A Nigerian man with possible terrorist ties sneaked an explosive onto a transatlantic Northwest Airlines flight on Friday and tried to ignite it as the plane prepared to land in Detroit, said federal officials.
The device, described by officials as a mixture of powder and liquid, failed to fully detonate. Passengers on the plane described a series of pops that sounded like firecrackers.
Federal officials said the man wanted to bring the plane down. “We believe it was an attempted act of terrorism,” said a White House official who declined to be identified discussing the investigation of the incident, which is likely to lead to heightened security during the busy holiday season.
“This was the real deal,” said Representative Peter King of New York, ranking Republican on the House Homeland Security Committee, who was briefed on the incident and said something had gone wrong with the explosive device, which he described as somewhat sophisticated. “This could have been devastating.”
It was unclear how the man, identified by federal officials as Abdul Farouk Abdulmutallab (23) managed to get the explosive on the plane, an Airbus A330 wide-body jet carrying 278 passengers that departed from Amsterdam with passengers who had originated in Nigeria.
A senior administration official said the government did not yet know whether the man had had the capacity to take down the plane.
A senior Department of Homeland Security official said the device Abdulmutallab had on him was “more incendiary than explosive,” and that he had tried to ignite the device or mixture to cause a fire as the airliner was approaching Detroit.
Abdulmutallab told law enforcement authorities, the official said, that he had had explosive powder taped to his leg and that he had used a syringe of chemicals to mix with the powder to try to cause an explosion.
A federal counterterrorism official who asked not to be identified said Abdulmutallab was apparently in a government law enforcement-intelligence data base, but it is not clear what extremist group or individuals he might be linked to.
“It’s too early to say what his association is,” said the counterterrorism official. “At this point, it seems like he was acting alone, but we don’t know for sure.”
Though Abdulmutallab is said to have told officials that he was directed by Al-Qaeda, the counterterrorism official expressed caution about that claim, saying “it may have been aspirational”.
The incident unfolded just before noon. “There was a pop that sounded like a firecracker,” said Syed Jafry, a passenger who said he had been sitting three rows ahead of the suspect.
A few seconds later, he said, there was smoke and “some glow” from the suspect’s seat and on the left side of the plane. “There was a panic,” said Mr. Jafry (57) of Holland, Ohio. “Next thing you know, everybody was on him.” He said the passengers and the crew subdued the man.
The suspect was brought by the crew to the front of the plane — Northwest Airlines flight 253, operated on a Delta airplane — which made its descent into Detroit Metropolitan Airport, landing at 11:53 a.m. (The two airlines merged last year.)
Once on the ground, it was immediately guided to the end of a runway, where it was surrounded by police cars and emergency vehicles and searched by a bomb-disabling robot.
One federal official who requested anonymity said Abdulmutallab had suffered severe burns but was expected to survive.
A Michigan state official confirmed that he was being treated at the University of Michigan hospital in Ann Arbor. President Barack Obama was kept informed throughout the day as he spent Christmas with family and friends at a secluded Hawaiian beach house. After a secure conference call, he was given several follow-up briefings on paper.
Mr. King, of the Homeland Security committee, said there was no indication at this point that anyone else was involved, but said officials would look back to see if any intelligence signals were missed.
“For a while now we have had real concerns about Al-Qaeda or terrorist connections in Nigeria,” he said.
Of the device used on Friday, he said, “It appears to be different from explosive devices that have been used before. That is perhaps why it escaped detection. Maybe that is why it made it through.”
Friday’s incident brought to mind Richard Reid, the so-called “shoe bomber,” who attempted to blow up an American Airlines flight between Paris and Miami in December 2001 by igniting his explosives-laden shoes.
The incident was a reason why airline passengers must remove their shoes before passing through security checkpoints in U.S. airports. — © 2009 The New York Times News Service