White House: Jet Incident A 'Terrorism Attempt'

Security officials gather at at the stairs of Northwest Airlines Flight 253 in Detroit. i i

This image made from video shows security personnel on the runway next to Northwest Airlines Flight 253 at Detroit Metropolitan Airport. ABC News/AP hide caption

itoggle caption ABC News/AP
Security officials gather at at the stairs of Northwest Airlines Flight 253 in Detroit.

This image made from video shows security personnel on the runway next to Northwest Airlines Flight 253 at Detroit Metropolitan Airport.

ABC News/AP

A passenger tried to detonate a device aboard an international Northwest Airlines flight approaching Detroit on Friday, but the device apparently failed to ignite fully and no other passengers on the plane were hurt, federal law enforcement officials said.

A 23-year-old Nigerian man, identified by officials as Abdul Abdulmutallab, was subdued on the plane and taken into custody when it landed less than 20 minutes later in Detroit. Law enforcement sources told NPR that they are investigating the man's claim that he had links to al-Qaida. They believe Abdulmutallab is an engineering student at University College London.

A senior U.S. counterterrorism official said Abdulmutallab was planning to blow up the Airbus 330, which was carrying 278 passengers and 11 crew members on a flight from Amsterdam, but the incendiary device failed. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because the investigation was continuing. One U.S. intelligence official told The Associated Press the device involved a mix of powder and liquid.

"We believe this was an attempted act of terrorism," a White House official said, also on condition of anonymity.

Federal officials said there would be heightened security for both domestic and international flights at airports across the country, but the intensified levels would likely be "layered," differing from location to location depending on alerts, security concerns and other factors. The terrorism alert level was not raised.

Passengers can expect to see heightened screening, more bomb-sniffing dog and officer units and behavioral-detection specialists at some airports, but there will also be unspecified less visible precautions as well, officials said.

Federal Aviation Administration spokeswoman Elizabeth Isham Cory said there was nothing out of the ordinary on Flight 253 until it was on final approach to Detroit. That is when the pilot declared an emergency and landed without incident shortly thereafter, Cory said in an e-mail. The plane landed at 11:51 a.m. EST.

"We were descending and ... all of the sudden I heard a pop," passenger Syed Jafry of Holland, Ohio, told NPR's Robert Siegel. "Like, you could say, a firecracker or ... a firearm. And everybody was kind of startled — What was that? And then we kind of see some glow, and then there was some sort of a panic."

Jafry said another passenger jumped three or four seats to get hold of the suspect, who was tackled and then carried away by the crew.

"It was amazing and ... almost everybody was very much in control and they took care of things," he said.

A statement from Delta Airlines, which acquired Northwest in October 2008, said, "Upon approach to Detroit, a passenger caused a disturbance onboard Northwest Airlines Flight 253. The passenger was subdued immediately and the crew requested that law enforcement meet the flight upon arrival." The statement said the "the passenger was taken into custody and questioned by law enforcement authorities" after the flight landed.

Rich Griffith, a passenger from Pontiac, Mich., said he was seated too far in the back of the aircraft to see what had happened. But he said he didn't mind being detained on the plane for several hours. "It's frustrating if you don't want to keep your country safe," he said. "We can't have what's going on everywhere else happening here."

The FBI and the Homeland Security Department issued an intelligence note on Nov. 20 about the threat picture for the 2009 holiday season from Thanksgiving through Jan. 1. At the time, intelligence officials said they had no specific information about attack plans by al-Qaida or other terrorist groups. The intelligence note was obtained by The Associated Press.

One law enforcement official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Abdulmutallab's name had surfaced earlier on at least one U.S. intelligence database, but he was not on a watch list or a no-fly list.

President Barack Obama was notified of the incident and discussed it with security officials, the White House said. Officials said he is monitoring the situation and receiving regular updates from his vacation spot in Hawaii.

An intelligence official told AP that the Nigerian passenger was being held and treated in an Ann Arbor, Mich., hospital. One unidentified passenger from the flight was taken to the University of Michigan Medical Center in Ann Arbor, hospital spokeswoman Tracy Justice said. She said didn't know the person's condition and referred all inquiries to the FBI.

Abdulmutallab boarded in Nigeria and went through Amsterdam en route to Detroit, Rep. Peter King, the ranking GOP member of the House Homeland Security Committee, told CNN. A spokeswoman for police at the Schiphol airport in Amsterdam declined comment about the case or about security procedures at the airport for Flight 253.

Dutch airline KLM says the connection in Amsterdam from Lagos, Nigeria, to Detroit involves a change in carrier and a change in aircraft.

Schiphol airport, one of Europe's busiest with a heavy load of transit passengers from Africa and Asia to North America, strictly enforces European security regulations including only allowing small amounts of liquid in hand luggage that must be placed inside clear plastic bags. After the attempted attack, passengers to the U.S. were being frisked at the gate as an added security measure, said airport spokeswoman Mirjam Snoerwang.

A spokesman for the Federal Airports Authority of Nigeria, Akin Olukunle, said all passengers and their luggage are screened before boarding international flights. He also said the airport in Lagos cleared a U.S. Transportation Security Administration audit in November.

"We had a pass mark," Olukunle said. "We actually are up to standards in all senses."

From NPR and wire service reports

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