The Department of Homeland Security has instituted a surge of federal air marshals to protect all flights into the U.S. and imposed tight new flight restrictions in the wake of a failed Christmas Day terrorist attack.
Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, a 23-year-old Nigerian, has been charged by the FBI with attempting to destroy an aircraft and placing a destructive device on the plane. The bomb failed to fully ignite as the aircraft prepared to land in Detroit.
According to one Homeland Security official, the explosive substance used for the bomb was PETN, a peroxide-based material that was supposed to bring down several airliners over U.S. soil in another attack that failed to launch, from Britain in August 2006. In 2001, initial testing on the material found in the shoes of Richard Reid - the so-called “Shoe Bomber,” who is serving a life sentence in a Colorado prison - “indicated the presence of PETN, a material used to make the explosive Semtex that was detonated by Libyan terrorists to bring down Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, in the late 1980s,” U.S. officials told the Associated Press on the condition of anonymity.
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“These types of explosives do have a high failure rate; the problem is when they do explode, it’s a very powerful bomb,” the Homeland Security official said. “And where he was sitting - right next to the bulkhead and fuel tanks - if he had been successful, that would have been it for everyone on board.”
Mr. Abdulmutallab told passengers that he was sick and then pulled a blanket around himself, the charging document said.
“Passengers then heard popping noises similar to firecrackers, smelled an odor, and some observed Mr. Abdulmutallab’s pants leg and the wall of the airplane on fire. Passengers and crew then subdued Mr. Abdulmutallab and used blankets and fire extinguishers to put out the flames. One flight attendant stated that she asked Mr. Abdulmutallab what he had in his pocket, and he replied, ‘Explosive device,’ ” the FBI document states.
Mr. Abdulmutallab suffered third-degree burns as he attempted to ignite the bomb.
The incident prompted new restrictions by the Transportation Security Administration on all flights into the U.S.
The new restrictions include:
• One hour prior to landing, passengers must remain in their seats and cannot access their luggage or any belongings in the overhead compartment.
• Prior to boarding, all passengers will undergo pat-down searches.
The official said Mr. Abdulmutallab hid the powder and a liquid substance on his leg, then retrieved a syringe from his luggage and assembled the bomb in his lap under the blanket.
Air marshals were not on board Northwest Flight 253 from Amsterdam to Detroit, but the official said all marshals on leave have been called in for duty and are now covering more flights coming in from the Netherlands, as well as other cities in Europe.
The Homeland Security source said air marshal coverage of flights to Amsterdam as well as Frankfurt, Germany, were reduced by as much as 60 percent in recent months because of budget issues within the air marshal agency.
“It went to a drip, basically,” the official said of Amsterdam flight protection. One reason coverage on the Amsterdam-Detroit flights were reduced was because of the high cost of tickets.
A call to the Federal Air Marshal Service was not returned.
“The Department of Homeland Security immediately put additional screening measures into place - for all domestic and international flights - to ensure the continued safety of the traveling public,” said department Secretary Janet Napolitano.
“We are also working closely with federal, state and local law enforcement on additional security measures, as well as our international partners on enhanced security at airports and on flights,” Ms. Napolitano said.
Capitol Hill lawmakers briefed on the incident plan to hold hearings next month to examine why the suspect was listed in terrorist-watch databases, but was not on the “no-fly” list.
“The reported act of terrorism - whether directly related to al Qaeda or not - and the response to it will be the focus of an oversight hearing next month. The committee will get to the bottom of what did and did not happen with Mr. Abdulmutallab and what security precautions need to take place in the future,” said Rep. Bennie Thompson, Mississippi Democrat and chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee.
Rep. Ed Royce, California Republican and member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said the incident”highlights the global nature of Islamist extremism.”
“The Nigerian in custody claims to have been taking orders from al Qaeda in Yemen, a hotbed of terror activity, and British authorities are now searching a London apartment in connection with the terror plot. From West Africa, to Yemen, to London - no part of the world seems to be immune,” Mr. Royce said.