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Nigerian sets off explosive device on plane; White House calls it terror attempt

December 26, 2009

A Nigerian passenger, claiming to be linked to Al Qaeda, allegedly ignited a small explosive device on an international flight bound for the United States shortly before landing in what the White House called an attempted terrorist attack.

The man was quickly subdued, according to an airline spokesperson, and Northwest Airlines Flight 253 from Amsterdam landed safely in Detroit, Michigan around noon Friday, with several of the 278 passengers sustaining minor injuries in the incident.

The suspect was being treated at a local hospital for burns he suffered while igniting the device, the Transportation Security Administration said.

The FBI is investigating the incident and President Barack Obama, celebrating Christmas in Hawaii, ordered that all appropriate measures be taken to increase security for air travel.

Unnamed officials cited by the Washington Post said they are not prepared to raise the terrorism alert level, currently at orange – or the second-highest of five levels – for domestic and international air travel.

However, the Department of Homeland Security said late Friday that passengers “may notice additional screening measures, put into place to ensure the safety of the travelling public on domestic and international flights”.

The suspect, identified as a Nigerian national, claimed to have extremist ties and said the explosive device “was acquired in Yemen along with instructions as to when it should be used”, CNN said citing a federal security bulletin.

The FBI is investigating, bureau spokeswoman Sandra Berchtold said. The remains of the device used are being sent to an FBI explosives lab in Quantico, Virginia, for analysis, the sources cited by the channel said.

CNN said Pete King, top Republican on the House Intelligence Committee, identified the suspect as Abdul Mudallad, but it has not been able to confirm the name from law enforcement or government officials.

The suspect is 23-year-old Abdul Farouk Abdulmutallab, a federal official cited by the Post said. ABC News and NBC News reported that he attends University College of London, where he studied engineering.

Abdulmutallab has told federal investigators that he had ties to Al Qaeda and travelled to Yemen to collect the incendiary device and instructions on how to use it, the Post said citing a federal counterterrorism official briefed on the case.

But authorities have yet to verify the claim, and they expect to conduct several more interviews before they determine whether he is credible, the official said.

Federal authorities have been told that Abdulmutallab allegedly had taped some material to his leg, then used a chemical-laden syringe to mix with the powder while on board the airplane, one official said.

The man was on a government watch list, but not on its no-fly list, ABC reported. He was reportedly flying from Nigeria to Detroit via Amsterdam.

Officials described the device as incendiary rather than explosive, pending tests by forensics experts at the FBI. Incendiary devices generally deliver less of an impact than explosive devices.

Another passenger, Syed Jafry of Holland, Michigan, told the Detroit Free Press that he noticed a glow three rows ahead in the Airbus 330, then detected the smell of smoke. In the next moment, Jafry recounted, “a young man behind me jumped on” Abdulmutallab.

Jafry said there was a commotion for about 10 to 15 minutes. The passenger was restrained and the plane continued its landing at Detroit Metropolitan Wayne County Airport. There it was surrounded by police cars, an ambulance and some trucks.

IntelCenter, an independent terrorist monitoring group, said the incident appeared to be “a serious terrorist attempt against the US” that may have connections to Nigeria and Al Qaeda cells in Yemen.

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