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Terrorism Links Uncertain In Airplane Attack

This image made from video shows security personnel on the runway next to Northwest Airlines Flight 253 at Detroit Metropolitan Airport.
ABC News
This image made from video shows security personnel on the runway next to Northwest Airlines Flight 253 at Detroit Metropolitan Airport.

A Nigerian man with possible ties to terrorism attempted to ignite an incendiary device on a transatlantic flight Friday as the plane circled Detroit for a landing, law enforcement officials said.

The device malfunctioned, setting fire to the suspect's legs instead of exploding. Officials report little damage to the plane. Despite the somewhat happy ending, the White House is calling the incident a terrorist attack.

Terrorism expert Bruce Hoffman agreed with that assessment. "The attack was on Christmas Day," he said. "Its jihadi intentions are clear."

Officials tell NPR that the man at the center of all this is a 23-year-old named Abdul Abdulmutallab, an engineering student at University College London. Abdulmutallab flew into Amsterdam from Nigeria on Friday before boarding Northwest Airlines Flight 253 bound for Detroit.

The flight was uneventful until the plane prepared for landing and Abdulmutallab allegedly injected a solution into a powder taped to his leg. Passengers said they saw smoke and flames before someone tackled the suspect and the flight crew extinguished the fire.

The FBI recovered the device and has sent it to Quantico, the FBI's crime lab, for analysis, according to officials.

The incident is reminiscent of the so-called shoe bomber attack in 2001, when a young Briton named Richard Reid tried to ignite explosives packed in his shoes. Today, Reid is serving a life sentence and airports around the country require passengers' shoes to be X-rayed before boarding.

According to officials, Reid had al-Qaida training. Abdulmutallab's terrorist links, however, are uncertain.

Rep. Peter King of New York, the ranking Republican on the House Homeland Security Committee, said Friday that Abdulmutallab had an al-Qaida connection, but law enforcement officials are not so sure. The investigation of Abdulmutallab's past travels has turned up what one law enforcement source called "worrisome places," and British police are conducting a search of an address in central London thought to be linked to the suspect.

Nothing uncovered so far indicates Abdulmutallab had any formal terrorist training. Abdulmutallab has allegedly said he picked up the device in Yemen, but officials aren't sure yet whether that is true, either.

Officials are quick to point out that Abdulmutallab's device was incendiary rather than explosive. An incendiary device would set off a fire and cause much less damage than an explosive device.

This has been a very busy year for terrorism officials. There have been 14 attacks or attempted attacks on the U.S. in 2009 — two or three times as many plots as the U.S. tackles in any given year. The attacks are also becoming more sophisticated, and that has officials increasingly worried.

Until recently, the U.S. has had to battle primarily aspirational terrorists — people with grand plans for an attack but little ability to actually carry them out. The U.K. has had more operational terrorists — people who have trained for an attack and have the skills to see it through.

But U.S. officials say that changed back in September, when U.S. officials arrested Najibullah Zazi, the Denver man accused of wanting to blow up transportation targets in New York. Zazi allegedly trained in al-Qaida camps, learned how to make explosives, tested them and, prosecutors allege, was ready to launch an attack.

If the trend towards operational terrorists continues, officials worry 2010 may bring more serious attacks to the U.S.

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