Attempted Terrorist Attack on Airliner Sparks New Concerns About al-Qaida



The White House is calling a small explosion aboard an international flight bound for the U.S. city of Detroit "an attempted act of terrorism."  Counterintelligence officials say a Nigerian engineering student tried to blow the plane up shortly before it landed.  Senior U.S. lawmakers are now expressing concerns about possible links between the attack and the al-Qaida terrorist network. 

Passengers on Northwest Airlines Flight 253 from Amsterdam to Detroit say just as the plane was getting ready to land there was a loud pop, and then panic.

"We heard a loud pop and a bit of smoke and then some flames, and then yelling and screaming," said one passenger.

"The lady shouted 'what are you doing, what are you doing?' said another.  "And then we looked back.  There were some fumes and some flames."

"It was scary," said a third passenger.  "It was a loud firecracker that went off, and there was a fire in the plane."

Within seconds, some passengers sprang into action.

"There was one guy who sat on the other side, on the right side of the wing," said a passenger who witnessed the heroic act.  "This was on the left side of the wing. He jumped over all the other people and he took care of it, so the fire went out."

Officials have identified the suspect as Umar Farouk Abdul Mutallab - a 23-year-old from Nigeria - whose name appears on a U.S. intelligence watch list.

They say Mutallab suffered severe burns when he tried to use a liquid to ignite powder strapped to his legs and blow up the aircraft.

New York Congressman Peter King, the ranking Republican on the Homeland Security Committee, was briefed by intelligence officials shortly after the plane landed.  "Well, some definite facts.  One is that he has al-Qaida connections. Secondly, that it was a fairly sophisticated device."

Mutallab, an engineering student who studied in Britain, told investigators he was acting on instructions from al-Qaida and got the explosive materials in Yemen.  Those claims have yet to be confirmed.  But Congressman King says there is plenty of reason to worry. 

"How he was able to get on in Nigeria, what happened in Amsterdam, which is a visa waiver country, how he was able to get through and make it this far with the devices he had, these are all issues that have to be resolved."

U.S. President Barack Obama has ordered security measures to be stepped up at all U.S. airports.  And security officials are encouraging passengers to be observant and report any suspicious activity.

Meanwhile, IntelCenter, a U.S.-based terrorism monitoring group that works with the U.S. government, warns the Christmas day attack could be just the start, and that the possibility of additional attempts on U.S. airplanes can not be ruled out.

Jeff Seldin

Jeff works out of VOA’s Washington headquarters and is national security correspondent. You can follow Jeff on Twitter at @jseldin or on Google Plus.

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