Nation on edge after Christmas terrorism attempt
Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said Sunday that the suicide bomber who tried to blow up a Northwest Airlines jet on Christmas did not appear to be part of a broader plot to attack U.S. targets and that flying is safe.
The administration announced two sweeping reviews into the situation, but Republicans said the government was not taking Al Qaeda or the safety of air travelers seriously enough.
The Christmas Day attempt, in which a 23-year-old Nigerian allegedly tried to set off an incendiary device on Northwest Flight 253 from Amsterdam to Detroit as it prepared for landing, jangled nerves worldwide.
On Sunday, another Nigerian flying the same Northwest route triggered alarm when he spent about an hour in the bathroom. Fearing another would-be suicide bomber, Northwest asked authorities to meet the plane.
Law enforcement rushed to the scene, sirens blaring. The FBI determined that the young man was sick, not a terrorist, an FBI official said in Washington. President Obama was briefed on the event.
On Saturday night, FBI and TSA agents were called to Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport after a passenger on US Airways Flight 192 from Orlando, Fla., reported two passengers acting suspiciously. The plane was searched, as were the men’s belongings. The men, described as Middle Eastern, were questioned and released.
“We do not believe they were related to any type of terrorist activity,” said Manuel Johnson, spokesman for the FBI’s Phoenix division.
Napolitano sought to reassure the public Sunday. Appearing on several talk shows, she said that commercial flying had been safe before the Christmas incident and was even safer now because of intensified security that U.S. and other authorities have imposed on international flights.
Those include further limits on carry-on luggage; more searches, including pat-downs; and requiring passengers to stay in their seats for the last hour of their flights.
Napolitano said the suspect in the attempted bombing, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, appeared to be acting alone -- though shortly after his arrest, he allegedly said he had obtained a specialized explosive chemical compound and a syringe from an Al Qaeda bomb expert in Yemen.
She praised passengers and crew for helping avert a potential tragedy, and she praised the quick notification of other flights in the air.
“The whole process of making sure that we respond properly, correctly and effectively went very smoothly,” Napolitano said on CNN’s “State of the Union.”
Michigan Rep. Peter Hoekstra, the ranking Republican on the House Select Intelligence Committee, accused the administration of being soft on terrorism, including on young Muslims who appear to get radicalized and then seek help from Al Qaeda.
“Homegrown terrorism, the threat to the United States, is real,” Hoekstra told “Fox News Sunday.” “I think this administration has downplayed it. They need to recognize it, identify it. It is the only way we are going to defeat it.”
Napolitano said that U.S. authorities had placed Abdulmutallab on a general counter-terrorism watch list that contains about 550,000 names, which is shared with airlines and foreign security agencies. Administration officials acknowledged that he was placed on that list about a month ago after his father, a respected Nigerian banker, told U.S. authorities that his son had been radicalized and had ties to militants.
But Napolitano said that without specific and “credible” evidence of suspicious activity, Abdulmutallab could not be formally classified as the sort of security risk that would bar him from traveling to the United States.
Some Republicans contended that U.S. officials failed to follow up on the father’s concerns appropriately.
“There is much to investigate here,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said on ABC News’ “This Week.” “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.”
Other Republicans, as well as Senate Homeland Security Committee Chairman Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), said the administration and authorities in Europe and Africa should have done more to screen Abdulmutallab and to prevent him from getting on the plane with a package containing an easily detectable military-grade explosive known as PETN.
“We ought to, in our age, be able to put 500,000 names on a computer and have everybody who’s trying to come to the U.S. go through that list,” Lieberman said on “Fox News Sunday.” “That doesn’t mean they’re convicted of any wrongdoing. But it would be basis enough to take this guy out of the line in Amsterdam and do a full-body check, and that would have determined that he was carrying explosives.”
The reviews ordered by Obama will focus on how an individual with that explosive could have gotten on a plane, as well as on decisions related to the name databases, according to White House spokes- man Robert Gibbs, who also appeared on Sunday talk shows.
One review will include the broader issue of whether appropriate policies and procedures are in place related to watch lists, an administration official said.
Authorities will try to determine why Abdulmutallab was not on the no-fly list of 4,000 people who are barred from flights to the United States, or on the list of 15,000 people required to go through more rigorous screening before boarding, the official said.
Abdulmutallab began his trip in Nigeria and passed through Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport, which has a reputation as one of the most secure in the world. There, passengers typically are screened as they pass through customs and again at the gate. Security agents interview each passenger, looking for suspicious behavior.
Newspapers in London reported that in May, Abdulmutallab was denied a visa to study in Britain after the college was determined to be bogus. He had graduated from a London university last year.
On Sunday, Abdulmutallab was released from a Detroit-area hospital. He remained in federal custody.
One U.S. intelligence official said authorities were trying to learn how he might have become radicalized and what ties he might have to Al Qaeda operatives or other militants. The focus, the official said, continues to be Yemen, which the U.S. considers a growing haven for Al Qaeda members.
Some terrorism experts, including Brian Jenkins of the Santa Monica-based Rand Corp. think tank, said the failure to ignite the explosive mixture could suggest that Abdulmutallab and any co-conspirators may have been operating independently of Al Qaeda’s experienced bomb-makers.
PETN was also used by so-called shoe bomber Richard Reid in his unsuccessful attempt to blow up a Paris-to- Miami flight.
In Friday’s case, the PETN probably was not compacted correctly, because it flamed rather than explode, law enforcement sources said. Abdulmutallab also may have lacked the necessary detonator.
“I’m suspicious of his claimed Al Qaeda connections,” Jenkins said, “because Al Qaeda’s people know how to make a bomb.”
Times staff writers Richard Winton in Los Angeles and Alana Semuels in Honolulu contributed to this report.