Airliner Attack Forces Security Reviews

The Obama administration says it will review how officials decide who should be on the terrorism no-fly list after the Christmas Day incident on an American airliner. The Justice Department has charged a 23-year-old Nigerian student with attempting to blow up Northwest Airlines Flight 253 from Amsterdam to Detroit.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

And I'm Linda Wertheimer.

Two things saved a Northwest Airlines jet when all other security measures failed. One was a faulty detonator, the other was quick-thinking passengers.

INSKEEP: Now the charges against a Nigerian student are prompting a widespread investigation. One question here is whether that student acted alone. NPR's counterterrorism correspondent, Dina Temple-Raston, has been following this story. She's on the line. Good morning.

DINA TEMPLE-RASTON: Good morning.

INSKEEP: Let's start here by working through the narrative of what's known, so that you can work in the latest details. What happened here?

TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, the man at the center of it all is this London-educated engineering student named Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, and his father is a prominent banker in Nigeria. Now, Abdulmutallab was charged, over the weekend, with trying to blow up an airliner. And the criminal complaint says he caught a flight from Nigeria to Amsterdam, and then boarded the Northwest flight, 253, from Amsterdam to Detroit. And apparently, as they were circling to land, he tried to ignite this explosive device.

INSKEEP: Which didn't work out very well?

TEMPLE-RASTON: Which didn't work out very well. It - had the device worked properly, there would have been an enormous explosion. He was using something -this is according to the FBI lab - called pentaerythritol or PETN, and this is a major explosive. One official told me that it was right behind nitroglycin in terms of its power. And officials say the detonator in the device was faulty so the big bang that was supposed to happen didn't, but it could have been a really devastating explosion. And, as you know, passengers tackled Abdulmutallab almost right away, and flight attendants put out the flames with the fire extinguisher. He's in U.S. custody. He was transferred from a hospital, where his burns were being treated, to a federal prison, yesterday.

INSKEEP: Dina Temple-Raston, this is got to be a question you're asking your sources, and your sources are trying to figure out - was there nothing in this explosive device that could be caught by a metal detector or some kind of device at the airport?

TEMPLE-RASTON: Perhaps a dog. Not a metal detector. Maybe one of those - it was under his clothing, it was sewn into his underwear - so a patdown, necessarily, wouldn't have found it. But, you know, they have those machines that can tell what people might have on in terms of particles under their clothes; that might have been able to catch it.

INSKEEP: I wonder if the cleverness of this, if that's the proper term for it, is why Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano has been saying there's -well, she's been asking the question about whether there's a larger terrorist plot, here, but she's saying that there is no indication of that. What are you hearing?

TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, by larger terrorist plot, it might mean that this is one in a series of different attacks that are planned for this. And I think, in that respect, law enforcement doesn't think that's what going on. But, it's really hard for a lone wolf actor, such as Abdulmutallab, to find something like PETN. It's really hard to get this explosive. And this is the very same explosive the shoe bomber, Richard Reid, used in 2001. And you'll remember, in that case, he was having trouble lighting the fuse on his shoe and that's why the attempt failed. In this case, officials say that Abdulmutallab had 80 grams of PETN in this plastic pocket sewn into his underwear, and then the detonator was supposed to be a chemical this time - which was supposed to be injected into the PETN with a syringe. And they've found the syringe. And the FBI is trying to put together the actual chemical makeup of the bomb now. But having a chemical detonator is a new wrinkle, and that isn't something that a lone wolf is likely to come up with.

INSKEEP: So let me ask you about one other thing here, as well. President Obama has ordered a review of the terrorism watch list. And I want to understand this, because this is a suspect who was said to be on a watch list, but not on a no-fly list. How does this work?

TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, let me explain the difference. You know, apparently Abdulmutallab's father had contacted the U.S. embassy in Nigeria and told them that he was worried about his son's radicalism. Apparently his son had cut off ties and had been speaking in what his father considered to be extreme ways. And that happened about a month ago. So Abdulmutallab was then put on what's considered a generic terrorism watch list. It's called the TIDE List, and there are 555,000 people on it. And if you are on the TIDE List, you aren't necessarily on the no-fly list.

INSKEEP: Two different lists and obviously you can't deny five hundred and fifty five thousand people the right to fly into the United States - it's just impossible to do that.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Makes for huge lines.

INSKEEP: Although, that's something that people are now going to be looking into, I suppose. Right?

TEMPLE-RASTON: Exactly.

INSKEEP: Dina, thanks very much.

TEMPLE-RASTON: You're welcome.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Dina Temple-Raston.

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