SCOTT SIMON, host:
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.
An investigation this morning into the attempted terrorist attack on a jet as it was landing in Detroit on Christmas Day. Man on that airplane apparently tried to ignite some sort of incendiary device on a Northwest Airlines flight from Amsterdam to Detroit, and managed to set himself on fire. But law enforcement officials say the device itself appeared to malfunction.
Eliz Fawaz(ph) told Detroit station WDIV...
Mr. ELIZ FAWAZ: We saw like, fumes and then there was a flame - fire coming out. I was trying to figure out why they bring the fire extinguisher, but eventually did about a minute later, and they managed to turn out the fire and the fumes. There was a lot of panic, ensuing panic in that three or four minutes during the event.
SIMON: The suspect claims to have an al-Qaida connection, but there are a lot of conflicting reports. NPR's counterterrorism correspondent Dina Temple-Raston joins us. Dina, thanks for being with us.
DINA TEMPLE-RASTON: You're welcome.
SIMON: And what do we know for sure?
TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, we don't know a lot of things for sure, but we do know that the man at the center of this is a man named Abdul Abdulmutallab. He is Nigerian, and we think he was a student in the United Kingdom. Some law enforcement officials told NPR that they believe he was an engineering student at University College, London.
We know that he was on a flight from Nigeria; he changed planes in Amsterdam to a flight bound - in Detroit. And as you said, apparently he tried to ignite some device as the flight was circling Detroit. We also know that the FBI actually has the device, which apparently is some powder, which he tried to inject with some liquid. And that device is now being analyzed at Quantico, which is the FBI's crime lab.
SIMON: And be sure to explain, if we didn't make this plain, that passengers overpowered the man. And it was passengers and crew that kind of kept him in custody until they could land in Detroit.
SIMON: What about the al-Qaida connection? Representative Peter King, in New York, came out yesterday and said that's for certain.
TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, the law enforcement sources that we've talked to say it's a lot less concrete than that. One of the things that Representative King also said was that the suspect was on some sort of list, a watch list - not a no-fly list but a watch list. And FBI officials I have talked to say that as far as they know, he was not on any kind of list.
That said, they are looking into some of his past travel and apparently, he's gone to what one law enforcement official told me was worrisome places.
SIMON: That - to fill in that blank - an al-Qaida training camp?
TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, exactly, that's the question - although there's nothing that they've uncovered so far that indicates he had that kind of formal training. He told officials that he picked up this device, this incendiary device, in Yemen, and they aren't sure whether or not that's true.
SIMON: Of course, if he was an engineering student, do we know enough about the device to know if it's the kind of thing an amateur could put together - or a learned engineering student could put together?
TEMPLE-RASTON: Or something that you could put together if you saw it on the Web. You'd be surprised how many things you could put together from the Web.
SIMON: People inevitably are seeing some kind of similarities with Richard Reed, the shoe bomber, who's in custody. Do you see that?
TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, there are some similarities, maybe the happiest of which is that neither man managed to do what they set out to do. You may remember that Reed couldn't light the fuse on his shoe, so it never really went off. And this latest suspect seems to have done not much more than set himself on fire.
The big difference right now with what we know seems to be that Reed actually did have al-Qaida training, and it's very uncertain right now that this other suspect, this new suspect, had that kind of training. Officials also say this device was an incendiary device rather than an explosive device, and that means it would cause a fire as opposed to an explosion. So you've got to sort of wonder what the planning was to do that on a plane instead of actually having an explosive.
SIMON: I think there do seem to be a lot of terrorism news that's accumulating over the last few weeks. Would one be permitted an observation that there seems to have been more of these attacks in recent months?
TEMPLE-RASTON: Yes. Certainly as the counterterrorism correspondent, I've noticed that. By my count, the latest incident would make 14 attacks or attempted attacks on the U.S. so far this year, which is just an amazing number - like two or three times what we're used to seeing.
The bigger issue is that these attacks seem to be more operational than aspirational. It's not people who are just wishing that they could do something against the United States, but seem to have some of the skills they need to actually make this happen. And that's what worrying law enforcement officials.
SIMON: NPR's counterterrorism correspondent Dina Temple-Raston, thanks so much.
TEMPLE-RASTON: You're very welcome.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.