WASHINGTON — The U.S. system for checking suspicious travellers and airport security came under new scrutiny Sunday after an alleged terrorist bent on destroying a jetliner was thwarted only by a malfunctioning detonator and some quick-thinking passengers.
An apparent malfunction in a device designed to detonate the high explosive PETN may have been all that saved the 278 passengers and the crew aboard Northwest Flight 253 on Christmas Day. No undercover air marshal was on board and passengers subdued the suspect, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, 23, of Nigeria.
Abdulmutallab was hospitalized with burns from the attack and was read an indictment filed Saturday in federal court in Detroit charging him with attempting to destroy or wreck an aircraft and placing a destructive device in a plane. He was released from the hospital Sunday to the custody of federal marshals, who would not reveal where he was being held.
Abdulmutallab was on a watch list, but not one that denied him passage by air into the U.S. His own father had discussed concerns about his radical religious views with U.S. officials in Nigeria before the attack.
Still, in appearances on Sunday talk shows, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said the travelling public “is very, very safe.”
“This was one individual literally of thousands that fly and thousands of flights every year,” Napolitano said. “And he was stopped before any damage could be done. I think the important thing to recognize here is that once this incident occurred, everything happened that should have.”
Even so, airport security and intelligence played no role in thwarting the plot. Abdulmutallab was carrying PETN, also known as pentaerythritol, the same material convicted shoe bomber Richard Reid used when he tried to destroy a trans-Atlantic flight in 2001 with explosives hidden in his shoes. Abdulmutallab is alleged to have carried the explosive in condom-like pouches attached to his body.
Abdulmutallab was on a “generic” terrorist watch list, which includes more than half a million names, but was not elevated to a no-fly list with fewer than 4,000 names or even designated for additional security searches, Napolitano said. That would have required “specific, credible, derogatory information,” she said.
“We did not have the kind of information that under the current rules would elevate him,” she said.
Napolitano said the Obama administration is considering changing those rules.
Despite being on the broad terrorist watch list, Abdulmutallab, who comes from a prominent and wealthy Nigerian family, had a multiple-entry U.S. visa. It was issued last year. U.S. officials say he came to the attention of America intelligence in November, when his father expressed concerns to the U.S. Embassy in Nigeria about his son’s extremist views.
Napolitano said Abdulmutallab was properly screened before getting on the flight to Detroit from Amsterdam.
The administration is also investigating aviation detection systems to see how the alleged attacker managed to get on board the Northwest flight in Amsterdam with explosive materials, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said.
No other flights were known to have been targeted. However, Gibbs says federal authorities took precautionary steps “to assume and plan for the very worst.” Napolitano said there is no indication yet Abdulmutallab is part of a larger terrorist plot, although his possible ties to al-Qaida are still under investigation.
The United States is reviewing what security measures were used in Amsterdam where he boarded the flight.
“Now the forensics are being analyzed with what could have been done,” Napolitano said.
Additional security measures are in place at airports around the world that are likely to slow travellers. Napolitano advised getting to airports earlier.
Congress is preparing to hold hearings on what happened and whether rules need to be changed.
“It’s amazing to me that an individual like this who was sending out so many signals could end up getting on a plane going to the U.S.,” said Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican leader in the Senate.
Gibbs appeared on ABC television’s “This Week,” NBC’s “Meet the Press” and CBS’ “Face the Nation.” Napolitano spoke on CNN’s “State of the Union” as well as on NBC and ABC. McConnell appeared on ABC.
Hess reported from New York.