DETROIT, Michigan, Dec 26, 2009 (AFP) - A Nigerian man with reported links to al-Qaeda attempted to blow up a US airliner on Friday as it began its descent into Detroit before being tackled by passengers and crew, officials said.
Abdul Farouk Abdulmutallab was badly burned in the botched Christmas Day terror attack as he tried to set off a sophisticated explosive device on the Northwest Airlines Flight which had 278 passengers on board, witnesses said.
|Northwest Airlines Flight 253 on the runway after arriving at Detroit Metropolitan Airport from Amsterdam.
Syed Jafry, who was sitting three rows behind the would-be bomber, described how one passenger in particular had subdued Abdulmutallab as others screamed and rushed for fire extinguishers and water.
“He took care of that suspect. He handled him pretty good,” Jafry told CNN. “There was a little bit, obviously, of a struggle. And I think he took it under control.”
The cabin crew then helped drag the suspect to the front of the plane and isolate him from the rest of the passengers on Flight 253 from Amsterdam.
Abdulmutallab told the authorities after being taken into custody that he had used a syringe filled with chemicals to mix with powder taped to his leg in a bid to cause an explosion, according to senior officials quoted by US media.
White House officials and US lawmakers confirmed that the incident was a terror attack and President Barack Obama, on Christmas vacation with his family in Hawaii, ordered security measures to be stepped up at airports.
“We believe this was an attempted act of terrorism,” a senior White House official told AFP, speaking on condition of anonymity.
After a conference call with top security advisors, Obama “instructed that all appropriate measures be taken to increase security for air travel,” the White House said.
Eight years after British-born “shoe bomber” Richard Reid tried something similar on a flight from Paris to Miami, the botched attack served as a grim reminder to Americans of the spectre of air-borne terror.
It was Christmas week in 2001, when the country was still reeling from the September 11 attacks, that Reid tried to blow up a trans-Atlantic jet by lighting explosives in his shoes. He is serving a life sentence in a US prison.
The incident, and especially the fact that Abdulmutallab had sought to bomb a plane with a new kind of explosive device, raised renewed concerns about airport security.
“I know it was fairly sophisticated, and from what I've heard about the way it was going to be detonated, it seems to be different from what we've seen before,” Peter King, the senior Republican on the House of Representatives Homeland Security committee, told US media.
“I would say we dropped the ball on this one,” he added. “My understanding also is that while he is not on a watch list, he definitely has terror connections,” King told Fox news. “There is a terrorist nexus leading towards Al-Qaeda involving this assailant.””When it did go off he himself was seriously injured, my understanding is he has third degree burns. This could have been catastrophic,” King said.
Abdulmutallab was reportedly receiving treatment for third-degree burns to his legs at the University of Michigan Medical Center in the nearby Michigan city of Ann Arbor. “We received one patient from the incident at Detroit Metro” airport, Tracy Justice, a spokeswoman from the hospital, told AFP, without confirming it was the would-be bomber.
The suspect also told the authorities he was following orders from Al-Qaeda, according to US media reports, but counter-terrorism officials said it was too early to know for sure and suggested he could have been acting alone.
US media, citing a federal security bulletin, said the man told investigators he had acquired the explosive device in Yemen, along with instructions as to when it should be used.
Sandra Berchtold, an FBI spokeswoman in Detroit, told AFP the incident was under investigation, and the Transportation Safety Administration said it had isolated the plane and was conducting additional screening.
In the Netherlands, anti-terrorism officials said the suspect had arrived at Amsterdam-Schiphol airport on a connecting flight and was not a Dutch resident. Reports said he had boarded the plane on a one-way ticket.
AIRLINE TERROR PLOTS
1995: Al-Qaeda plots to blow up US airliners over the Pacific in "Operation Bojinka"
2001: Briton Richard Reid tries to blow up a Paris-Miami flight with 197 people on board using explosives hidden in his shoes
2006: UK police foil attacks on transatlantic flights using liquid bombs disguised as soft drinks - BBC