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Suspected Terrorist Tried to Blow Up Plane, U.S. Says

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December 26, 2009, 01:57 AM EST

By Nicholas Johnston and Martin Z. Braun

Dec. 26 (Bloomberg) — A suspected terrorist tried to blow up a Detroit-bound transatlantic flight yesterday with 278 passengers before he was subdued, U.S. officials said.

The passenger was attempting to destroy the plane with an explosive device, said Peter King of New York, the top Republican on the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Homeland Security. White House officials said President Barack Obama is treating the incident as an attempted terrorist attack. King identified the suspect as Abdul Mudallad of Nigeria.

The incident on Northwest Airlines flight 253 from Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport “definitely appears to be al-Qaeda related,” King said in an interview. “This was not a firecracker. This was for real.” The senior Republican on the House Intelligence Committee, Representative Pete Hoekstra, said he had information the suspect may have had contact with a radical imam based in Yemen with ties to the suspected shooter in the Fort Hood killings in Texas.

Obama called for “all appropriate measures to be taken to increase security” after the suspected attack, the White House said in a statement. The Department of Homeland Security said passengers may notice additional screening at airports.

Suspect in Custody

The suspect, who was taken into custody in Detroit, told authorities that the device was acquired in Yemen along with instructions on when it was to be used, CNN reported, citing a federal security bulletin. The passenger was taken to a hospital to be treated for burns, the cable news network said. The fire from the explosion was large enough to require a fire extinguisher, CNN said, citing interviews with passengers.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation in Detroit is leading the probe, said spokeswoman Sandra Berchtold, a review that includes indentifying the material used by the suspect.

Susan Elliott, a spokeswoman for Northwest parent Delta Air Lines Inc., said earlier that the suspect had firecrackers.

One passenger, who said he had flown from the United Arab Emirates, was cited on WDIV television as saying the incident occurred during the plane’s descent. The passenger, identified by the station as Syed Jafri, said he was seated three rows behind the passenger and saw a glow, and noticed a smell of smoke. Then, he said, “a young man behind me jumped on him.”

“Next thing you know, there was a lot of panic,” he said.

The suspect told authorities that he used a syringe to mix chemicals with explosive powder taped to his leg, the New York Times reported, citing an unidentified U.S. official.

Remote Area

The plane was moved to a remote area, and authorities interviewed passengers and rescreened luggage after the Airbus 330 landed at about noon local time, the Transportation Security Administration said in a statement.

Ann Davis, a spokeswoman with TSA said the agency hasn’t raised the threat level in the airline sector from orange, the second-highest level.

Representative Hoekstra said administration officials and officials with access to law-enforcement information told him the plane bombing suspect may have had contact with Anwar Al Awlaki, an anti-American imam linked to al-Qaeda, and with ties to Nidal Hasan, the suspected Fort Hood shooter.

“The suspicion is also that” the bombing suspect “had contact with al Awlaki,” Hoekstra said in an interview. “The belief is this is a stronger connection with al Awlaki” than Hasan had.

E-mail Exchange

Intelligence agencies intercepted e-mails Hasan and al Awlaki exchanged last year and before the shooting this year.

Hoekstra said the Obama administration hasn’t done enough to inform Congress about the al Awlaki-Hasan contacts and wanted to ensure the same didn’t happen in this case.

Yemen warplanes may have killed al Awlaki during a strike, a Yemeni government spokeswoman said on Dec. 24. If the investigation confirms the al Awlaki connection, the lawmaker said that it may show the Yemen branch of al-Qaeda is taking a lead in attacks on the West.

“Have they made it part of their strategy to attack the U.S.?” he said. Hoekstra also said that the investigation initially has found “how sophisticated” the device was that the bombing suspect used. “This is not a high school chemistry student going to the Internet and doing it” himself, he said.

Security Questioned

The suspected attack is “troubling because of the potential commentary on the effectiveness, or lack thereof, of foreign-based security and explosives detection,” said Robert Mann, owner of consultant R.W. Mann & Co. in Port Washington, New York.

Nigeria, whose population of about 140 million people makes it Africa’s most populous country, is almost evenly split between the mainly Muslim north and a largely Christian south. The Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta, or MEND, said Dec. 19 it attacked a pipeline in the southern oil region used by Royal Dutch Shell Plc and Chevron Corp.

Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the group’s Yemen-based arm, has issued threats against the U.S. following recent strikes against it, according to IntelCenter, an Alexandria, Virginia-based group that monitors terrorist organizations.

Obama Conference Call

Obama, who is vacationing in Hawaii, convened a secure conference call with John Brennan, homeland security and counter-terrorism adviser, and Denis McDonough, National Security Council chief of staff, the White House said. He was alerted between 9 a.m. and 9:30 a.m. Hawaii time, according to the White House, which is between 2 p.m. and 2:30 p.m. in Detroit.

Obama “is actively monitoring the situation and receiving regular updates,” the White House said.

The circumstances and timing of the Christmas incident echoed the attempt by the so-called shoe bomber Richard Reid to blow up American Airlines flight 63 to Miami from Paris on Dec. 22, 2001. Flight attendants and passengers subdued Reid as he tried to light explosives in his high-top sneakers.

Reid, a British citizen, who declared himself to be a member of the al-Qaeda terror network, later pleaded guilty in the case and was sentenced to life in prison in January 2003.

–With assistance from Jeff Bliss in Washington, Sean B. Pasternak in Toronto, Ed Dufner in Dallas, Anthony Palazzo in Los Angeles and Shani Raja in Sydney. Editors: Dan Kraut, Nancy Moran

To contact the reporters on this story: Nicholas Johnston in Kailua, Hawaii, at +1-202-236-9231 or [email protected]; Martin Z. Braun in New York at +1-212-617-6849 or [email protected]

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Dan Kraut at +1-212-617-2432 or [email protected]

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