DETROIT (Reuters) - A Nigerian man linked to al Qaeda tried to set off an explosive device aboard a U.S. passenger plane as it approached Detroit on Friday, but was overpowered by passengers and crew and the aircraft landed safely, officials said.
The suspect suffered extensive burns and was taken into custody. The passengers, two of whom suffered minor injuries, disembarked safely from the Delta Air Lines plane, which had departed from Amsterdam.
“We believe this was an attempted act of terrorism,” a White House official told Reuters on condition of anonymity.
President Barack Obama is on vacation in Hawaii and was monitoring the situation after conferring with Homeland Security and National Security Council officials.
Representative Peter King of New York, the senior Republican on the House of Representatives Homeland Security Committee, said the explosive device was “fairly sophisticated,” and the suspect was a 23-year-old Nigerian.
Federal officials identified the man as Abdul Farouk Abdulmutallab, according to The New York Times and the Washington Post. ABC News and NBC News reported that he attends University College London, where he studied engineering.
Abdulmutallab tried to ignite the device or mixture as the aircraft was approaching Detroit.
“When it did go off, he himself was seriously injured. He has third-degree burns,” King told Fox News. ... (The device) “appears to be different from what we’ve encountered before.”
King told CNN the suspect “did appear in a database as far as having a terrorist connection. ... My understanding is ... that he does have al Qaeda connections, certainly extremist terrorist connections, and his name popped up pretty quickly” in a search of intelligence data bases.
SUSPECT BADLY Burnt
The suspect was not on a “no-fly” list, which might have kept him off the plane, but his name was in a database indicating “a significant terrorist connection,” King said.
“He was severely burnt. His entire leg was burnt. They required a fire extinguisher as well as water to put it out,” passenger Melinda Dennis told NBC News.
“You could smell the smoke when we landed. You could smell the scent of something being burnt when we landed.”
Another passenger, Richelle Keepman, said the incident was “terrifying.”
“I thought — I think we all thought we weren’t going to land, we weren’t going to make it,” Keepman told NBC.
Once on the ground, the aircraft was moved to a remote area at Detroit’s airport where all baggage was being rescreened, said the Transportation Security Administration.
Citing unnamed U.S. officials, the Wall Street Journal said the Nigerian had told investigators 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 “claims to have been acting on his own.”
The aircraft, Northwest Airlines flight 253, was an Airbus 330 carrying 278 passengers. Delta Air Lines has taken over Northwest. The incident on the Christmas holiday occurred during one of the busiest times of the year for air travel.
King said the suspect started his journey in Nigeria.
“How sophisticated he was, I don’t know,” he said. “But again, it was a fairly sophisticated device. I would say we dropped the ball on this one.”
The Department of Homeland Security said enhanced security measures had been put into effect. “Passengers may notice additional screening measures put into place to ensure the safety of the travelling public on domestic and international flights,” said spokeswoman Sara Kuban.
King said investigators were looking into whether the incident was part of a larger plot. There is a “world-wide alert to make sure this is not part of a larger overall scheme,” he said.
The New York Times, citing a senior Homeland Security official, said the device “was made from a mixture of powder and liquid” and was “more incendiary than explosive.”
The official said Abdulmutallab told law enforcement authorities he had explosive powder taped to his leg and used a syringe filled with chemicals to mix with the powder in an attempt to cause an explosion.”
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 U.S. prison.
It also is the latest in a string of terrorism-related plots in the United States over the past few months, including one in which an Afghan-born man was arrested in September on charges he planned to set off bombs in the United States.
Additional reporting by Tabassum Zakaria in Hawaii, Todd Eastham, Jeremy Pelofsky, Mohammad Zargham and Jim Wolf in Washington and Peter Bohan in Chicago. Editing by Chris Wilson