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Over Detroit

December 25th, 2009 - 3:31 pm

An incident previously described as a passenger setting off firecrackers on a Northwest Airlines flight between Amsterdam and Detroit is now being referred to as a possible terrorist attack.  Fox News reports that a passenger tried to ignite a powder aboard the aircraft and was said to have been acting under instructions from al-Qaeda.

A male passenger reportedly linked to terrorist organization al-Qaeda ignited a powdery substance prior to landing on a Delta Airlines flight to Detroit Friday. The suspect is believed to be Nigerian, Fox News reported. …

The suspect, who suffered second-degree burns, told federal investigators he was directed by al-Qaeda, though authorities are questioning the veracity of that statement, ABC reported. A federal situational awareness bulletin noted that the explosive was acquired in Yemen with instructions as to when it should be used, ABC said.

The FBI was on the scene, Detroit office spokeswoman Sandra Berchtold told NewsCore. Berchtold declined to comment on the reports of a terrorist connection.

Earlier the BBC had described the event as involving “firecrackers”.

A passenger on board a transatlantic Northwest Airlines flight set off firecrackers as it was arriving in the US city of Detroit, the airline says. The blast caused panic on board the Airbus 330, which had flown from Amsterdam in the Netherlands. Several people were slightly injured.

ABC News now says the suspect was on a “no fly list” and that the powder he was trying to ignite was concealed taped to his leg. A syringe of chemicals was said to have been added to the mixture.

The man was apparently already on the government’s no-fly list of suspected terrorists, according to a senior intelligence official.

“The subject is claiming to have extremist affiliation and that the device was acquired in Yemen along with instructions as to when it should be used,” a federal situational awareness bulletin stated.

The suspect told authorities that he had explosive powder taped to his leg and used a syringe of chemicals to mix with the powder that was to cause explosion. This is of concert because it is a method of mixing that is consistent with terror techniques.

MSNBC, citing an airline source, says that a passenger jumped the man as he was trying to light the powder after two other passengers noticed him in the act. “Two people noticed the attempt and a third person jumped on the man and subdued him, an airline official told NBC News.” Additional reportage from Metro Detroit suggests the suspect had actually managed to ignite something before the passenger jumped him. The incident which took place around Row 16 was in the area where economy ended and business class began, if this seating layout of an NWA Airbus 330 is accurate. Metro Detroit wrote:

Syed Jafry of Holland, Mich., said people ran out of their seats to tackle the man. Jafry was sitting in the 16th row when he heard “a pop and saw some smoke and fire.”

Jafry said there was a little bit of commotion for about 10 to 15 minutes. He said the way passengers responded made him proud to be an American.

Passengers Richard Griffith of Pontiac said he was unaware of the incident until departing the plane. He said he was sitting in the back of the plane and did not “see or hear anything.” His wife and daughter, who had been waiting for him at the airport since about 11:40 a.m., said they saw a person they believe to be the suspect being transported from the airport. Dawn Griffith said he was “young looking” and was handcuffed to a stretcher, with his hands bandaged.

The area around Row 16 appears to be slightly forward or above the wing. Some versions of the Airbus A330 have a large central fuel tank around this area. A special article in the Daily Mail about the loss of another Airbus A330 — Air France 447 — highlighted the safety concerns over a “vapor filled central fuel tank” and the vulnerability of the Kapton wiring in this fly-by-wire airplane. A diagram of the fuel system of the A330 is shown below.  Source: IASA

A330tanks

Ed Block, an American air investigator, has long been trying to draw attention to the dangers of some wire types. It was he who found the evidence of the likely cause of the disaster on TWA Flight 800, a Boeing 747 that blew up off Long Island in 1996, killing all 230 on board. He concluded the problem had been short circuits, or arcs, that ultimately led to sparking in the vapour-filled central fuel tank. …

On every model built until at least 2006 – Airbus won’t say if new aircraft are fitted with it now – it employed ‘aromatic polyimide’, better known by its trade name, Kapton. The next Atlantic disaster after TWA 800 shows why Block is concerned: the loss of the Kapton-wired Swissair Flight 111 off Nova Scotia in 1998, caused when its entertainment-system wiring caught fire. … In 2005 Nasa announced its space shuttles would not fly beyond 2010, partly because each contained 140 to 157 miles of Kapton. Worse, there was no reliable means to detect whether hidden lengths of wire were already damaged, and hence prone to arcing – an event which can produce temperatures in excess of 5,000°C and the spewing of red-hot copper ‘beebies’. …

Who knows whether al-Qaeda was aiming to damage the most vulnerable area of the A330? As more information comes in the reported facts may be clarified or changed. After all, the incident was originally described as a “firecracker” disturbance. But if initial reports settle down around the narrative, a number of questions suggest themselves.

  • Did the security systems and procedures fail? How did a man on a no-fly list bring explosive powder and a syringe full of chemicals onto a plane from Schipol airport?
  • Was the airplane saved only the vigilance — some might call it vigilanteeism — of a passenger? After the Flying Imams case, it has become legally dangerous to presume too much.  In this case the passengers appear to have acted on their instincts.
  • Does the incident suggest that a wave of attacks has been planned over the Christmas and New Year’s holidays?

NPR says the FBI in investigating and that “White House spokesman Bill Burton said President Obama had been notified of the incident and was monitoring the situation.” Reuters adds:

Obama spoke by conference call with national security advisers and then he “instructed that all appropriate measures be taken to increase security for air travel,” Burton said. “The president is actively monitoring the situation and receiving regular updates. There is currently no change to his schedule,” he said.

Update

More details have emerged in the WSJ. The suspect is Abdul Mudallad, a 23-year-old Nigerian national. He attempted to detonate the device just as the aircraft began lowering the landing gear on its approach to the runway. Contrary to earlier reports, Mudallad was not on a “no-fly” list, but nevertheless figured in a number of terrorist databases. He was subdued by a male Dutch passenger.

The passenger was identified by authorities as Abdul Mudallad, a 23-year-old Nigerian national, according to Rep. Peter King, a New York Republican who is the ranking member of the House Homeland Security Committee. The device was technologically advanced and potentially devastating, Mr. King said. “This was not a firecracker,” he said. …

Stephanie van Herk, a passenger from the Netherlands who was in seat 18B, said the Northwest plane had lowered its landing gear when she heard a loud bang. At first she thought the plane might have gotten a flat tire, but then she said saw a flame leap from the lap of a man sitting in the row behind her in the window seat, 19A. …

Mr. King said the suspect’s name did not appear on any of the terrorist watch lists maintained by U.S. authorities, but that the Nigerian national did turn up “hot” in other terrorism-related databases maintained by intelligence officials. … The man told investigators that he was given the device by al Qaeda operatives in Yemen, where he was also given instructions on how to detonate it, the U.S. official said. …

Once passengers realized the suspect’s pants were on fire, they called for water, according to Ms. Van Herk, her sister, Dominique van Herk, and their cousin, Celeste van Herk.

The man was pulling his burning pants down, Stephanie van Herk said. She and several other passengers got water from the galley and the man was doused with water. Then a male Dutch passenger jumped on the perpetrator, Ms. van Herk said.

Once the man was subdued, he was taken to business class and his hands were bound, she said. A few moments later the plane was on the ground, and several security officers boarded the plane and took the suspect away, she said.

Overwing

Seat 19A is right over the wing and near the fuel tanks as shown in the diagram above, taken from an NWA passenger guide to seating on an A330. The shaded area represents the swept-back wing. Presumably, Mudallad timed his actions to coincide with the lowering of the landing gear, which signified that the airliner was over Detroit. Had his explosives worked correctly, the Airbus might have crashed into the city itself with incalculable results. Yeman, as some may recall, has been the scene of the “secret war” against al-Qaeda featured in several recent posts on the Belmont Club.  Just as the press has said that such and such an attack has been a retaliation for “Iraq” or “Afghanistan” or “Gaza’ — pick a place, it might be a mistake to think that this incident represents a retaliation for “Yemen”, because by extension it would be “Obama’s fault”. In reality, al-Qaeda declared war against America long ago for very general reasons. That war isn’t over, however certain political organizations wish to believe it.

Considering that Mudallad was only tackled by the brave Dutchman only after his pants were on fire, and presumably after he had activated his malfunctioning device, the salvation of the flight owed a lot to good fortune. Santa was on the plane on that occasion. But he may not be on the next.

Update 2

Still more details emerged. The suspect is now believed to be an engineering student in the University College in London who originated his flight in Nigeria and transited through Amsterdam.  The conflagration in his trousers apparently ensued as he was trying to inject chemicals into the container of powder taped to his legs. The suspect now denies any connection with al-Qaeda. The LA Times reports:

The suspect — an engineering student at University College of London, according to ABC News and NBC News — began his trip Thursday from Nigeria and caught the flight in Amsterdam. It was not clear Friday whether Mutallab underwent security screening in Amsterdam or merely changed planes there.

It also was uncertain Friday night whether the suspect had ties to a terrorist organization or had attempted the attack on his own, authorities said. Despite earlier reports that he had claimed a connection to Al Qaeda, Mutallab denied any such link in later statements to FBI agents interrogating him, the anti-terrorism official said.

“Right now he is saying he was not part of an organization or a coordinated effort. I want to caution people from jumping headlong into the Al Qaeda link because it’s a very murky area,” the official said.

The suspect smuggled a powder aboard the plane in a container taped to his leg, the official said. Covering himself with a blanket to hide his actions, he used a syringe to inject a liquid into the powder, and a fire resulted from the combustible mix, according to the official, who did not identify the materials.

Meanwhile, the Washington Post says President Obama has received briefings from his counterterrorism aides. However Homeland Security said it would not raise the alert level, although passengers “may notice additional screening measures, put into place to ensure the safety of the traveling public on domestic and international flights”.


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