A suspected Nigerian Al Qaeda operative on Saturday made an attempt to blow up a flight headed for the United States, but was overpowered by alert passengers who staved off what could have been a devastating Christmas Day terror attack.
The passenger Umar Farouk Abdul Mudallab, an engineering student in London, tried to ignite an incendiary device aboard the Northwest Airlines flight 253. The Airbus 330 was carrying 278 passengers from Amsterdam to Detroit.
The man, 23, who sustained burn injuries in the failed bid, later reportedly told interrogators that the explosive powder was taped to his leg and he used a syringe to inject chemicals into it to cause an explosion on the trans-Atlantic flight.
However, the device malfunctioned and as smoke and fire erupted from his seat, co-passengers pounced on him and along with the crew dragged him to the front of the plane.
Two other passengers received minor injuries, but the plane was able to land safely, the New York Times quoted an anti-terrorism official as saying.
The incident has prompted the Federal Bureau of Investigation to issue a nationwide red alert. Muttalab, who is being questioned by FBI and other federal investigative agencies, has reportedly said he had links the Al Qaeda and that he had traveled to Yemen "to collect the incendiary device and instructions on how to use it," said The Washington Post.
However, an official expressed caution about the claim, saying, "It may have been aspirational".
US national Syed Jafry, who had flown from the UAE, said people ran out of their seats to tackle the man. Jafry told the local FreeP.Com that he was sitting in the 16th row -- three rows ahead of the passenger -- when he heard "a pop and saw some smoke and fire." Then, he said, "A young man behind me jumped on him."
He told the newspaper that there was a little bit of commotion for about 10 to 15 minutes. The incident occurred during the plane's descent, he added. "There was a pop that sounded like a firecracker" and the "next thing you know everybody was on him," he said.
Officials described the device as more "incendiary rather than explosive," The Post said. Federal officials said the man wanted to bring the plane down.
"This was the real deal," Congressman Peter T King of New York said, adding, "This could have been devastating". Ranking Republican on the House Homeland Security Committee, King, who was briefed on the incident, said something had gone wrong with the explosive device.
King demanded an investigation into how the Nigerian managed to sneak in such a sophisticated device and explosives inside the plane. Meanwhile, Homeland Security said that passengers may notice additional screening measures put into place to ensure the safety of the public on domestic and international flights.
US President Barack Obama, who is on a Christmas vacation in Hawaii, was immediately briefed about the incident by his military aide, White House spokesman Bill Burton said.
Obama subsequently convened a secure conference call with John Brennan, his Homeland Security and Counter-terrorism Adviser, and Denis McDonough, NSS Chief of Staff.
"The president is actively monitoring the situation and receiving regular updates," Burton said in a statement.
Abdulmutallab told the law enforcement authorities that he had explosive powder taped to his leg and that he used a syringe full of chemicals to mix it with the powder to try to cause an explosion, the daily reported.
The device, however, failed to fully detonate. Abdulmutallab, according to passengers and investigating agencies, tried to ignite the small explosive 20-30 minutes before the plane was about to land at the Detroit airport.