December 26, 2009 – IR Summary/NYT – A Nigerian national tried to ignite an explosive device aboard a trans-Atlantic Northwest Airlines flight as the plane prepared to land in Detroit on Friday, in an incident the United States believes was “an attempted act of terrorism,” according to a White House official who declined to be identified.
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.
“This was the real deal,” said Representative Peter T. King of New York, the 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,” Mr. King said.
The incident is likely to lead to heightened security during the busy holiday season.
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 that the government did not yet know whether the man had had the capacity to take down the plane.
“We’re trying to ascertain exactly what he had and what he thought he was doing, but our sense is he wanted to wreak some havoc here and was attempting to do just that,” the official said. “Whether at the end of the day he had the ability to do that is what I think we’ll be able to pull together over the next several days as we investigate this.”
A senior Department of Homeland Security official said that the materials Mr. Abdulmutallab had on him were “more incendiary than explosive,” and that he had tried to ignite them to cause a fire as the airliner was approaching Detroit.
Mr. Abdulmutallab told law enforcement authorities, the official said, that he had had explosive powder taped to his leg and that he had mixed it with chemicals held in a syringe.
A federal counterterrorism official who asked not to be identified said Mr. Abdulmutallab was apparently in a government law enforcement-intelligence database, 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,” the counterterrorism official said. “At this point, it seems like he was acting alone, but we don’t know for sure.” Although Mr. 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, bearing Delta’s name — and the plane 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.
Sandra Berchtold, a spokeswoman with the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Detroit office, said F.B.I. agents were at the scene Friday night and were investigating the matter.
President Obama was kept informed throughout the day as he spent Christmas with his family and friends at a secluded Hawaiian beach house. After a secure conference call, he was given several follow-up briefings on paper. John O. Brennan, the White House counterterrorism chief, convened an interagency meeting in the late afternoon to go over what was known about the incident and discuss what precautions should be taken. More