US blames plane attack on terrorism

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By Harvey Morris and agencies 

Published: December 26 2009 04:56 | Last updated: December 26 2009 14:49

Security was stepped up on flights to and from the US on Saturday as federal officials questioned a Nigerian man who set off an incendiary device aboard a plane from Amsterdam to Detroit before being subdued by fellow passengers.

The man, identified by authorities as Abdul Farouk Abdulmutallab, 23, was being treated at a burns unit following the Christmas Day attack but no one else was reported injured in the incident shortly before the Northwest Airlines flight was due to land.

The detained man’s name figured on a database because of extremist connections, according to Peter King, senior Republican on the House of Representatives Homeland Security Committee, and a White House official said: “We believe this was an attempted act of terrorism.”

However, officials told reporters in Detroit the suspect appeared to have acted alone rather than as an agent of al-Qaeda or other terrorist organisation.

A woman passenger from the plane described the man as standing up and shouting and “screaming about Afghanistan”.

Investigators were examining the residue of the device, which was thought to contain powder and liquid.

In London, police searched an address in Harley Street, central London, in connection with the incident.

The man was believed to have spent time in the UK as a student, and authorities were working to establish the details of his activities there, a counter-terrorism source told Reuters.

US authorities asked airlines to implement additional security measures on all incoming flights and stepped up measures on domestic and international flights leaving US airports. They did not step up the colour-coded level of nationwide alert that has fallen into disuse under the present administration.

Mr King said the suspect started his journey in Nigeria. “How sophisticated he was, I don't know,” he said. “But again, it was a fairly sophisticated device. I would say we dropped the ball on this one.”

Judith Sluiter, a spokeswoman for Dutch counter-terrorism agency NCTb, said it had started a probe into the incident, trying to determine where the suspect originated. “He did not go through passport control,” a Dutch military police spokesman said. The spokesman confirmed he transferred from another flight of uncertain origin.

An Air France-KLM spokeswoman said passenger lists were confidential and she could not confirm Abdulmutallab started his journey with a KLM flight to Amsterdam from Lagos.

The Nigerian government ordered security agencies to investigate the incident and said they would co-operate fully with the American authorities. “All the necessary security measures are in place in Nigeria. Any passenger, including crew members, on any flight, is subject to the same security screening,” a spokesman for Nigeria's Federal Airport Authority said.

The aircraft, Northwest Airlines flight 253, was an Airbus 330 carrying 278 passengers. Delta Air Lines has taken over Northwest.

Passenger Richelle Keepman said the incident was terrifying. “I thought – I think we all thought we weren't going to land, we weren't going to make it,” Ms Keepman told NBC News.

In Britain, airports operator BAA said the Department of Transport had issued a notice to all British airport operators to tighten security.

”Passengers travelling to the United States should expect their airline to carry out additional security checks prior to boarding,” BAA said in a statement, adding that passengers should leave more time to check in.

In Brussels, Jacques Barrot, vice-president of the European Commission in charge of justice, freedom and security, said the EU executive was in contact with all relevant authorities to make sure rules and procedures were being followed in Europe.