detection canine teams, gate screening, behavior detection and other measures "both seen and unseen." The TSA said these measures are designed to be unpredictable, so passenger should not expect to see the same thing at every airport.

The Department of Homeland Security said Secretary Janet Napolitano has been briefed on the incident and is closely monitoring the situation.

The agency, which includes the TSA, said passengers may notice additional screening measures put into place to ensure the safety of the traveling public on domestic and international flights.

"As always we encourage the traveling public to be observant and aware of their surroundings and report any suspicious behavior or activity to law enforcement officials," the agency said in a statement.

Shortly after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Richard Reid, a British citizen and al Qaeda operative, tried to blow up an American Airlines flight from Paris to Miami with explosives hidden in his shoe.

Passengers on the flight complained of smelling smoke shortly after the meal service, and Reid was found trying to light a match. He was subdued by other passengers on the plane and the flight was diverted to Boston's Logan International Airport.

Reid, the so-called shoe bomber, pleaded guilty to terrorism charges in January 2003 and is serving a life sentence at a federal prison in Florence, Colo. His actions, in part, are why we must all now take off our shoes as part of the airport security screening process.

"Eight years after Richard Reid attempted to blow up an airliner with explosives hidden in his shoe, today's incident, on Christmas Day, is a disturbing reminder that the terrorist threat is still very real and that we must continue to be vigilant and alert," U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, the ranking member of the Senate Homeland Security Committee said in a statement.

"The White House is calling this an attempted terrorist attack," Collins added. "It raises some serious questions, such as how was this person able to bring an explosive substance aboard a commercial airliner? And what is the Transportation Security Administration doing to address this type of threat?"

With reports from Matt Hosford, Pierre Thomas and Steven Portnoy.