A Nigerian man with possible links to al-Qaeda militants was in custody on Saturday after he tried to ignite an explosive device on a US passenger plane as it approached Detroit, US officials said.
The suspect, who suffered extensive burns, was overpowered by passengers and crew on the Christmas Day flight from Amsterdam. The passengers, two of whom suffered minor injuries, disembarked safely from the Delta Air Lines plane.
”We believe this was an attempted act of terrorism,” a White House official told Reuters.
Investigators were trying to confirm the man’s claims that he has connections to al-Qaeda. Al-Qaeda militants carried out the September 11 2001 attacks in the United States.
Citing US officials, the Wall Street Journal said the Nigerian man had told investigators that al-Qaeda operatives in Yemen had given him the device and instructions on how to detonate it. But NBC, citing anti-terrorism officials, said he claimed to have been acting on his own.
US lawmakers briefed on the Detroit incident said the suspect was 23-year-old Nigerian man Abdul Farouk Abdulmutallab, although there were conflicting reports about the man’s full name and the correct spelling.
In Nigeria, Abdul Mutallab, son of prominent former banker Umaru Mutallab, told Reuters that the suspect was his brother. He said their father was planning to meet with police in Nigeria.
US President Barack Obama, who is vacationing in Hawaii with his family, was receiving regular updates and instructed officials to step up air travel security, the White House said. Television footage showed long security lines at Detroit’s airport on Saturday.
While the weak economy has dominated Obama’s policy agenda in his first year in office, this incident is certain to focus renewed attention on threats of attacks in the United States.
Republicans have accused Obama of fueling those threats by pushing to close down the prison camp at the US naval base at GuantÃ¡namo Bay, where a number of foreign terrorism suspects are detained, and move them to the United States for trial.
In recent weeks, congressional Republicans aimed most of their fire at Obama’s bid to revamp the US healthcare system, but they are likely to make the Detroit case a big topic on the television talks shows on Sunday.
Investigation spans three continents Investigators in Nigeria, The Netherlands and the United States were trying to piece together how the man was able to bring dangerous materials on to a plane.
”The reported act of terrorism — whether directly related to al-Qaeda or not — and the response to it will be the focus of an oversight hearing next month,” Representative Bennie Thompson, chairman of the House of Representatives Committee on Homeland Security, said in a statement released on Saturday.
”The committee will get to the bottom of what did and did not happen with Mr Abdulmutallab and what security precautions need to take place in the future,” he said.
In Britain, police were searching premises in central London in connection with the incident. The man was believed to have spent time in Britain as a student.
University College London said it had no record of a student named ”Abdul Farouk Abdulmutallab”. There was a student by the name of ”Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab” who was enrolled between September 2005 and June 2008, but the university said it had no evidence that this was the same person.
Tighter airport security
Dutch counterterrorism agency NCTb said the man boarded a KLM flight from Lagos to Amsterdam, and went through a security checkpoint while in transit at Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport.
NCTb said in a statement it could not rule out the potential for dangerous items to be brought on board, ”especially objects that with the current security technology such as metal detectors are difficult to detect”.
European airports tightened security checks on US-bound flights in response to the failed attack.
Northwest Airlines flight 253, a Delta-owned Airbus 330, left Amsterdam airport on Friday carrying about 278 passengers bound for Detroit. The Delta plane was on approach when the man tried to ignite the device or mixture, US officials said. Delta Air Lines has taken over Northwest.
The US Department of Homeland Security said it was boosting security at airports for domestic and international flights after the incident and advised passengers they may experience more scrutiny.
One DHS official said they have a range of security measures available that they can implement as needed, from bomb-sniffing dogs to behavior detection as well as other techniques that are seen and unseen.
”The mix is meant to be unpredictable so passengers aren’t seeing the same thing at airports,” the official said, declining further identification.
This weekend is supposed to be one of the busiest of the year because of Christmas travel. Severe winter storms across much of the central United States had already led to a number of flight cancellations and delays.
The Nigerian government ordered security agencies to investigate the incident and said they would cooperate fully with the American authorities.
The attempt appeared similar to one eight years ago when a British-born man, Richard Reid, tried but failed to blow up a trans-Atlantic jumbo jet by lighting explosives stuffed into his shoes. Reid, a follower of al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, is serving a life sentence in a US prison. – Reuters