Questions Persist About Averted Terror Attack

After a Nigerian man's attempt to blow up a plane bound for Detroit on Friday, questions about airport security and future air travel persist. NPR's counterterrorism correspondent Dina Temple-Raston and Peter Bergen, national security analyst for CNN, share the latest news.

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NEAL CONAN, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. There are more questions than answers today after the failed attempt to blow up a Northwest Airlines flight with 289 people on board as it approached Detroit on Christmas Day. We know a 23-year-old Nigerian man is being held in federal prison in Michigan after being charged with trying to detonate explosive materials sewn into his underwear. We know the plan fizzled, partly because passengers reacted quickly and partly because the detonator didn't work properly.

What we don't know is how both security and intelligence failed. Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab allegedly carried bomb materials through the airport in Lagos, Nigeria, then again in Amsterdam, where the flight connected to Detroit. His father told U.S. officials just last month he was concerned about his son's increasingly radical views, but his visa to visit the U.S. was not revoked. We know he says he was most recently in Yemen; that he acted under orders from al-Qaida, which also supplied the bomb and the training to use it. But we don't know if that's true, though al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula just issued a statement on its Web site claiming responsibility for this attack.

Today, questions and answers about the attempt to bomb Flight 253. Our phone number, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our Web site. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later in the program, on the Opinion Page, an argument that we need to greatly expand the use of airport imaging technology that critics call a virtual strip search. But first, NPR's Dina Temple-Raston joins us from our bureau in New York. Hey, Dina.

DINA TEMPLE-RASTON: Good - hi, how are you?

CONAN: Good. And here in Studio 3A is Peter Bergen, who has, of course, written extensively about terrorism and al-Qaida. He is CNN's national security analyst. Peter, nice to have you back on the program as well.

Mr. PETER BERGEN (National Security Analyst, CNN): Afternoon.

CONAN: And Dina, what's the latest on the investigation?

TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, law enforcement officials have told us that they don't think Abdulmutallab, the suspect, could have pulled this thing off on his own. You know, a lone-wolf actor, which is what they originally thought he might be, would have difficulty getting the explosive he used.

He used this explosive called pentaerythritol tetranitrate, or PETN, and this is the exact same explosive that the shoe bomber, Richard Reid, used in 2001. And you'll remember in that case, he had trouble lighting the fuse on the shoe, and that's why that attempt failed. And in this case, officials tell us that Abdulmutallab had 80 grams of PETN in a plastic packet sewn into his underwear, as you said, and the detonator was supposed to be a chemical. He was basically supposed to inject it with a syringe into the PETN. They found the syringe. They're trying to put that together now to try and figure out the chemical makeup of the bomb. But all these things together sort of intimate that there's just no way that a lone wolf like Abdulmutallab could have put this together.

CONAN: Well, Peter Bergen, let me turn to you. He said he was acting under orders from al-Qaida. We now have a statement from al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, that's the group there in Yemen, claiming responsibility. He says it was in response to a U.S. attack on the group in Yemen.Last week, there was a bombing where apparently, 30 people were killed. Is that plausible - do we know?

Mr. BERGEN: Well, there have been other attacks on al-Qaida in Yemen they could be reacting to. This guy bought a ticket in Lagos - in Ghana for the Lagos flight, on the 16th of December. So the plot has been in action since - you know, as of the 16th of December, they've known that they were going to do this. And some of the attacks in Yemen, you know, have been earlier this month, and they're blamed on the United States.

Clearly, the United States is involved in them in some shape or form, some debate what that is, but it's probably intelligence sharing. But you know, something that I think is important to recognize, PETN is not used in terrorist attacks very often. And as Dina pointed out, it was used by Richard Reid, an al-Qaida recruit. It's been used by this guy. It was also used on August the 28th of this year in a botched assassination attempt against Prince Nayef, who's the Saudi deputy interior minister, in - basically the most important security figure in the kingdom, somebody al-Qaida's been wanting to kill for a long time.

The guy who tried to kill him gained access to his residence on the grounds that he was going to surrender, part of this rehabilitation program they have in Saudi. He had a bomb concealed in his underwear. It was made of PETN. It blew up, killing the assassin but not Prince Nayef. This guy came from Yemen to do the attack. So in my view, the Detroit attack, and also this Prince Nayef attack, is by the same al-Qaida cell in Yemen, maybe the same bomb maker. I mean, that's one of the things forensic experts will be looking at because it's, again, a PETN bomb with a chemical initiator, as Dina pointed out, and that's the same method in both attacks. So if it quacks like a duck, it probably is a duck. It's an al-Qaidarin(ph) attack directed from Yemen.

CONAN: And Dina, does that leave open the possibility this man may not be the only person dispatched with PETN sewn into his underwear?

TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, I think at this point, the FBI is trying to focus on this particular guy. I mean, what they're having a lot of trouble doing is actually placing him in Yemen, which may sound surprising, but they haven't been able to find any sort of travel document that actually explains when or with whom he might have been meeting in Yemen. And they're starting to believe now that maybe he snuck across the border from Saudi Arabia illegally, which is why they don't know. And they've started canvassing all these Arabic language schools in Yemen to see if maybe he was a student there, or maybe had gotten into contact with al-Qaida in Yemen through one of those schools. So I think that there are so many questions that are left unanswered about this particular suspect that if there are others, I think that's sort of ancillary to trying to get this figured out.

CONAN: Well, those answers might come along if you found out more about this along the way. In any case, there are - Dina, there are also big questions about security in this regard, how this - well, we've all flown on flights, and it's rare that anybody looks in your underwear.

(Soundbite of laughter)

TEMPLE-RASTON: That hasn't been my experience. I haven't had an underwear search yet, so...

CONAN: Me, neither.

TEMPLE-RASTON: But you know, even - let's assume that he was actually patted down. How would you really be able to find a small, six-inch packet of something that is basically where your waistband is, where a belt might be? I mean, it would be - even patting him down, which we don't know what he went through, that would have been a problem. From the officials I talked to, they said if there had been a dog, a dog might have been able to...

CONAN: A bomb-sniffing dog, yeah.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Yes, exactly. Or again, this sort of imaging device might have been able to catch it, but still, it's worrisome to think that - you know, he claims to have gotten this in Yemen, and they're still trying to figure that out and whether that's true. Apparently within, you know, minutes of capturing him, he claimed to be al-Qaida Yemen and said that the device and his training came from Yemen.

That's not a typical MO for - or modus operandi for an al-Qaida operative. They tend to try and keep that secret for a little bit longer than that. So this is why they're worried he was sort of saying things in a grandiose way and maybe didn't have that connection. Although as Peter Bergen said, there are a lot of similarities with other things that had happened. I think that that's what they're sort of focusing on now, is how they could possibly go ahead and find something like this, that's that small, that can do that much damage.

CONAN: Peter?

Mr. BERGEN: I mean, a few points here. First of all, in the Prince Nayef case, this guy went through metal detectors, so - and so they learned from that this was a possibility. Now, the Detroit - alleged bomber in the Detroit case, he also went through metal detectors, but obviously, that wasn't enough to detect this. So plastic explosives, you know, now this is out there, this can get through, and this is - we're going to see more of this, unfortunately. Very important in the Richard Reid case - Richard Reid - there was another shoe bomber. His name was Saajid Badat, and he's now in jail in Britain. He got, to use a terrible pun, a case of cold feet. He didn't go through with his own shoe-bomb attack. He kept the device in a closet in his house in Gloucester, England. So you know, the fact is it would be very, very irresponsible to presume that this is the only example of this guy - of this kind of attack that is out, floating out there.

CONAN: Let's see if we can get some callers in on the conversation, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. And Mike(ph) is on the line, calling from La Grande in Oregon.

MIKE (Caller): Good morning, how are you this morning?

CONAN: Good. Good afternoon here, but in any case, I hope you had a good Christmas.

MIKE: I did, thank you very much. You know, I have a question, and it's based on feeling of some anger here. I think since the attacks of 2001, we have, as a public - and I had a long discussion at work with some guys about this yesterday. We've been lulled to believe that with the integration of the intelligence services, you know, an overall umbrella of intelligence-collecting in the U.S. with that new agency, with the supposed intercommunication now between intelligence agencies and the lack of turf wars, that we are secure. We're supposed to be protected. And what my problem with all this is, is that we're being fed - you know, we're being put to sleep again. Everything, obviously, is not all right. There has been a system - a failure of the system.

And my question is: When the people at the embassy in Nigeria were informed by this young man's father that this kid had gone radical, that there was a problem, did somebody just kick the can down the road - much as what happened at Fort Hood, when everybody knew that Nidal, that there were serious problems with him, they kicked the can down the road and let somebody else handle it.

CONAN: Well, there's two parts of that I want to follow up on. First, Dina Temple-Raston, why was his visa not revoked? Why was his name not further up, higher up on the watch list?

TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, actually, we've learned a little more about that today. Apparently, Abdulmutallab's father was begging the U.S. embassy to help him locate his son. His son had gone missing. He had gone incommunicado. And then he said that one of his concerns was that his son had been radicalized.

So at the embassy, apparently, they were not entirely sure about his motivation in telling them that his son had been radicalized. They thought maybe he was using that as an enticement for the U.S. to help find Abdulmutallab.

At the same time, they did put him on the appropriate list. There's a special TIDE list, which is essentially a list for people who someone is complaining about, but they have no other reason to think that they're worrisome. And that was passed around to the organizations that they should be passed around to. The problem is that, I think, no one made that next step, which is: Does this guy already have a visa to go into the United States, and is that where the problem is? And his visa had been - it was a multiple-entry visa, which allowed him to come and go out of the United States since 2008. And I think that's where the breakdown came, as opposed to the information not being passed along.

CONAN: And Peter Bergen, the contact in Yemen for the alleged shooter at Fort Hood was a cleric who'd been active in Northern Virginia before, named Al-Awlaki. Is there any evidence - he was, again, reported last to have been among those killed in this bomb attack. That's not been confirmed. Is there any evidence that he may have been involved in all of this?

Mr. BERGEN: I don't know, but there was a very interesting report on Al-Jazeera. The Yemeni cleric, the Yemeni-American cleric you mentioned, now says that Major Hasan, the Fort Hood shooter, communicated with him in November of 2008 with the following question: Would it be religiously sanctioned for him to kill fellow soldiers? Which is a very direct question�

CONAN: Yes.

Mr. BERGEN: �and makes - you know, I think Major Hasan, the evidence is now pretty much overwhelming that this was a jihadi terrorist attack, even if, you know, for legal reasons it's considered something else. This was an act of terrorism, inspired - you know, he went postal, but he also had a sort of jihadi, very strong jihadi element to that.

CONAN: All right, Mike, thanks very much for the phone call.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Can I say something about Al-Awlaki?

CONAN: Go ahead, please, very quickly.

TEMPLE-RASTON: My sources are telling me - oh, we need to go to a...

CONAN: We need to go to a break. So maybe we'll hear from Dina Temple-Raston more about the Muslim cleric in Yemen shortly after we come back from a break. Of course, Peter Bergen will be with us, and if you have questions about the incident on Christmas Day over Detroit, give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Questions abound, after a thwarted bombing aboard a Detroit-bound plane on Christmas, about the suspect, security and intelligence failures, and how the young Nigerian man from a privileged family became radicalized.

We're getting the latest on the story today with NPR counterterrorism correspondent Dina Temple-Raston and with Peter Bergen, CNN's national security analyst. Of course, we invite your questions, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our Web site. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

A bit later in the program, we're going to be focusing on airport screening and devices that might have been able to detect this particular kind of bomb, but in the meantime, Dina Temple-Raston, you wanted to add something about the cleric in Yemen.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Yes. The cleric - the radical cleric in Yemen, Al-Awlaki: What I'm hearing from my sources is that they are starting to lean in the direction that, in fact, the radical imam that the suspect contacted was, in fact, Al-Awlaki. And in fact, they're apparently working under the assumption that Al-Awlaki is connected to this in some way.

And it's important to understand that Al-Awlaki isn't an al-Qaida recruiter, which is how he's been painted in some of the media reports. Al-Awlaki really is a guy who's on his own, who is trying to paint himself as an operator, an insider in this al-Qaida-in-Yemen program and al-Qaida broadly. And my understanding is, from the people that I've talked to, that he really isn't that far inside, and he's not a guy who says go ahead and attack but instead, just sort of tries to whip up the froth a little bit, like for his own self-aggrandizement.

CONAN: Peter Bergen, fill us in on the situation in Yemen, where we're told in the north there is an armed insurgency, and the south is on the verge of civil war.

Mr. BERGEN: Well, it's very similar to Afghanistan in a lot of ways: topographically very mountainous; you know, as you said, multiple civil wars. It's the kidnapping capital of the world. I was almost kidnapped there in 2000. It is a very beautiful country. The central government has very little control. It's the poorest country on the Arabian Peninsula. It's, of course, Osama bin Laden's home - where his family's from, the (unintelligible) mountains, southern Yemen.

You know, Western - American tourists have been kidnapped there as early as 1998 by an al-Qaida affiliate. Al-Qaida's had a presence - it's not a new thing. It's a very old thing. But clearly with these airstrikes that you've referenced already, Neal, they - you know, the presence is quite large, and it makes sense. If you were an al-Qaida person, where would you go? This is an Arabic-language - an Arabic-speaking country with very limited state control. It's the perfect place to function. It's also one of the most heavily armed countries in the world. I think the ratio between numbers of people and weapons - population is like 20 million, numbers of weapons, 80 million. Tribal disputes are settled by artillery. You know, it's a fun place.

CONAN: Right across on the Arabian side, right across the entrance to the Red Sea, the Bab-el-Mandeb, there's Djibouti. There is an American presence there. How much American presence is there in Yemen?

Mr. BERGEN: Well, there's a pretty detailed report on that in today's New York Times by Eric Schmidt(ph), one of their best reporters. I mean, there's been an American presence in Yemen for a long time, after the Cole attack, but clearly it's been amped up with, you know, greater - and we've had drone attacks there as early as 2002. So - but it's becoming more - stronger in recent months.

CONAN: Let's get another caller in. Scott's(ph) calling from Palo Alto.

SCOTT (Caller): Hi. I'm a little surprised that, you know, they came out with all of these details about this guy. And it's almost like they had a reaction, and they just blabbed over the airwaves that hey, this guy says he's part of al-Qaida, and it seems so reactionary. And it gives al-Qaida a chance, whether he's affiliated or not, to say oh, yeah, that's our guy, and�

CONAN: Hmm.

SCOTT: �we planned this all along. It just seems so naive. The other thing I wanted to say is it seems like we just are really misallocating our resources. You know, the best offense is a good defense, or whatever the saying is, but...

CONAN: I think it's the other way around.

SCOTT: Well, in this case, you know, maybe we need to go on the defense and spend $12 billion a month on airport security instead of sending 30,000 troops overseas to do a traditional warfare. So it just seems like we're going in the wrong direction.

CONAN: Let me ask Dina Temple-Raston about the first part of your call, and that has to do with, why would authorities announce publicly that this man says he's connected with al-Qaida?

TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, I'm not sure that it was so much an announcement publicly that it was al-Qaida. I think that they were asked whether or not this was an al-Qaida-affiliated attack, and they've been very careful to say that they don't know that that's what this is and that he very quickly admitted to this. And they immediately cast doubt on the fact of whether or not he was actually al-Qaida-related.

So I think the way it's been sort of perverted over the last couple of days since the attack happened on Christmas Day is, there's this presupposition that he's al-Qaida-related, and I don't think that law enforcement has actually confirmed that in the least.

CONAN: They're suspicious, but they've not nailed that down.

TEMPLE-RASTON: He admitted to it so quickly, it made them suspicious about it.

Mr. BERGEN: By the way, a point on that: Ramsey Yusef, who bombed the Trade Center in 1993, admitted everything within about an hour of being arrested, to the FBI agent who arrested him. It's not the first time. People's reactions differ. Some people say nothing. Some people blab the whole thing. So I think it's quite plausible, what he said.

CONAN: Let's go next to Ben, Ben with us from Driggs in Idaho.

BEN (Caller): Hi, yes, thanks for taking the call.

CONAN: Sure.

BEN: I was a pilot for a major U.S. airline for over 25 years and retired early a few years back, and one reason I did was because I felt like all we had going on at the airports was security theater, that the real threats weren't being dealt with. Yes, we were looking for knives and tweezers and things of this sort, but the thing that concerned me as an airline pilot was bombs. And I never saw any evidence that a real thorough method of looking for bombs was being undertaken. And I feel like that - what we really need at the airport are dogs or some technology - if it exists - to find these sorts of weapons because as a pilot, I wasn't worried about someone carving away into my cockpit with a knife. I was worried about blowing my airplane up.

CONAN: We're going to focus more on the technology in the next segment of the program, Ben, so stay with us for that. But in terms of airport security, Dina Temple-Raston, that is a huge part of this.

TEMPLE-RASTON: It is. And what some of the people I've been talking to have been talking about is actually moving the security, in a sense, into the airplane in the sense that - the Israelis, for example, over the most vulnerable seats, which would be the seat this gentleman had, 19A, over the fuselage and over the wing, is they actually reinforce the plane. So even if there is a bomb, it wouldn't punch a hole through the fuselage, and it wouldn't ignite the fuel. I mean, these are the sorts of things that people are talking about in addition to beefing up security before you even get on a plane.

CONAN: Peter, let me ask you another thing. Both in the case of the shoe-bomber and in this case, foiled when people, at least in part, noticed something very peculiar going on. Why don't people go into the bathroom to do these sorts of things?

Mr. BERGEN: Well, in the case of the Detroit bomber, he did go into the bathroom for 20 minutes, but you know, maybe - I'm not sure why he didn't ignite it in the bathroom. Richard Reid was, you know, behaving suspiciously and creating kind of a smoke, and that attracted a lot of attention. But you know, another thing: I think that Dina has raised a very good point, which is, you know, El Al also has counter-measures against surface-to-air missiles. And you know, the reason they do that is that they take their security incredibly seriously. This is obviously very expensive. British Airways has some counter-measures against surface-to-air missiles. But we've seen not only attempts by al-Qaida to bring down planes with bombs on board, with the Reid case and now this case, it appears, but also there was a case trying to bring down an Israeli passenger jet in Mombasa, Kenya, with a surface-to-air missile, almost succeeded, in 2002. So there is a natural tendency to only close these barn doors after they have - the horses�

CONAN: Opened.

Mr. BERGEN: Yeah, OK, after the problem has really become - so what we're going to do this time, I think, is do nothing really very significant and not really do - if they plane had blown up, clearly, you know, it would transform everything you do at an airport. But there will be some sort of piecemeal measures, but not the real measures that are required.

And I'm not saying there are - you know, there are cost-benefit analyses you have to make. It would be very costly, and it would be very - you know, it would take a lot of time at the airport. So likely we miss this, but I think that, you know, El Al is the only airline that does everything required to stop this. But that means that you spend a lot of time getting on an El Al flight.

CONAN: Well, a lot of questions about El Al technology. Writes Barbara(ph) in Belmont, California: Technology is not enough to stop terrorists. People need to be screened by a trained person who can spot nervousness, etc. Ask El Al Airlines how it's done.

And Dina Temple-Raston, that kind of profiling that they do is - has been cited as both the gold standard, and something that's very difficult for Americans to do.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, from a civil liberties perspective, there's always been some pushback here. I think that there's also the question of whether or not they actually start screening people based on intelligence. In other words, if there are certain things that they know are going on in another country, then, for example, al-Qaida is really growing in northern Nigeria. Does that - has that piece of information been passed along so that, for example, Nigerians might be people who might get a second look?

And in the past, that hasn't been something that's been passed along with any sort of routine method. And this is one of the things that's being discussed as possibly trying to make things a bit stronger.

CONAN: Peter, what do we know at this point about the organizational structure of al-Qaida? We know - we believe that numbers one and two are still in the tribal areas of Pakistan, and about 100 to 125 of their compatriots with them. Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, how are they connected with Osama bin Laden? Or are they?

Mr. BERGEN: Well, they're connected ideologically, and they're connected because they've sort of - they've sworn an oath of baiad(ph), or they've kind of given allegiance to al-Qaida central by naming themselves al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, and they're acting in an al-Qaida-like manner. I mean, commercial aviation, the hardest target imaginable right now, remains an obsessional thing for al-Qaida. So that's how they connected, ideologically and tactically. And also, they've self-identified.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. Let's get Bill on the line, calling from Chicago.

BILL (Caller): Yes, hello. Thank you for taking my call. My question is kind of the 400-pound gorilla that always comes up with this, which is, where do we draw the line between smart police and (unintelligible) intelligence work and racial profiling? Because it seems like we can do all the searches we want to with 80-year-old grandmothers or 9-year-old children like my son; they're are still not going to be terrorists. And it seems like every time this happens, we come back to the pitfall of, where do we cross the line between good investigative work and police profiling?

Mr. BERGEN: Richard Reid was a British-Jamaican. I mean, how do - you know, I mean, I just - you know, it's not a racial thing. Jose Padilla who, you know, certainly planned to do something, is an Hispanic-American. A guy called Venus, who was just going to an al-Qaida training camp, he's an Hispanic-American. You know, I think the idea that it's somehow racial profiling, that doesn't get you very far. It is certainly...

CONAN: And can lead to a lot of bad mistakes.

Mr. BERGEN: Bad mistakes. It is certainly age-related in the sense that most of the people involved in these attacks fall between the age of 20 and 40, but that's a pretty large age cohort. It's usually males.

Mr. BERGEN: Although we've seen a lot of female suicide attackers in Iraq. So even that, you know - we've seen European female suicide attackers.

TEMPLE-RASTON: A Belgian.

Mr. BERGEN: Yeah.

CONAN: Yes.

Mr. BERGEN: Muriel Degauque in 2005. How do you profile for her? She's a convert from Catholicism in her, you know, in her early 30s.

So, you know, I just don't - I think the profiling thing doesn't get you very far. I think what Dina raised, you know, intelligence-led policing, I mean, that kind of is a more fruitful approach.

CONAN: So if you have reason to suspect at this moment people from, for example, Nigeria, that might be very useful.

Mr. BERGEN: Right. Right.

CONAN: Yeah. Dina, though, you do, in this country, and in other countries, too, get involved in a lot of these civil liberties concerns.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Exactly. And that's where the pushback has come. And I think what's - there's going to have to be some sort of education process in which there's an explanation that this is not racial profiling. I mean, we've tried to make the distinction here today. There's a difference between racial profiling and possibly using, you know, good intelligence to say, look, you know, we haven't had a Nigerian al-Qaida recruit to now, but there clearly is a change going on in northern Nigeria, and al-Qaida seems to be putting a foothold in there. Maybe these are people we ought to be looking at.

CONAN: Bill, thanks very much for the call. Appreciate it.

We're talking with Peter Bergen of CNN and, of course, our own counterterrorism correspondent Dina Temple-Raston about the Christmas attempt to bring down a plane over Detroit.

You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And let's see if we can get another caller in. Let's go to Greenville, North Carolina, and Karlen(ph).

KARLEN (Caller): Hello. Thank you for taking my call. I was just wondering about the extent of the 80 grams of explosive the suspect used. How much damage could that have caused?

CONAN: Dina?

TEMPLE-RASTON: My understanding is that this particular explosive is second only to nitroglycerine in terms of powerfulness, and that this would have blown a hole into the fuselage and could well - might well have ignited and brought down the plane.

You know, you have to wonder, also, that the reason why they did it at the end of the flight, when there's less fuel in the plane, than at the beginning of the flight or, you know, towards the middle of the fight is - the understanding is that al-Qaida wants these sorts of operations to actually have a visual. In other words, bringing an airplane down in the middle of the ocean doesn't give them the visual they want. Instead, what they want is, they want a plane to go down and have people hurt on the ground, and have lots of television cameras to take the pictures.

CONAN: In an American city, if possible. Yes.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Exactly. And have lots of people take the pictures.

CONAN: Peter, that would explain - Air India flight blew up in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. Forensic evidence very hard to come by for that. Then the difference between that and Lockerbie, where the plane was virtually reassembled from the small pieces that fell on the ground.

Mr. BERGEN: Right. Well, and, of course, Pan Am 103 was meant to blow up over the Atlantic. The Libyans did not want it known that they were ultimately responsible. And it did - when it did - and when it blew up over Lockerbie - Lockerbie, Scotland is a pretty small village - it still killed people on the ground. So if this Northwest flight had blown up over the suburbs of Detroit, you would have had a much larger casualty rate, obviously.

CONAN: Email question from Carol(ph) in Florida: Why isn't this the fault of authorities in Amsterdam that let him on the plane? Why are our people getting blamed? I don't understand. Dina?

TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, I think there's plenty of blame to go around. I think that also, we have set up in the United States a system by which people are supposed to be screened, and then this is supposed to happen in overseas operations for any overseas airport that has passengers coming to United States. They're supposed to follow these rules.

But, you know, again, let's remember what this gentleman had. He had -allegedly had something that was six inches long that was sewn into his, you know, the waistband of his underwear. I'm not sure, without dogs, that anybody would have seen that.

CONAN: And that's a very difficult thing to find. And where does the investigation go from here?

TEMPLE-RASTON: I think now what they're trying to figure out is where exactly Abdulmutallab was in Yemen, who he saw and really, whether or not, as he claimed, that the explosive was given to him in Yemen, and that he - they're not quite sure how he left Yemen, but it seems to stretch credibility a little bit that he got on to how many different flights with this explosive on him and not concerned that it would be found, and then finally gets on the Amsterdam flight and then flies to Detroit.

There's some questions to whether or not, possibly, he bought this in Nigeria. Let's remember that he is the son of a rather prominent banker. He had means. He had funds. There could have been connections. And so I think that's what they're trying to figure out now. Where did the explosive come from, and where has he been traveling, and who did he meet in recent days - and whether or not he had an accomplice.

CONAN: And let's not forget Peter Bergen's question: Who made the bomb, and who taught him how to use it? Thanks very much to you both. We appreciate it. You've been listening to Dina Temple-Raston, NPR counterterrorism correspondent. You can expect to hear more from her later today on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. Peter Bergen, CNN national security analyst, of course, a longtime expert on al-Qaida. We always thank him for his time. We appreciate it.

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