Washington Investigators piecing together a brazen attempt to bring down a trans-Atlantic airliner said Sunday the suspect tucked a small bag holding his deadly concoction on his body, using an explosive that would have been easily detected with the right airport equipment.
His success in smuggling and partially igniting the material on Friday’s flight to Detroit prompted the Obama administration to promise a sweeping review of aviation security.
Adding to the airborne jitters, a second Nigerian man was detained Sunday from the same Northwest flight to Detroit after he locked himself in the plane’s bathroom. Officials reported that he was belligerent but genuinely sick, and that, in an abundance of caution, the plane was taken to a remote location for screening before passengers were let off.
Investigators concluded he posed no threat. Despite the government’s decision after the attempted Friday attack to mobilize more air marshals, none was on the Sunday flight from Amsterdam, according to a government report obtained by The Associated Press.
Stiffer boarding measures met passengers at gates as authorities warned travelers to expect extra delays returning home from holidays. White House spokesman Robert Gibbs announced a review of air safety on two broad fronts, saying the government will investigate its systems for placing suspicious travelers on watch lists and for detecting explosives before passengers board flights.
Both lines of defense were breached in an improbable series of events Christmas Day that spanned three continents and culminated in a struggle and fire aboard a Northwest jet shortly before its safe landing in Detroit. Law enforcement officials believed the suspect tried to ignite a two-part concoction of PETN and possibly a glycol-based liquid explosive, setting off popping, smoke and some fire but no deadly detonation.
Nigerian Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, 23, an Islamic devotee once dubbed “the Pope” as a sign of respect by classmates, was released from a Michigan hospital in the custody of federal marshals Sunday after being treated for burns. He is charged with attempting to destroy an aircraft and placing a destructive device in a plane.
Abdulmutallab’s lawyer said Sunday that he is now in a federal prison in Milan, Mich.
Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano hastened to assure people that flying is “very, very safe.”
She said the suspect in Friday’s attack “was stopped before any damage could be done. I think the important thing to recognize here is that once this incident occurred, everything happened that should have.”
That brought a sharp rebuke from Rep. Peter King of New York, the top Republican on the Homeland Security Committee. “It’s not reassuring when the secretary of Homeland Security says the system worked,” King said. “It failed in every respect.”
An apparent malfunction in a device designed to detonate the high explosive PETN may have been all that saved the 278 passengers and the crew aboard Northwest Flight 253. No undercover air marshal was on board and passengers and crew subdued the suspect when he tried to set off the explosion. He succeeded only in starting a fire on himself.
Next line of searches
Law enforcement officials say Abdulmutallab hid a condom or condom-like pouch below his torso containing PETN, the primary ingredient in detonating cords used for industrial explosions.
Airport “puffer” machines that blow air on a passenger to collect and analyze residues would probably have detected the powder, as would bomb-sniffing dogs or a hands-on search using a swab, they said, but most passengers in airports only go through magnetometers, which detect metal rather than explosives. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the investigation.
Abdulmutallab told authorities after his arrest that his plan originated with al-Qaida’s network inside Yemen, a link the U.S. government has avoided making so far. Napolitano said there was no indication yet that Abdulmutallab is part of a larger terrorist plot, although his possible ties to al-Qaida are still under investigation.
A video posted online four days before the bombing attempt featured an al-Qaida operative in Yemen threatening the U.S. and saying “we are carrying a bomb.” It was not immediately clear whether the speaker was anticipating Friday’s bombing attempt.
In November, Abdulmutallab had been placed in a database of more than 500,000 names of people suspected of terrorist ties. But officials say there was not enough information about his terror activity that would have placed him on a watch list that could have kept him from flying. Officials said he came to the attention of U.S. intelligence last month when his father, a prominent Nigerian banker, reported to the American Embassy in Nigeria about his son’s increasingly extremist views.
Despite that red flag, Abdulmutallab was not elevated to more exclusive — and perhaps manageable — lists of some 18,000 people who are designated for additional security searches or barred from flying altogether. Napolitano said that would have required “specific, credible, derogatory information” that authorities didn’t have.
Just as passenger shoe searches became the order of the day after Richard Reid tried to blow up a trans-Atlantic flight in 2001 with PETN hidden in his shoes, the latest attempted assault could bring new layers of screening and delays. Among the possibilities: fuller and more frequent body pat-downs and scanning.
“I think we have to head in that direction,” King said. “Yes, there is some brief violation of privacy with a full body scan. But on the other hand, if we can save thousands of lives, to me, we have to make that decision.”