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Northwest Airlines Flight 253
A large white jet with a red-and-blue tail on a runway amid a yellowed field of grass. A gray truck has extended a ladder to the plane's door.
Flight 253 was moved to an isolated area and surrounded by emergency vehicles just after it landed in Detroit.
Attempted terrorist attack summary
Date December 25, 2009
Type Failed bombing using
PETN and TATP[1]
Site Approaching Romulus, Michigan, United States
42°12′29″N 83°21′22″W / 42.208°N 83.356°W / 42.208; -83.356Coordinates: 42°12′29″N 83°21′22″W / 42.208°N 83.356°W / 42.208; -83.356
Passengers 279[1]
Crew 11[1]
Injuries 2 victims and 1 bomber
Fatalities 0
Survivors 290 (all)
Aircraft type Airbus A330-323E
Operator Northwest Airlines
Tail number N820NW
Flight origin Amsterdam Airport Schiphol
Destination Detroit Metropolitan Wayne County Airport

Northwest Airlines Flight 253 was an international passenger flight from Amsterdam Airport Schiphol in Amsterdam, Netherlands, to Detroit Metropolitan Wayne County Airport in Detroit, Michigan, United States. The flight was the target of a failed al-Qaeda bombing attempt on Christmas Day, December 25, 2009. In the attempt, a passenger attempted to set off plastic explosives sewn to his underwear while the plane, a Delta Air Lines liveried Airbus A330-323E operated by Northwest Airlines, was on its final descent, 20 minutes before landing, with 289 other people on board. The plane made an emergency landing in Detroit without any fatalities.

The suspected bomber in the incident was Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, a 23-year-old Muslim Nigerian passenger who had studied engineering in England and came from a wealthy family. The plastic explosives Abdulmutallab concealed in his underwear failed to detonate properly, resulting only in flames and popping sounds. A Dutch passenger, Jasper Schuringa, tackled and restrained him as others put out the fire. Abdulmutallab was then handcuffed while the pilot safely landed the plane. In all, three people were injured: Abdulmutallab, Schuringa, and one other passenger. Upon landing in Detroit, Abdulmutallab was arrested and taken to a hospital for treatment of his burns. On December 26, the day after the attempted attack, investigators said Abdulmutallab told them that he had attended camps in Yemen, where various members of al-Qaeda, including Anwar al-Awlaki, had instructed him, blessed the attack, and provided the materials used. Two days after the incident, Abdulmutallab was transferred to a federal prison. On December 28, 2009, Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) claimed that it was responsible for the attempted bombing. On January 6, 2010, a federal grand jury indicted Abdulmutallab on six criminal charges, including attempted use of a weapon of mass destruction and attempted murder. If convicted, he will face a sentence of life in prison plus 90 years.

Abdulmutallab had traveled to Yemen in August 2009 to study Arabic, and in October 2009 cut off contact with his family. His worried father reported his disappearance and "extreme religious views" to the U.S. embassy in Nigeria on November 17.[2] As a result, Abdulmutallab's name was added to the U.S.'s central international terrorist database, but not to shorter search-before-boarding and no-fly lists, and a two-year U.S multi-entry visa granted to him in 2008 was not revoked. While he was in Ghana eight days before the attack, Abdulmutallab purchased a round-trip ticket from Lagos, Nigeria, to Detroit, using cash. On December 24 Abdulmutallab entered Nigeria, and on his U.S. visa flew to Amsterdam, boarding Flight 253 on December 25, passing security checks at both Murtala Muhammed Airport in Lagos and Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam.

Several reports of pre-attack intelligence linked Abdulmutallab to Anwar al-Awlaki, a senior al-Qaeda member based in Yemen who is also linked to three of the 9/11 hijackers and may have helped radicalize and motivate the Fort Hood shooter. Reports also indicated that the U.S. had received intelligence regarding a planned attack by a Yemeni-based Nigerian man, and it is now suspected that al-Awlaki may have participated in planning the attack. While describing security measures taken by U.S. and foreign governments in the immediate aftermath of the attack, U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security, Janet Napolitano, stated that "once the incident occurred, the system worked." However, she also cited "the actions of the passengers and the crew on this flight" to show "why that system is so important."[3] After heavy criticism, she stated the following day that the system "failed miserably", this time referring to the fact that Abdulmutallab had been able to board the flight with an explosive device.[4] U.S. President Barack Obama called the U.S.'s failure to prevent the bombing attempt as "totally unacceptable", and ordered an investigation.[5]

Contents

Incident

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Getting on Flight 253

A large twin-engined jet aircraft with its landing gear down. The plane is painted white, with a navy and blue vertical stabilizer, and blue jet engine housings.
Flight 253 used a plane similar to this one, a Northwest Airlines Airbus A330 with Delta Air Lines livery, due to their merger.

On Christmas Eve, December 24, 2009, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, a 23-year-old Nigerian, arrived at Murtala Muhammed Airport in Lagos, Nigeria. Eight days earlier at the KLM Royal Dutch Airlines office in Accra, Ghana, he had paid $2,831 in cash for his Lagos-Amsterdam-Detroit round-trip ticket with a January 8, 2010, return date.[6][7][8] Abdulmutallab left Lagos on Christmas Eve at 11:00 p.m. aboard KLM Flight 588, a Boeing 777 bound for Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam.[9][10] In Amsterdam, on Christmas Day, Abdulmutallab checked in for Northwest Airlines Flight 253 to Detroit with only carry-on luggage.

A couple, Kurt and Lori Haskell, stated that, while waiting at the Amsterdam airport to board Flight 253, they saw the man whom they later learned was Abdulmutallab along with a well-dressed man who was assisting him approach the ticket agent. The other man appeared to be around 50 years old, of Indian descent and was dressed in what appeared to be an expensive suit and shoes.[11] Federal agents later stated that they were trying to find the well-dressed man.[12] According to Lori Haskell, the well-dressed man told the ticket agent: "We need to get this man on the plane. He doesn't have a passport." The ticket agent answered that nobody was allowed to board without a passport, to which the well-dressed man replied: "We do this all the time; he's from Sudan." Lori Haskell added that both she and her husband believe the man was trying to pass Abdulmutallab off as a Sudanese refugee. Lori Haskell then reported the two being directed down a corridor to talk to a manager. "We never saw him again until he tried to blow up our plane," Haskell said of Abdulmutallab.[11] Only U.S. citizens are permitted to board international flights to the U.S. without passports, but only if the airline confirms their identity and citizenship, said Chief Ron Smith, a spokesperson for U.S. Customs and Border Patrol in Detroit. As a result, the possibility that Abdulmutallab was allowed to board without a passport was called "disturbing".[13]

Bombing attempt

Flight 253, a Northwest Airlines Airbus A330-300 twinjet, registered N820NW, with 279 passengers, 8 flight attendants, and 3 pilots aboard, left Amsterdam around 8:45 am local time.[1][9][14][15] The plane was scheduled to arrive in Detroit at 11:40 a.m. EST,[15][16][17] and was painted in Delta Air Lines' livery, as Northwest was a subsidiary of Delta at the time.[1][18][19]

Witnesses reported that as the plane approached Detroit, Abdulmutallab went into the plane's lavatory for about 20 minutes. After returning to his seat at 19A (near the fuel tanks and wing, and against the skin of the plane),[20] he complained that he had an upset stomach.[15][21] He was then seen pulling a blanket over himself.[15]

About 20 minutes before the plane landed, he secretly ignited a small explosive device consisting of a mix of plastic explosive powder[9][22] and acid.[15][23][24][25][26] Abdulmutallab apparently had a packet of the plastic explosive sewn to his underwear,[27] and injected liquid acid from a syringe into the packet to cause a chemical reaction.[24] While there was an explosion and fire, the device failed to detonate properly.[15][25][28] Passengers heard popping noises resembling firecrackers, smelled an odor, and saw the suspect's trouser leg and the wall of the plane on fire.[15]

"There was smoke and screaming and flames. It was scary."[29]

— Passenger on Flight 253, on witnessing the failed attack.

Although there were not any air marshals on the flight,[30] several passengers and crew noticed the attack. A passenger seated on the far side of the same row, Jasper Schuringa from the Netherlands, saw Abdulmutallab sitting and shaking, and tackled and overpowered him.[31][32][33][34] Schuringa saw the suspect's trousers were open, and that he was holding a burning object between his legs. "I pulled the object from him and tried to extinguish the fire with my hands and threw it away," said Schuringa, who suffered burns to his hands. Meanwhile, flight attendants extinguished the fire with a fire extinguisher and blankets,[15][35][36][37] and a passenger removed the partially melted, smoking syringe from Abdulmutallab's hand.[15]

Schuringa grabbed the suspect, and pulled him to the first class area at the front of the plane.[31][33] A passenger reported that Abdulmutallab, though burned "quite severely" on his leg, seemed "very calm," and like a "normal individual."[35] Schuringa stripped off the suspect's clothes to check for other explosives or weapons, and he and a crew member handcuffed Abdulmutallab with plastic handcuffs.[31] "He was staring into nothing," Schuringa said, and shaking.[31][33] Passengers applauded as Schuringa walked back to his seat.[33]

The suspect was isolated from other passengers until after the plane landed.[15][25][38] A flight attendant asked Abdulmutallab what he had in his pocket, and the suspect replied: "Explosive device."[15]

When the attack triggered a fire indicator light within the cockpit, the pilot requested rescue and law enforcement. The plane made an emergency landing at Detroit Metropolitan Wayne County Airport in the Downriver Detroit community of Romulus, Michigan, just before 1:00 p.m. local time.[15][39] The airport is about 20 miles (32 km) southwest of Detroit and the adjacent international border.[40]

An aerial view of an airport, with long stretches of runway scattered across a large green patch.
Detroit Metropolitan Wayne County Airport

The Toronto Star reported that the plane's flight route would have had it over Canadian airspace when the attempted bombing occurred. Representatives of two pilot associations told the Star that Detroit Metro airport would have been the nearest suitable airport at which to attempt an emergency landing.[41]

While the plane itself suffered relatively little damage,[42] the suspect incurred first and second degree burns to his hands, and second degree burns to his right inner thigh and genitalia, and two other passengers were injured.[43][44][45] When the plane landed, Abdulmutallab was handed over to U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officers, and taken into custody for questioning and treatment of his injuries in a secured room of the burn unit of the University of Michigan Medical Center in Ann Arbor.[46] Schuringa was also taken to the hospital.[15][25][28][33] One other passenger incurred minor injuries.[28][45]

Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) agents arrived at the airport after the plane landed.[47] The aircraft was moved to a remote area so authorities could re-screen the plane, the passengers, and the baggage on-board.[48] A bomb-defusing robot was first used to board the plane,[28] and the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) interviewed all passengers.[36] Another passenger from the flight was placed in handcuffs after a dog alerted officers to his carry-on luggage, searched, and released.[49][50][51]

Analysis of explosives

The substance that the suspect tried to detonate was more than 80 grams (3 oz) of pentaerythritol tetranitrate (PETN), a crystalline powder that is often the active ingredient of plastic explosives, the high explosive triacetone triperoxide (TATP), and other ingredients.[1][52] PETN is among the most powerful of explosives, in the same chemical family as nitroglycerin.[53] The powder was analyzed by the FBI at Quantico,[54] and an FBI affidavit filed in the Eastern District of Michigan[15][55] reflected preliminary findings that the device contained PETN.[56] The authorities also found the remains of the syringe.[15][55] The suspect apparently carried the PETN onto the plane in a 6-inch (15 cm)-long[24] soft plastic container, possibly a condom, attached to his underwear. However, much of the container was lost in the fire.[57] ABC News cited a government test indicating that 50 grams (2 oz) of PETN can blow a hole in the side of an airliner, and posted photos of the remains of Abdulmutallab's underwear and explosive packet.[24] Further chemical analysis showed that TATP, another high explosive, was also present.[58]

Some white powder on a round gray platform.
An example of TATP, one of the explosive substances in the powder Abdulmutallab tried to ignite.

However, in a public test conducted by the BBC, the test plane's fuselage remained intact, indicating that the bomb would not actually have destroyed the aircraft, though it did show that window damage that would almost certainly have led to cabin depressurization. This test was undertaken at ground level, with zero pressure differential between the cabin, and the surrounding environment. This was claimed to have no effect on the overall result of the test, which aimed to simulate the explosion at 10,000 feet (3,000 m). However, it was not demonstrated what would happen at a typical cruising altitude of between 31,000 feet (9,400 m) and 39,000 feet (12,000 m), where the pressure differential would have caused the fuselage to be under a far greater stress than at ground level.[59]

Al-Qaeda member Richard Reid (the "Shoe Bomber") tried to detonate 50 grams of the same explosives in his shoes during an American Airlines flight on December 22, 2001.[53][58] The attack by Abdulmutallab was close to the eighth anniversary of Reid's attempt.[60] In August 2009, an al-Qaeda bomber from Yemen with PETN hidden in his underwear (originally thought to have been hidden inside his anal cavity) blew himself up near the Saudi deputy Interior Minister in charge of counter-terrorism, Prince Muhammad bin Nayef.[61][62][63][64]

Verbally disruptive passenger incident

On December 27, 2009, two days after the original incident, the crew of another Flight 253 requested emergency assistance with a Nigerian passenger who they said had become "verbally disruptive".[65][66][67] The crew questioned the passenger after other passengers expressed concern that he had been in the lavatory for over an hour. It was later determined that the man was a businessman who had fallen ill from food poisoning during the flight, and did not pose any security risk.[68]

Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab

A young, dark-skinned man in a white shirt. He is unsmiling and has short hair.
Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the suspected bomber

The suspect in the attempted bombing was 23-year-old Nigerian Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab.[10][23][28][69] The youngest of 16 children,[70] Abdulmutallab's father is Alhaji Umaru Mutallab, one of the richest men in Africa, former Chairman of First Bank of Nigeria, and former Nigerian Federal Commissioner for Economic Development. Abdulmutallab's mother was born in Yemen and is the second of his father's two wives.[33][70][71] Abdulmutallab was initially raised in Kaduna, in Nigeria's Muslim-dominated north, a place he returned to on his vacations.[70][72]

In high school at the British International School in Lomé, Togo,[33] Abdulmutallab was known to be a devout Muslim who frequently discussed Islam with schoolmates.[73] He visited the U.S. for the first time in 2004.[74] For the 2004–05 academic year, Abdulmutallab studied at the San'a Institute for the Arabic Language in Sana'a, Yemen, and attended lectures at Iman University.[75][76][77][78][79]

He began his studies at University College London in September 2005, where he studied Engineering and Business Finance,[80] and earned a degree in mechanical engineering in June 2008.[9][25][70][73][81][82] He was president of the school's Islamic society in 2006 and 2007, during which time he participated in, along with political discussions, such activities as martial arts and paintballing; at least one of the Society's paintballing trips involved a preacher who reportedly said: "Dying while fighting jihad is one of the surest ways to paradise."[79][83] During those years, he "crossed the radar screen" of MI5, the UK's domestic counter-intelligence and security agency, for radical links and "multiple communications" with Islamic extremists; none of the information was passed to American officials, due to concerns about breaching his human rights and privacy.[84][85][86] His last known address was a ₤4 million apartment on Mansfield Street, Central London, close to Oxford Street.[33][87]

On June 12, 2008, Abdulmutallab applied for and received from the U.S. consulate in London a U.S. multiple-entry visa, valid to June 12, 2010, with which he visited Houston, Texas, from August 1–17, 2008.[88][89] From January 2009 to July 2009, he attended a master's of international business degree program at the University of Wollongong in Dubai.[90][91][92]

In May 2009 Abdulmutallab tried to return to Britain, ostensibly for a six-month "life coaching" program at what the British authorities concluded was a fictitious school; accordingly, his visa application was denied by the United Kingdom Border Agency.[73] His name was placed on a UK Home Office security watch list, which meant he was not permitted to enter the UK, though he could pass through the country in transit and was not permanently banned. However, the UK did not share the information with other countries.[93][94]

In July 2009, Abdulmutallab's father agreed to his request of returning to the San'a Institute for the Arabic Language in Yemen to study Arabic from August to September of that year,[70][79] and Abdulmutallab arrived in the country in August.[95][96] "He told me his greatest wish was for sharia and Islam to be the rule of law across the world," said one of his classmates at the Institute.[79] However, Abdulmutallab ;left the Institute after a month, but remained in Yemen.[70][79][97] Earlier, his family had become concerned in August when he called them to say he had dropped the course, but was remaining there.[70] By September, he routinely skipped his classes at the institute and attended lectures at Iman University, which is suspected to have links to terrorism.[79]

The San'a Institute obtained an exit visa for him at his request, and arranged for a car that took him to the airport on September 21, 2009 (the day his student visa expired), but the school's director said, "After that, we never saw him again, and apparently he did not leave Yemen".[96][98][99][100] In October, Abdulmutallab sent his father a text message saying that he was no longer interested pursuing an MBA in Dubai, and wanted instead to study sharia and Arabic in a seven-year course in Yemen.[79] His father threatened to cut off his funding, whereupon Abdulmutallab said he was "already getting everything for free".[79] He text-messaged his father, saying "I've found a new religion, the real Islam", and ultimately, "You should just forget about me, I'm never coming back", "Please forgive me. I will no longer be in touch with you", and "Forgive me for any wrongdoing, I am no longer your child".[70][79][101] The family was last in contact with Abdulmutallab in October 2009.[102]

On November 11, 2009, British intelligence officials sent the U.S. a message indicating that a man named "Umar Farouk" had spoken to Anwar al-Awlaki, a Muslim spiritual leader supposedly tied to al-Qaeda, pledging to support jihad, but the notice did not mention Abdulmutallab's last name.[103] His father made a report to two CIA officers at the U.S. Embassy in Abuja, on November 19 regarding his son's "extreme religious views",[70][104] and told the embassy that Abdulmutallab might be in Yemen.[33][79][81][105] Acting on the report, Abdulmutallab's name was added in November 2009 to the U.S.'s 550,000-name Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment, a database of the U.S. National Counterterrorism Center. It was not added, however, to the FBI's 400,000-name Terrorist Screening Database, the terror watch list that feeds both the 14,000-name Secondary Screening Selectee list and the U.S.'s 4,000-name No Fly List.[106] Abdulmutallab's U.S. visa was not revoked as well.[79]

Yemeni officials said that he left Yemen on December 7 (flying to Ethiopia, and then two days later to Ghana).[95][96] Ghanaian officials said Abdulmutallab was there from December 9 until December 24, when he flew to Lagos.[107]

Two days after the attack, Abdulmutallab was released from the hospital in which he had been treated for burns sustained during the attempted bombing. He was then taken to the Federal Correctional Institution, Milan, a federal prison in Milan, Michigan.[108][109]

Ties to Anwar al-Awlaki

A man in white clothing with a beard and glasses sits cross-legged before a table with an open book.
Anwar al-Awlaki, who reportedly had ties to Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab

A number of sources reported contacts between Abdulmutallab and Anwar al-Awlaki, a Muslim lecturer and spiritual leader who is accused of being a senior al-Qaeda talent recruiter and motivator. al-Awlaki, previously an imam in the U.S. who more recently has lived in Yemen, also has links to three of the 9/11 hijackers, the 2005 London subway bombers, a 2006 Toronto terror cell, a 2007 plot to attack Fort Dix, and the 2009 suspected Fort Hood shooter, Nidal Malik Hasan.[110][111][112][113] Despite being banned from entering the UK in 2006, al-Awlaki has spoken on at least seven occasions at five different venues around Britain via video-link from 2007–2009.[114]

U.S. Representative Pete Hoekstra, the senior Republican on the House Intelligence Committee, said on the day of the attack that Obama administration officials and officials with access to law enforcement information told him that "there are reports [the suspect] had contact [with al-Awlaki].... The question we'll have to raise is was this imam in Yemen influential enough to get some people to attack the U.S. again."[115][116][117] He added, "The suspicion is ... that [the suspect] had contact with al-Awlaki. The belief is this is a stronger connection with al-Awlaki" than Hasan had.[118] Hoekstra later said that credible sources had told him Abdulmutallab "most likely" has ties with al-Awlaki.[119][120]

The Sunday Times established that Abdulmutallab first met and attended lectures by al-Awlaki in 2005, when he was in Yemen to study Arabic.[79][85] He attended a sermon by al-Awlaki at the Finsbury Park Mosque.[121] The two are also "thought to have met" in London, according to The Daily Mail.[122] Fox News reported that evidence collected during searches of "flats or apartments of interest" connected to Abdulmutallab in London showed that he was a "big fan" of al-Awlaki, as web traffic showed he followed Awlaki's blog and website.[123] CBS News and The Daily Telegraph reported that Abdulmutallab attended a talk by al-Awlaki at the East London Mosque (which al-Awlaki may have participated in by video teleconference).[114][124] University of Oxford historian, and professor of international relations, Mark Almond wrote that the suspect was "on American security watch-lists because of his links with... Al-Awlaki".[125]

CBS News reported that the two had communicated in the months before the bombing attempt, and other sources have said that at a minimum, al-Awlaki was providing spiritual support for Abdulmutallab and the attack.[126] According to federal sources, over the year prior to the attack, Abdulmutallab intensified electronic communications with al-Awlaki.[127]

Intelligence officials suspected that al-Awlaki may have directed Abdulmutallab to Yemen for al-Qaeda training.[121] One government source described intercepted "voice-to-voice communication" between the two during the fall of 2009, saying that al-Awlaki "was in some way involved in facilitating [Abdulmutallab]'s transportation or trip through Yemen. It could be training, a host of things."[128]

Abdulmutallab reportedly told the FBI that al-Awlaki was one of his trainers when he underwent al-Qaeda training in remote camps in Yemen, and that there were "informed reports" that Abdulmutallab met al-Awlaki during his final weeks of training and indoctrination prior to the attack.[129][130] According to one U.S. intelligence official, intercepts and other information point to connections between the two.[131]

Yemen's Deputy Prime Minister for Defense and Security Affairs, Rashad Mohammed al-Alimi, said Yemeni investigators believe the suspect traveled in October to Shabwa, where he met with suspected al-Qaida members in a house built by al-Awlaki and used by al-Awlaki to hold theological sessions, and that Abdulmutallab was trained and equipped there with his explosives.[132] "If he went to Shabwa, for sure he would have met Anwar al-Awlaki," al-Alimi said. Al-Alimi also said he believed al-Awlaki is alive.[133] And Abdul Elah al-Shaya, a Yemeni journalist, said a healthy al-Awlaki called him on December 28 and said that the Yemeni government's claims as to his death were "lies". Shaya declined to comment as to whether al-Awlaki had told him about any contacts he may have had with Abdulmutallab. According to Gregory Johnsen, a Yemeni expert at Princeton University, Shaya is generally reliable.[134]

At the end of January 2010, a Yemeni journalist, Abdulelah Hider Sha’ea, said he met with al-Awlaki, who told Sha'ea that he had met and spoken with Abdulmutallab in Yemen in the fall of 2009. al-Awlaki also reportedly called Abdulmutallab one of his students, said that he supported what Abdulmutallab did but did not tell him to do it, and that he was proud of Abdulmutallab. A New York Times journalist who listened to a digital recording of the meeting said that while the tape's authenticity could not be independently verified, the voice resembled that on other recordings of al-Awlaki.[135]

Al-Qaeda involvement

On December 28, 2009, Obama in his first address said the incident "demonstrates that an alert and courageous citizenry are far more effective than anti-terrorist laws which wreak havoc on our basic freedoms." On the same day, Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) announced that it was responsible for the attempted bombing. AQAP said that the attack, during "their (Christians) celebration of the Christmas holidays", was to "avenge U.S. attacks on the militants in Yemen".[136][137] The NEFA Foundation posted the full al-Qaeda statement.[138]

On January 24, an audio tape said to be from Osama Bin Laden praised the bombing attempt and warned of further attacks against America, but did not explicitly claim responsibility for it.[139] The short recording that was broadcasted on Al Jazeera television, said: "The message delivered to you through the plane of the heroic warrior Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab was a confirmation of the previous messages sent by the heroes of the September 11."[140][141][142] An adviser to the U.S. President said he could not confirm whether the voice was actually that of bin Laden. In the past, the CIA has usually confirmed Al Jazeera reports on tapes attributed to bin Laden.[143]

While in custody, Abdulmutallab told authorities he had been directed by al-Qaeda. He said he had obtained the device in Yemen, along with instructions from al-Qaeda as to how to use it and to detonate it when the plane was over U.S. soil.[33] Abdulmutallab said he had contacted al-Qaeda through a radical Yemeni imam (who according to The New York Times on December 26 was not believed to be al-Awlaki)[89] whom he had reached through the internet.[44]

The New York Times reported on December 25 that a counter-terrorism official had told them Abdulmutallab's claim "may have been aspirational".[144] But U.S. Representative Jane Harman] (D-Calif.), Chairman of the House Homeland Security Subcommittee on Intelligence, Information Sharing, and Terrorism Risk Assessment, said the following day that a federal official briefed lawmakers about "strong suggestions of a Yemen-al Qaeda connection" with the suspect.[145] On January 2, 2010, President Obama said that AQAP trained, equipped, and dispatched Abdulmutallab, and vowed retribution.[146][147]

In reaction to suggestions that the U.S. launch a military offensive against the alleged terrorists' sanctuary in Yemen, The Washington Post noted that Yemeni forces equipped with U.S. weapons and intelligence had carried out two major raids against AQAP shortly before the bombing attempt, and that the terror group may have lost top leaders in a December 24, 2009, airstrike.[148]

Jasper Schuringa

Jasper Schuringa, who was en route to Miami, Florida for a vacation, stopped Abdulmutallab from causing too much damage and received burn injuries in the process. In a statement, Schuringa, who was in seat 20J on the flight, said he was able to locate Abdulmutallab, help to extinguish the fire that the explosive had caused, and helped to restrain Abdulmutallab using plastic cuffs.[149] Schuringa lives in Amsterdam, and was born in 1971 in Curaçao, Netherlands Antilles.[150] Schuringa is a graduate of Leiden University, Leiden. He is a film director of low-budget Dutch films for an Amsterdam-based media company, and was the assistant director for National Lampoon's Teed Off Too.[151][152]

Dutch Deputy Prime Minister Wouter Bos phoned Schuringa on behalf of the Dutch government the day after the attack, and conveyed the government's compliments and gratitude for Schuringa's part in overpowering the suspect.[153][154] Dutch Member of Parliament Geert Wilders[155] called Schuringa "a national hero" who "deserves a royal honor", which Wilders said he would ask the Dutch government to award.[156][157][158] According to the Dutch newspaper De Volkskrant, Queen Beatrix expressed her feelings of gratitude towards Schuringa.[159]

On February 10, 2010, Schuringa announced that Reinout OerlemansEyeworks production group will make a documentary about Schuringa’s act during the flight. Schuringa, who is a filmmaker himself, will be closely involved in the production.[160]

Reactions and investigations

Domestic response

Obama, wearing a white shirt, is moving his hands while talking to a man in a blue shirt, who sits across him.
Barack Obama discusses the incident with National Security Council chief of staff Denis McDonough at the Kailua Winter White House on December 29, 2009.

The U.S. investigation into the incident is being managed by the Detroit Joint Terrorism Task Force, which is led by the FBI and includes U.S. Customs and Border Protection, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the Federal Air Marshal Service, and other law enforcement agencies.[161] Among other questions, they were attempting to answer the following: what training did Abdulmutallab receive, who else (if anyone) was in the training program, are others preparing to launch similar attacks, was the attack part of a larger (possibly worldwide) plot, was it a test run, who assisted him, who gave him the chemicals, who sewed the explosives in his underwear, who further radicalized him, who sent him on his way, and how was he able to smuggle the explosives past airport security.[162][163][164]

President Barack Obama was notified of the incident by an aide while on a vacation in Kailua, Hawaii, and spoke with officials from the Department of Homeland Security.[48] He instructed that all appropriate measures be taken in response to the incident.[165] While the White House called the attack an act of terrorism,[23][166] U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder has not declared the incident an official terrorist act.[167]

The U.S. is examining what information it had before the attack, why its National Counterterrorism Center did not put together the warning from Abdulmutallab's father and intercepts by the National Security Agency (NSA) of conversations among Yemeni al-Qaida leaders about a "Nigerian" to be used for an attack (months before the attack took place), and why the suspect's U.S. visa was not revoked after his father's warning.[79][168]

On January 7, 2010, James L. Jones, the National Security Advisor, said Americans would feel "a certain shock" when a report detailing the intelligence failures that could have prevented the Christmas Day attack were released that day. He said that President Obama would be "legitimately and correctly alarmed that things that were available, bits of information that were available, patterns of behavior that were available, were not acted on."[169]

The U.S. also increased the installation and use of full-body scanners in many of its major airports as a result of the attack. The scanners are designed to be able to detect bombs under clothing, and 11 airports, including O'Hare International Airport in Chicago, began to receive the machines in March 2010. The TSA said that it had plans to have 1,000 of the machines in airports by the end of 2011. Before, the U.S. had only 40 scanners across 19 airports. The government also said that it planned to buy 300 additional scanners in 2010 and another 500 in the following fiscal year, starting October 2010. It costs around an estimated $530 million to purchase the 500 machines and hire over 5,300 workers to operate them. However, the U.S. government has stated that being scanned is voluntary and that passengers who object to the process could choose to undergo a pat-down search or be searched with hand-held detectors.[170][171]

International response

Gordon Brown, Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, said that the UK would take "whatever action was necessary". The day after the attack, British police searched a family-owned flat where Abdulmutallab had lived while in London.[172]

Dutch counter-terrorism agency NCTb said that it had started a probe into where the suspect originated.[173][174] Dutch officials also said that they will now use 3D full-body scanning X-ray technology on flights departing to the U.S.[175] Body scanners are being implemented despite concerns from privacy advocates. Dutch officials said that security must take priority over the privacy of the individuals being scanned. The developer of the technology said the scanned imagery does not compromise individuals' privacy, as the imagery resolution is too low to display the body in anatomical detail; but that it would certainly detect non-metallic objects under clothing, such as powdered explosives.[176]

Members of the Second Chamber (Lower House) of the Dutch parliament demanded an explanation from Minister of Justice Hirsch Ballin, asking how the suspect managed to smuggle explosives on board, despite Schiphol's reportedly strict security measures.[177][178]

The incident also raised concern regarding security procedures at Nigeria's major international airports in Lagos and Abuja, where tests for explosive materials are not conducted on carry-on baggage and shoes, and where bags are allowed to pass quickly through X-ray scanners.[179] In response to strong international criticism, Nigerian civil aviation officer Harold Demuran announced that Nigeria will also set up full-body scanning X-ray machines in Nigerian airports.[176]

In response to the incident and to comply with new U.S. regulations, the Canadian government said it would install full body scanners at major airports. This technology is used in secondary screening of passengers. The first 44 scanners were planned to be installed at airports in Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton, Winnipeg, Toronto, Ottawa, Montreal, and Halifax.[180]

Other agencies

Delta Air Lines, which owned Northwest until all operations were merged into Delta on January 31, 2010,[181] said its Detroit group did not handle security for the flight.[47] It released a statement calling the incident a "disturbance," and saying that Delta was "cooperating fully with authorities".[182]

According to an internal communication to employees, Delta's CEO Richard Anderson was upset that another terrorist incident such as this could occur, especially after the September 11 security reinforcements put in place around the globe: "Having this occur again is disappointing to all of us... You can be certain we will make our points very clearly in Washington."[183]

In January 2010, ICTS International, a security firm that provides security services to Schipol airport,[184] and G4S (Group 4 Securicor Aviation Security B.V.), another security firm, traded blame over the security oversight, as did authorities at Schiphol Airport, the Federal Aviation Authority, and U.S. intelligence officials.[184] According to Haaretz, the failure was two-fold: An intelligence failure, as Obama stated, in the poor handling of information that arrived at the State Department and probably also the CIA from both the father of the would-be bomber and the British security service; and a failure within the security system, including that of ICTS.[184]

Criminal charges

A red brick sign in the foreground says "FCI MILAN". In the back, a solitary green tree is visible atop a grassy mound, with a tower to its right.
Prison grounds at Federal Correctional Institution, Milan, where Abdulmutallab is incarcerated

On December 26, a criminal complaint was filed against Abdulmutallab in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan, charging him with two counts: placing a destructive device in, and attempting to destroy, a U.S. civil aircraft.[15] The U.S. Attorney's Office assigned to the case federal prosecutors Jonathan Tukel (chief of the counter-terrorism unit) and Eric Straus (former chief of the same unit).[185] Abdulmutallab was arraigned and officially charged by U.S. District Court Judge Paul D. Borman later the same day at the University of Michigan Hospital.[186]

On January 6, 2010, a federal grand jury indicted Abdulmutallab on six criminal counts including attempted use of a weapon of mass destruction and attempted murder. "Not guilty" pleas were entered on the behalf of Abdulmutallab at the hearing.[187] If Abdulmutallab is convicted on the charges he could face a life sentence plus 90 years.[58] He faced his first court hearing, a detention hearing, on January 8, 2010.[188] A former federal prosecutor told the Detroit News that "there's no chance of getting this guy bond in a million years".[189]

When asked about his decision to prosecute Abdulmutallab in federal court rather than have him detained under the law of war, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder defended his position, saying that it was "fully consistent with the long-established and publicly known policies and practices of the Department of Justice, the FBI, and the United States Government as a whole," and that he was confident that Abdulmutallab would be successfully prosecuted under the federal criminal law. Holder had originally been asked by U.S. Senator Mitch McConnell, as well as several others, about his choice on January 26, 2010. The response was sent in a February 3 letter to McConnell and the others.[190]

Aftermath

Effect on travel

The U.S. government did not raise the Homeland Security Advisory System terrorist threat level, orange at the time (high risk of terrorist attacks), following the attack.[25][36] However, the Department of Homeland Security said that additional security measures would be in place for the remainder of the Christmas travel period.[48] The TSA detailed several of the measures, including a restriction on movement and access to personal items during the last hour of flight for planes entering U.S. airspace. The TSA also said that there would be more officers and security dogs at airports.[9]

On December 28 Transport Canada announced that for several days it would not allow passengers flying to the U.S. from Canada a carry-on bag, with some exceptions.[191] British Airways said that passengers flying to the U.S. would only be permitted one carry-on item.[192] Other European countries increased baggage screening, pat-down searches, and random searches for passengers traveling to the U.S. A spokesperson for the Dutch airport used by the attacker said that heightened security would be in place for "an indefinite period".[193] However, in spite of the extra measures said to have been put in place to prevent a follow-up attack, Stuart Clarke, a photoreporter from the British newspaper Daily Express claimed to have smuggled a syringe containing fluid, and which could have contained a liquid bomb detonator onto another plane. On January 3, 2010, Clarke said he boarded a jet from Schiphol Airport bound for Heathrow Airport just five days after the Christmas Day terror attack, and that the airport appeared to have imposed no additional security, such as precautionary pat-downs which could easily have discovered the syringe which he claimed he kept in his jacket pocket throughout.[194]

On December 27, a Lufthansa flight headed for Detroit was diverted to Iceland when it was discovered to be carrying a bag from a passenger who was not on the plane.[195] In addition, a passenger on a Baltimore-to-New York flight was detained when a firecracker was discovered in the seat he had used.[196]

U.S. political fallout

Beginning on the day of the incident, Obama was kept informed via secure conference calls and follow-up briefings.[197] White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs and Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano said several times on Sunday talk shows that "the system had worked", a statement that engendered some controversy.[47][198] The next day they retracted the statement, saying that the system had in fact "failed miserably."[198] According to Napolitano, her initial statement had referred to the rapid response to the attack that included alerts sent to the 128 other aircraft in U.S. airspace at the time, and new security requirements for the final hour of every flight, rather than the security failures that allowed the attack to happen.[199] Napolitano had originally stated on This Week that "once this incident occurred, everything went according to clockwork" and that "once the incident occurred, the system worked".[3]

The day after the attack, the U.S. House Homeland Security Committee and Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee both announced that they would hold hearings in January 2010 to investigate how the device passed through security, and whether further restrictions should be placed on air travel; the Senate hearings began on January 21.[16][55][200]

Four days after the attack, Obama said publicly that Abdulmutallab's ability to board the aircraft was the result of a systemic failure that included an inadequate sharing of information among U.S. and foreign government agencies. He called the situation "totally unacceptable."[201] He ordered that a report be delivered detailing how some government agencies had failed to share or highlight potentially relevant information about the suspect before he allegedly tried to blow up the airliner.[202] Two days later Obama received the briefing, which included statements that information about the suspect had failed to cross agency lines, and that the failures to communicate within the U.S. government had led to the threat posed by Abdulmutallab not being known by certain agencies until the attack. Obama said he would meet with security officials and specifically question why Abdulmutallab was not placed on the U.S. no-fly list, despite the government having received warnings about his potential al-Qaeda links.[203]

Under new rules prompted by the incident, airline passengers travelling to the U.S. from 14 nations would undergo extra screening: Afghanistan, Algeria, Cuba, Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, Libya, Nigeria, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen. The inclusion of non-Muslim Cuba on the list was criticized.[204][205]

Account of pre-boarding event

Kurt Haskell, a U.S. passenger on Flight 253, said he saw two individuals approach the boarding agent at Schiphol, in Amsterdam. One was a "poor-looking black teenager around 16 or 17" whom Haskell claims was Abdulmutallab. The second man was a "sharp-dressed" Indian man around 50 years old who spoke "in an American accent similar to my own."[206] According to Haskell, the Indian man attempted to negotiate with the airline employee to allow Abdulmutallab to board without a passport. Haskell claimed that the older man said: "He's from Sudan. We do this all the time", to which the employee responded by referring them to management.[207][208]

A U.S. Customs and Border Patrol official and spokesman in Detroit confirmed that there were not any Sudanese refugees on the plane.[209] The Dutch counter-terror agency said that Abdulmutallab presented a valid Nigerian passport and U.S. entry visa when he boarded Flight 253,[210][211] and after reviewing more than 200 hours of security camera recordings, did not find any indication that Abdulmutallab had accomplices at the airport or that he acted suspiciously there.[212] Haskell suggested authorities should, "Put the video out there to prove I'm wrong."[213]

Federal agents said they were attempting to identify a man who, according to passengers on the flight, helped Abdulmutallab change planes in Amsterdam. U.S. authorities had initially discounted the passenger accounts, but the agents later said there was a growing belief that this man played a role to make sure Abdulmutallab "did not get cold feet".[214]

See also

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