A Nigerian man, claiming to be linked to al-Qaida, allegedly tried to set off an incendiary device aboard a trans-Atlantic airplane Friday as it descended toward Detroit’s airport in what the White House called an attempted act of terrorism.
The man was quickly subdued, according to an airline spokeswoman, and Northwest Airlines Flight 253 from Amsterdam landed safely around noon Friday, with several of the 278 passengers receiving minor injuries in the incident. The suspect was being treated at a hospital for burns he suffered while igniting the device, the Transportation Security Administration said.
The FBI is investigating the incident. President Barack Obama, celebrating Christmas in Hawaii, was informed about it, a spokesman said, and he asked his aides to ensure that all measures are in place to provide security for air travel.
Officials 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 traveling public on domestic and international flights.”
The suspect is 23-year-old Abdul Farouk Abdulmutallab, a federal official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because the investigation is ongoing. ABC News and NBC News reported that Abdulmutallab attends University College London, where he studies engineering.
Although not on the TSA’s “no-fly” list, Abdulmutallab’s name appears to be included in the government’s records of terrorism suspects, according to a preliminary review, authorities said.
Abdulmutallab has told federal investigators that he had ties to al-Qaida and traveled to Yemen to collect the incendiary device and instructions on how to use it, according to 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 syringe to mix some chemicals with the powder while on the airplane, one official said. 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.
A man who said he was on Flight 253, Syed Jafry, of Holland, Mich., told the Detroit Free Press that he noticed a glow three rows ahead in the Airbus 330, then smelled smoke. The next moment, Jafri recounted, “a young man behind me jumped on” Abdulmutallab.
Jafry said there was 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, according to a witness, J.P. Karas, of Wyandotte, Mich. He was driving on a road close to the airport when he noticed the unusual sight of an immobile jet at the end of a runway.
“I don’t recall seeing a plane on that runway ever before,” Karas told the Associated Press.