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Terror Attempt on U.S. Airliner

Aired December 25, 2009 - 19:29   ET


ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

ALI VELSHI, CNN CORRESPONDENT: I'm Ali Velshi. Good evening from New York. We're cutting into Christmas programming to bring you news of what the White House is calling an attempted terrorist attack here in the United States. It happened on a Delta Northwest Airlines Airbus 330. You'll see it here on screen in a moment, inbound from Amsterdam to Detroit. That's when officials say a passenger, a Nigerian national, tried to detonate some kind of explosive. That man was taken to the hospital, and he is apparently talking. He's being treated for burns.

We've got live team coverage of this breaking news story. CNN's Kate Bolduan is working her sources in Washington, gathering information on who this suspect is and what he's saying. Ed Henry is in Hawaii, where the president is.

Let's start with Kate. Kate, what do we have?

KATE BOLDUAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Hey there, Ali. Well, according to a federal security bulletin obtained by CNN, a Nigerian national ignited a small explosive device at the end of an international flight that ended in Detroit earlier today. Also, according to this bulletin, this passenger is claiming to have extremist affiliation and claims the device was acquired in Yemen, along with instructions as to when it should be used. The FBI is leading the investigation, and obviously is checking into this person's background and capabilities. The federal bulletin says this passenger is in custody and has been taken to a local hospital to be treated for burns sustained from the small explosion.

Now, a Homeland Security official tells CNN the aviation threat level is not going up. But within that level there are additional security measures that can be taken, both seen and unseen. So the sorts of things that travelers may see at the airport in coming days may include additional gate security -- gate screenings as well as more K9 teams throughout airports -- Ali.

VELSHI: Kate, interesting point you make here. We've got a number of facts about who this is; his claims to be a Nigerian national. He's being treated.


VELSHI: He said he got this device in Yemen with instructions. The issue here, and it -- it's I think what's on a lot of people's mind. Is what you said, what are his capabilities? What do we think so far about how serious a threat this suspect may be?

BOLDUAN: And I think that's a very good question and something that you can be sure federal authorities are trying to figure out themselves at this point as the investigation early on and that they are trying to talk to this person to really kind of see how credible these statements are, how credible his background is. Really what they can gather and learn from this and the situation.

I mean, we are hearing from passengers that were leaving the plane and were talking to reporters that were there in Detroit, Ali. Saying that what they saw the explosion -- the fire from the explosion was at least large enough that they needed a fire extinguisher to put this out.

So this isn't something that is just going to go away and is something that was just a simple thing that just happened. This was a serious event that happened on this airplane that they're clearly taking seriously.

Really the good news that we should probably point out and I should have said this earlier is that this plane did land safely and that the passengers were off the plane.

We've heard from a Delta spokesperson that one or two passengers received some minor injuries. So that is the good news here. But a very dangerous situation clearly that we're learning more and more about as this day and evening continues.

VELSHI: All right and as we bring this to our viewers I want to be clear. You're looking at pictures of a Delta aircraft. It was North West Flight 253. Delta is the parent company of the planes that fly Delta and Northwest planes; they're all being switched overtime to Delta badge plane is that is a Northwest Flight 253 from Amsterdam to Detroit. Detroit is a major hub for what was Northwest Airlines, now Delta-Northwest.

Kate Bolduan remains on the story and she's going to find out as much as she can.

The president is in Hawaii; President Obama is with his first family there. He was briefed on the alleged terror plot.

Ed Henry is in Honolulu. He's been traveling with the president. He joins us now on what the president knows and what he's instructed -- Ed.

ED HENRY, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Ali, that's right, a senior administration official now telling CNN the White House believes this was an attempted terror attack. I pressed the senior administration official on whether the White House believes that there are more people out there, still at large, part of a plot. Was this a lone person? This official refused to comment.

Basically it's too early in the investigation to really get out too far on those details. But what we do know in terms of the presidency's involvement early this morning about 9:00, 9:30 Hawaii time locally, it's five hours back from East Coast time, the president was briefed by his military aide about this flight, about what happened near the end of it.

Then we're told the president had a secure phone call with two of his top national security aides and was concerned enough that he decided to convene yet another secure call with a wider group of federal officials where White House spokesman Bill Burton says the president then ordered that officials basically beef-up aviation security around the country.

Burton saying, quote, "He asked to arrange a subsequent secure call. And in that he instructed that all appropriate measures be taken to increase security for air travel the president is actively monitoring the situation and receiving regular updates." That's a statement from spokesman Bill Burton who is here in Hawaii, traveling with the president.

A fresh reminder that these international potential terror attacks follow this president wherever he goes whether he's on vacation or not -- Ali.

VELSHI: All right, Ed, we're going to continue to stay on top of this. You will as well. Let us know what you get when you hear it from where the president it is right now in Hawaii. Ed Henry in Hawaii right now.

Let's bring in Representative Peter King, a Member of Congress from New York. He's a Republican, joins me now. He's a Member of the House Homeland Security Committee. Representative King, what have you got?

REP. PETER KING (R), NEW YORK (via telephone): Basically the person's name. I understand he's a 23-year-old Nigerian who boarded the flight in Nigeria, his name is Abdulmutallab ...

VELSHI: Representative King, I've got to tell you, we have not got any information on anyone being charged. So thank you for bringing us information. But would ask you not to name anybody on TV right now, we do not have any word of official charges. Let me know what else you know other than the identity of the person who may be charged.

KING: His name did appear in a database as far as having a terrorist nexus. It was a somewhat sophisticated device. It was obviously more than a fire cracker. He himself has third-degree burns. And he is being questioned. And obviously this is going to be looked upon very seriously. He has third-degree burns himself.

VELSHI: Ok, so from what we understand and this is what we do know from the federal government, the situational awareness bulletin that was put out, he was being treated as you said and he is claiming to have extremist affiliations.

What do we know about this explosive that was initially reported that it might have been firecrackers possibly because of the size of it or how it went off? Do you know anything about it? Was it strapped to his leg, we've heard that?

KING: No, I cannot tell you what it was. I've been given some indication what it was -- it was certainly not a firecracker. And it appears to be a different type of detonation than has been used before. And again, it could have been far more serious than it turned out to be. And it's -- again, it's fortunately, you know, we were lucky on this one. But it could have been -- yes, it could have been devastating, if it gone off the right way at the right time.

VELSHI: Representative, you know a great deal about airport security obviously given your experience on the committee. Let me ask you this, whatever that device ends up having been, does it strike you as something that should have made it onto an aircraft?

KING: No. I think it should have been detected, again, from what I know. And also we've been concerned about the al Qaeda situation in Nigeria. In fact the U.S. government actually gave body detection devices to the Nigerian government just last year.

Now, whether or not the breakdown in security came in Nigeria or Amsterdam, it's surprising if from Amsterdam because they have a very good track record as far as security. So all of this has to be looked at very, very carefully because again, after all we've gone through over the last eight years, no one should be able to get devices on the plane. Again, unless it was so different from other before but between Nigeria and Amsterdam something happened in one place or the other, or maybe both.

VELSHI: All right, we don't know, you don't know yet specifically though, whether this person who was on the plane from Amsterdam to Detroit originated in Nigeria? In other words, whether their immediate previous flight would have been from Nigeria, we don't know exactly where he originated?

KING: Oh no, my understanding is he did board the plane in Nigeria.

VELSHI: Boarded it in Nigeria and got to Amsterdam then transferred on to Northwest 253 to Detroit. That's what's your understanding is?

KING: Well, my understanding is he boarded -- again, in Nigeria, how he got on to the flight or whether it's a trans -- I don't know, I just know that he got on in Nigeria and went to Amsterdam and then Amsterdam to the U.S. The exact -- whether he left one plane for another, I don't know.

VELSHI: Ok, I understand that you do know -- or you believe you know the name of the identity. We're not in a position to say that on CNN yet. We are working to confirm that. That said, Representative, what do you know about the motivation behind this or the connection that this person might have with terrorist organizations?

KING: Again, my understanding is his name was in the database. That he does have al Qaeda connections. Certainly extremist terrorist connections and his name popped up pretty quickly.

VELSHI: Representative, what's your view of how legitimate and realistic a threat this was? And I ask you this from the perspective of our viewers who sometimes wonder whether some of these things are serious or they're just people who are not really capable of carrying out a full terrorist attack? What's your feeling about the seriousness of this?

KING: Oh my feeling is that this was serious. Now, again, how sophisticated he was, I don't know. But it was a very sophisticated device; he set it off before the plane landed. We may have been lucky. He may have been inept. But the fact is considering his background that I -- at least I'm aware of, considering the fact that it was a somewhat sophisticated device, I would say we ducked a bullet on this one.

VELSHI: All right, Representative Peter King, thanks for joining us. We'll be in touch with you as the evening develops and as we get more on this suspected terrorist attack on a flight going from Amsterdam to Detroit. Representative King, thank you.

KING: Thank you.

VELSHI: Let's bring in Peter Bergen now, he's CNN terrorism analyst. Peter, what have you gathered from everything you've heard about this so far?

PETER BERGEN, CNN TERRORISM ANALYST: Well, I think there are a lot of interesting things about this case.

First of all, an attack on Christmas which is after all, a major Christian holiday by somebody associated with al Qaeda. We've seen this before. Richard Reid, the so-called shoe bomber also planned an attack very close to Christmas. And we also saw this with a guy called Ahmed Ressam, who tried to blow up Los Angeles International Airport in the middle of Christmas. Luckily he was arrested at the Canadian border with a trunk full of explosives in his car in December of 1999.

But obviously attacking during the holiday season is designed to terrorize. Obviously a factor in this guy getting on the plane and avoiding detection might have been the factor on a holiday there's less attention paid to people. People not the "A" team on the security shift perhaps.

I thought it was very interesting that Representative King said this guy may have originated in Nigeria. If we know he's a Nigerian but the fact that his flight came from Nigeria is very interesting because Nigeria has had a long history with having extremely poor airport security. In fact the FAA has put out notices in the past about flights originating...

VELSHI: We've seen those in airports, I've seen them at the airport that say this is a list of airports that do not keep security procedures that are up to international standards. And often Nigeria has had an airport on that list. BERGEN: Indeed.

Other points about this that are interesting, this guy claims that the device originated in Yemen. Well, we've seen in the last -- I would say two years that Yemen has become arguably the second most important location for al Qaeda. We -- the Major Hasan case, the Ft. Hood shooting. A cleric in Yemen, an American Yemeni appears to have played an instrumental role in inciting Major Hasan to kill those 13 American service men and women at Ft. Hood.

VELSHI: And just to be clear, there has been a great deal of activity just this week in Yemen with respect to terrorists.

BERGEN: That's right. That's right, a Yemeni air strike took place yesterday aided by the United States against a group of some 30 members of al Qaeda including the leaders of al Qaeda in Yemen, one of whom by the way was somebody who was released from Guantanamo and returned to the battlefield as it were.

And another one may be this American-Yemeni cleric that I just mentioned. That's still not clear but just as recently as a day ago, in an interview that was posted on Al Jazeera this cleric admitted that Major Hasan, the alleged Fort Hood shooter had contacted him on the Internet to ask him if it was OK for a Muslim to kill fellow soldiers.

So a very strong link now emerging to Yemen in the Fort Hood shooting, Yemen, being a locus for al Qaeda now increasingly important. Not as important as the Afghan/Pakistan border region but certainly probably the second most important location in the world right now -- Ali.

VELSHI: Peter, let's talk about capabilities here. From what little information we know, here's what we have, this -- Representative King seems to think that the alleged suspect may have started in Nigeria, made his way to Amsterdam, got on Northwest Flight 253 from Amsterdam to Detroit. At some point before this plane landed -- and can I just bring you what I've got now from Delta Airlines?

They've actually given us a statement. "Upon approach to Detroit a passenger caused a disturbance aboard Northwest Airlines Flight 253. Passenger was subdued immediately and the crew requested law enforcement meet the flight upon arrival. The flight operated by Northwest using an Air Bus 330-300 aircraft with 278 passengers landed safely. Passenger was taken into custody and questioned by law enforcement authorities."

OK, Peter, that's the detail we have right now. Combine that with the fact that there were some reports that it seems to be that he set off fire crackers. Now it seems that it was some other kind of device, tell me from your wealth and depth experience whether you think this was somebody who was capable of carrying out a terrorist attack that could have actually taken lives.

BERGEN: Well, clearly he wasn't because it didn't happen. So -- either the device was faulty or he was or operator error. Very similar to Richard Reid, the so-called shoe bomber but in the case of the shoe bomb case, which this is very analogous, I mean, if Richard Reed has succeed in blowing up that shoe bomb, the American Airlines flight that he was targeting that was flying between Paris and Miami that was eventually diverted to Boston would probably have gone down in the Atlantic and killed everybody on board.

I believe there was some something like 180 passengers on board on that flight in 2001, in the December Christmas season of 2001. Now, you know, if these bombs go off clearly they -- successfully, we've seen in the past, in 1994, for instance. (INAUDIBLE) was the nephew of the operational commander of 9/11 set off a bomb on a flight in Asia which killed a Japanese businessman. It was a small bomb, it was really the first example of this kind of a bomb that was assembled on the plane and then blew up.

This is sort of the model that al Qaeda then used -- has tried to use since. We've seen this model also in the summer of 2006. You may remember, Ali, that a group of British citizens, many of them, some of them who train with al Qaeda try to bring down seven American and Canadian airliners flying to Heathrow towards the United States and to Canada with liquid explosives which is one of the reasons you can no longer -- the reason you can no longer bring any significant quantity of liquids onto a flight.

Now, the British prosecutors in that case say, if those guys have succeeded they would have killed 1,500 people. And the planes would have blown up in the middle of the Atlantic. And it would have been hard to do the forensics to find out what had actually happened. So I don't want -- it's very early to tell right no because we don't know and how large it was.

However, you know, in the past, these kinds of cases, prosecutors have tended to say that they could have killed a lot of people. And this case seems to fall into that.

VELSHI: Right. The margin could be very narrow here between failing and causing a great deal of damage.

BERGEN: Basically if you get -- if a bomb is large enough so it tears the skin on the plane then you can bring the plane down.

VELSHI: OK. Peter stand by, we're going to continue with our live coverage of this.

I want to go to Rome. On the phone, we have Richard Quest, who is the host of "QUEST MEANS BUSINESS" but he is probably our foremost expert on airlines and aviation here.

Richard this was a Northwest Airlines Delta branded aircraft coming in from Amsterdam. It was an A-330 300 carrying 270 passengers. A wide-bodied aircraft that, again it could have been quite devastating if this alleged terrorist had succeeded.

Richard, what do you know about that?

RICHARD QUEST, CNN INTERNATIONAL HOST, "QUEST MEANS BUSINESS" (via telephone): Well, I think the sure thing to point out is that A- 330 which you're talking about, the Northwest plane, now part of the Delta Airlines group, that is the workhorse of the Delta Northwest long haul fleet. So it is a transatlantic plane that goes backwards and forwards every day with huge regularity if you like.

Now bringing a plane as your previous guest was saying, bringing a plane out of the air is both relatively easy but also extremely difficult task as the same time. The right explosives in the right place at the right time can do that in very short order. But as we saw from Richard Reid and as we hear from this case, of course actually getting the combustion for materials necessary in quantities, in the right place of the aircraft, that, of course, has always been the difficult and most challenging part for the terrorist to do.

That, of course, is what appears to have happened here now. Until we now what the precursors were, until we know what the accelerants were, what the inflammables were, we can't really know whether this was a seriously credible attempt or something that's just -- was off the scale.

VELSHI: Richard, again, there are probably two issues this is going to come down to for us. One is, what was the device and how does it get onto the -- to an aircraft with today's security. And number two, was this person on some kind of a no fly or a watch list by virtue of the fact that he has -- he claims to have had some affiliation -- according to what the government is telling us -- he has claimed to have affiliation with an extremist group.

Who keeps somebody off a plane if they're on a no-fly or a watch list? And who keeps this stuff off the plane?

QUEST: Let's go back a little bit further. Let's look again at the case that you were talking about a second or two ago of the multiple attempts allegedly against airliners where people were convicted in the U.K. And what we discovered from that particular case was the various different materials that they were using, the trainings they had been given, the places they had been. The British police learned an enormous about that before they -- in making the case for the convictions.

Now if we look at what clearly happened with this Northwest attempt -- what the authorities will be looking at is exactly what was being used. Was this -- relevant to what the (INAUDIBLE) thought or person in custody thought he was doing it for some wider greater good or with some terrorist activity? Was this a seriously credible attack, which it certainly seems like it is tonight by the evidence we're hearing about it.

And then following that chain through, how this thing got onto the aircraft? Was the weakness at (INAUDIBLE) Amsterdam or was it further back from that? Was this a new variant Ali on the threat; something that they haven't heard of? Remember, with those Heathrow flights, although they've always believed it was possible to use liquids no one had ever really gone that stage further.

So this is very much at the early stages. What I would expect to see for the traveling public in the next 24 to 48 hours is an increased level of security, but not to the same extent that we saw back a couple years ago.

VELSHI: All right Richard. Stay with me.

You're looking at pictures from WDIV in Detroit. I should point out to you -- you may be confused because we're talking about Northwest flight 253 but you're seeing pictures of a Delta plane. Delta and northwest have undergone a merger. The new company is Delta. All of the planes are being changed over to Delta planes. But there are still separate flight numbers in many cases.

In this case this was a flight from Amsterdam to Detroit. And this was -- this problem was identified prior to the plane landing in Detroit. According to a release that we've been given by Delta -- information Delta has given us -- the crew subdued the passenger immediately and requested that law enforcement meet them upon arrival at Detroit. That was done.

The suspect and two other passengers from what we understand have been treated for burns and the suspect has spoken to authorities.

According to the government, the suspect has claimed to have ties to extremist groups; says that the device was procured in Yemen along with instructions on how and when to use it.

American passengers will be used to heavy, heavy security at U.S. Airports, certainly Richard, passengers flying out of Heathrow between the United States or anywhere else will be used to that sort of security. But there are other airports in the world that manage to get customers through with less security. Do you think -- you were just saying now --- you said in the next 24 to 48 hours, you think there's going to be an increase in security? But we're not quite sure how that's going to manifest.

Are there new things that are not going to be allowed on planes or is it too early to know?

QUEST: Oh, it's way too early to know. The first thing to emphasize and one needs to emphasize is that this has been a serious -- a very, very gravely serious breach of security, of that, there is no doubt. But if you look at the airport where this plane came from or the transfer point -- we're not sure where the plane originated -- but it came through Schiphol. Now Schiphol is a world-class airport. It is the headquarters for KLM World Airlines now part of Air France. It is a major transfer point for the Sky Team Alliance of which Delta/Northwest is part of it.

Now, Northwest as it has been has been flying in and out of Schiphol because Northwest has had its relationship with KLM -- the so-called alliance -- world alliance they call it, for many, many years.

So this was a backbone route, this was a workhorse route from Amsterdam to Detroit for the airline involved. What we will be looking at is -- is this a Richard Reid? Is this a type of incident? How serious and credible, it sounds extremely serious? But of course, it's a needle in a haystack if you don't know what it is you're looking for on the next flight.

VELSHI: Richard thank you for that. We will be back with you very shortly. Richard Quest is in Rome for us now following the story.

Nic Robertson joins us on the phone as well. Nic, this suspect is allegedly Nigerian. He's a Nigerian national. He said he's got ties to an extremist group and says, according to the government, that he procured whatever this incendiary device is that he lit in Yemen.

Talk to us about al Qaeda's influence in Africa. We talked to Peter Bergen about how Yemen is becoming the next Afghanistan in some ways in terms of al Qaeda's influence. But what about Africa?

NIC ROBERTSON, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, if you look very closely at Yemen, you're looking at Somalia, you're looking at Eritrea and countries like this. We know that al Qaeda has a footprint in Somalia. However, Nigeria is on the opposite coast of Africa on the west coast. But what is interesting about Nigeria in particular, when a research group recently researched people's reaction to Osama bin Laden and thoughts about Osama bin Laden -- it was the Pew Research Institute did this in Nigeria -- they got surprisingly high numbers of people saying that they at least supported Osama bin Laden's ideology.

It's not -- it's certainly not a country where al Qaeda is known to have a large grouping of people, a large affiliated terror group following it there that supported bin Laden. But we do know that al Qaeda has extended its influence over the northern parts of Africa in particular.

But I think when you look at this particular case, you may be looking at somebody who's bought into the ideology of al Qaeda and is perhaps more representative of the threat as it is today, rather than what it has been over the past few years. That is, individuals that pose a threat because they've bought into the ideology and if you look at what al Qaeda...

VELSHI: This is a big deal. This is a very big deal Nic. And for those viewers who have just joined us, you're looking on the left side of your screen at a Delta aircraft. That is Northwest flight 253; Northwest and Delta have merged. That is Northwest flight 253 from Amsterdam to Detroit at Detroit airport. It was -- a suspect identified on that plane who lit something that we earlier heard might have been fire crackers. He was subdued and taken into custody, treated for burns. He's a Nigerian national and claims to have links with an extremist group which is why we're talking to Nic Robertson right now about al Qaeda's influence in Africa.

What we don't know is whether this extremist group that he claims to be linked to is al Qaeda or connected to al Qaeda. But the reality is this is a Nigerian national. We don't know whether he's acting on his own Nic or whether -- and this is the point you were just making. We don't know whether he was acting on his own or he's part of a larger operation.

ROBERTSON: And this is something that's symptomatic that terror analysts have seen more and more of at the moment. The use of the Internet by al Qaeda and others to get their message out but also to recruit, also to sort of screen and filter people. So al Qaeda sort of, if you will, maybe may have people that are watching the Internet, watching chat rooms and they may find people try and reach out to them electronically and say, we'd like to join, we'd like to support you.

But the message that's coming back from al Qaeda, and you can see this in Osama bin Laden's deputy's message last year, when people were online asking him those questions in an online chat with him, he's saying, you know our ideology, you know what we want try and achieve, we offer the information for you online. The message is you can do it yourself.

VELSHI: Nic, stand by. Thanks very much.

Let's go to Jeanne Meserve our national security correspondent. Jeanne, you've been working this story. Now, what more do we have?

JEANNE MESERVE, CNN HOMELAND SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Well, as you know, the threat level for the moment is staying right where it has been for aviation. It was put up to orange in August of 2006. Officials tell me it is going to stay there. However, within that threat level, they can flex and surge and you will be seeing that.

Air travelers are likely to see more k-9 teams. They're likely to see more screening at the gates. There may be more behavioral detection officers as they're called. These are people who simply stand around the airport and look at people and try and tell from their behavior if something is amiss.

Those sorts of additional security measures are being ramped up now. They won't be ramped up at every airport. This will be unpredictable. You'll see it in some places, not in others. And as always they are saying that there are many other security measures that you will not see...

VELSHI: This is a very good point because the national threat level is yellow. The national threat level for air travel is orange and has been for sometime. But this is a good point. They can step it up dramatically within that orange. According to Richard Quest, you're probably going to see that at airports around the world and the United States in the next 48 hours or so, some sort of step-up.

MESERVE: That's absolutely correct. They're ramping it up. As we speak, I'm sure you'll remember when there was the threat of liquid explosives. Overnight they changed the protocols that the screening officers were to be using.

But they have a lot of work to do still investigating this to figure out exactly what this guy was up to, exactly what sort of explosive it was he had and what sort of screening they might be able to do to catch that if indeed there are any others trying to do some sort of similar deed. VELSHI: All right. We're staying on this story. We have Jeanne Meserve, Nic Robertson, Richard Quest, Peter Bergen, Kate Bolduan, Ed Henry and the whole CNN team on this attempted terrorist attack in the United States on a flight from Amsterdam to Detroit. Northwest Airlines flight 253 with 278 passengers on board landed safely after someone tried to detonate something on the aircraft. Something we thought earlier were firecrackers. That's the aircraft on the tarmac in Detroit.

Stay with us. CNN's breaking news coverage continues.