A Nigerian man tried to ignite an explosive device aboard a trans-Atlantic Northwest Airlines flight as the plane prepared to land in Detroit on Friday, in an incident the United States believes was “an attempted act of terrorism,” according to a White House official who declined to be identified.
The device, described by officials as a mixture of powder and liquid, failed to fully detonate. Passengers on the plane described a series of pops that sounded like firecrackers.
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The incident is likely to lead to heightened security during the busy holiday season.
It was unclear how the man, identified by federal officials as Abdul Farouk Abdulmutallab, 23, managed to get the explosive on the plane, an Airbus A330 wide-body jet carrying 278 passengers that departed from Amsterdam with passengers who had originated in Nigeria. A senior administration official said that the government did not yet know whether the man had had the capacity to take down the plane.
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A senior Department of Homeland Security official said that the materials Mr. Abdulmutallab had on him were “more incendiary than explosive,” and that he had tried to ignite them to cause a fire as the airliner was approaching Detroit.
Mr. Abdulmutallab told law enforcement authorities, the official said, that he had had explosive powder taped to his leg and that he had used a syringe of chemicals to mix with the powder to try to cause an explosion.
A federal counterterrorism official who asked not to be identified said Mr. Abdulmutallab was apparently in a government law enforcement-intelligence data base, but it is not clear what extremist group or individuals he might be linked to.
. . . Although Mr. Abdulmutallab is said to have told officials that he was directed by Al Qaeda, the counterterrorism official expressed caution about that claim, saying “it may have been aspirational.”
The incident unfolded just before noon. Syed Jafry, a passenger on the flight sitting three rows ahead of the suspect, said “there was a pop that sounded like a firecracker. A few seconds later, he said, there was smoke and “some glow” from the suspect’s seat. from three rows behind him and on the left side of the plane.
“There was a panic,” said Mr. Jafry, 57, of Holland, Ohio. “Next thing you know everybody was on him.” He said the passengers and the crew subdued the man.
The suspect was brought by the crew to the front of the plane — Northwest Airlines flight 253, operated on a Delta airplane — made its descent into Detroit Metropolitan Airport, landing at 11:53 a.m. (The two airlines merged last year.) Once on the ground, it was immediately guided to the end of a runway, where it was surrounded by police cars and emergency vehicles and searched by a bomb-disabling robot.
Sandra Berchtold, a spokeswoman with the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Detroit office, said F.B.I. agents were at the scene Friday night and were investigating the matter.
One federal official who requested anonymity said Mr. Abdulmutallab had suffered severe burns but was expected to survive. A Michigan state official confirmed that he was being treated at the University of Michigan hospital in Ann Arbor.
President Obama was kept informed throughout the day as he spent the Christmas holiday with his family and friends at a secluded Hawaiian beach house. After a secure conference call, he was given several follow-up briefings on paper. John O. Brennan, the White House counterterrorism chief, convened an interagency meeting in the late afternoon to go over what was known about the incident and what precautions should be taken.
A second Department of Homeland Security official said the Transportation Security Administration used layers of security measures at the nation’s airports and that it would be tightening them as a result of the incident in Detroit.
These measures — some visible to passengers, some not — include bomb-sniffing dog teams, carry-on luggage and passenger screening measures, and plainclothes behavioral-detection specialists inside airport terminals. The official said there were no immediate plans to elevate the nation’s threat level, which has been at orange since 2006.
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There are no direct commercial flights between the United States and Nigeria, and questions have been raised for years about aviation security in Nigeria. Last month, however, the T.S.A. said that standards at the Lagos airport met international criteria for security.
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