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Attempted Act of Terrorism on Delta Flight

Aired December 25, 2009 - 20:00   ET


ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

ALI VELSHI, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Good evening, again, to our viewers in the United States and around the world. I'm Ali Velshi.

If you're just joining us, we're learning more as the night goes on about what the White House is calling an attempted act of terrorism. Here's what we know.

A man said to be a Nigerian national is accused of attempting to blow up a Delta Northwest flight as it was heading into Detroit from Amsterdam. There were nearly 300 passengers aboard the plane. Sources tell us the suspect tried to light an explosive and was quickly subdued by other travelers.

Our sources also tell us the man claims to have ties to an extremist group and says he acquired the explosive device in Yemen along with instructions on how and when to use it. We've got resources of CNN around the world trying to flesh this out. Peter Bergen, Ed Henry, Kate Bolduan.

Let's start with Kate Bolduan, who is learning more about the suspect in D.C. -- Kate.


Well, according to a federal security bulletin obtained by CNN, this is something that goes out in these major events to federal, state and local law enforcement officials.

This all started with an in-flight emergency was called on that flight due to a fire indicator light. And now we're told this is a Nigerian national that ignited a small explosive device at the end of an international flight ending in Detroit earlier today.

Also according to this federal security bulletin, this passenger is claiming to have extremist affiliation and claims the device was acquired in Yemen along with instructions as to when it should be used. The FBI is leading the investigation now and obviously checking into this person's background and capabilities.

The federal bulletin says this passenger, this Nigerian national, is in custody and has also been taken to a hospital to be treated for burns sustained from this explosion.

Now, an administration official tells CNN it's just too early to know if this person was part of some broader conspiracy. And we should say at this early point, no charges have been filed; clearly early in this investigation.

Passengers leaving the plane, Ali, speaking to reporters at the airport say the fire was -- fire from the explosion was at least large enough to need a fire extinguisher to put out. It's very interesting getting these firsthand accounts finally as these passengers are being allowed to leave the security area of the airport.

VELSHI: Right. And we've actually got some of those we're going to hear from to get some sense of what exactly happened on that plane. One of the issues, Kate, I know that you're trying to get to the bottom of, and we are with -- with Peter Bergen and others is: how serious was this? What were the capabilities that this person had?


VELSHI: Were they working alongside a larger organization or were they working on their own? We don't have that information just now. Do we?

BOLDUAN: We don't have that information yet. I mean, all of the officials that we're talking to stress that this is early on in this investigation. But in that conversation you had with Congressman Peter King of the House Homeland Security Committee, it was very interesting that he commented that this could have been a much serious -- much more serious situation and that, in his opinion, and he's been briefed on this stuff, that he said that it was not firecrackers as was first reported from Delta Airlines, that it could have been -- that it was much more serious, a more complex device, possibly, is kind of the way he described it.

So it's very interesting but too early, and we need those new details, and that's what we're looking for. What was this device? How did this person get it on this plane and get it through security in more than one place?

VELSHI: Yes. And were they on some sort of watch list or no-fly list? Kate, you've been working on this all day. And the reason I'm not pressing this issue with you is that there's a lot of information flying around. There are a lot of rumors and a lot of unconfirmed stuff. We are running only with things that we have confirmed. What we have confirmed is that there's a plane on the ground in Detroit. It is a Delta badged plane. So even though we're talking about a Northwest flight, people will see a Delta flight. It's Northwest 253.

Somebody was on that flight from Amsterdam to Detroit. Representative Peter King says he has information that this person might have started in Nigeria. We have reports that he's a Nigerian national, but we don't know about a lot of that -- that information in the middle.

But Kate is staying on this. So is Ed. So are all our other reporters. And as we confirm any piece of information, we will be bringing it to our viewers around the world as we confirm it. But it is important in issues like this, in stories like this, to make sure we only go with information we've got confirmed.

Ed Henry is traveling with the president. The president and his family are now in Hawaii. And Ed is there, too.

Ed, what do you know about what the president knows and has said?

ED HENRY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Ali, we've just gotten a little bit of new information in the last couple of moments. I reported earlier that the president had a secure conference call with top aides. He instructed federal officials to beef up aviation security.

We're now being told by White House officials the president has been updated a couple of more times by top aides John Brennan and Dennis McDonough. That are homeland security, national security aides in the White House. They've given the president what we're being told are paper updates about the situation on the ground.

Also, we're told the president has now gotten a paper update, some sort of document briefing him from the White House situation room, sending it -- sending it here to Hawaii so the president can then stay abreast of the situation.

We're also told that sometime around dinnertime, the president is going to get yet another update -- update from the situation room back at the White House. He'll get some sort of a paper document that will brief him on what federal authorities know up to the minute.

And important to note what do those authorities know? What are they telling the president? We're told by a senior administration official the president has been told that officials believe this was an attempted terror attack that essentially did not happen in terms of being terror. It was an attempted one. Obviously, there were some injuries and some concerns there on the ground. But as you noted earlier, the plane landed safely.

The reason why the president increasing these aviation security measures is that we're told by officials, obviously, there is so much air travel going on right now all around the country because of the holiday season, right through new year's that they want to make sure they're on top of the situation, Ali.

VELSHI: And something you mentioned about increasing security. We've just heard from Jeanne Meserve, our national security correspondent, and Richard Quest, who's in Rome and understands airlines better than pretty much anyone on this network. They both said that, even without raising the terror threat level in air traffic -- in air transportation, without raising it beyond orange, which it's been since 2006, they can do a lot more even within those constraints.

HENRY: Yes. And as Jeanne Meserve was reporting, they can send more K-9 dogs to various key airports, make sure that they're inspecting as much as they can, do more behavioral monitoring, checking people at these gates and security checkpoints to see if they're behaving in an odd manner that would suggest some problem. They could also obviously beef up the more TSA, the Transportation Security Association, officials who are at these checkpoints. They can add more of them, beef it up and make sure they're on top of the situation.

I think it's important to note, if you take a step back, that this administration has been skeptical of the color-coded system instituted by the Bush administration, and in recent months, they've actually been doing a review as to whether the whole system should be scrapped. So I think you're right to note that it's not important necessarily what color it's at. It's what they're doing specifically.

And we can expect a lot of specific measures on the ground in these airports rather than just some sort of a blanket color coding or announcement; on-the-ground specific measures like that, Ali.

VELSHI: Specifically, that's good information for people who are out there traveling over the Christmas holiday. Our experts have certainly have certainly said expect travel that over the next couple of days might just get a little more complicated because of added security.

Ed Henry is going to stay there for us and continue to work his sources over there. Kate Bolduan is in D.C.

On the phone now, Syed Jafry. He was on the flight in question, Northwest Flight 253, along with 257 other passengers.

Syed, you were sitting in 16G, is that correct?

Syed Jafry, are you there?

SYED JAFRY, PASSENGER (via phone): Yes, I'm here. Go ahead.

VELSHI: You were in row 16 -- you were in seat 16G on this A-330 aircraft? Is that correct>


VELSHI: Where were you in relation? Where was the -- where was the suspect in relation to where you were sitting?

JAFRY: I believe he was in 19A and I was on 16G. So I was diagonally away from him from three rows.

VELSHI: A fairly large aircraft, 278 people on board. Tell me what happened. What do you remember happening?

JAFRY: Well, what we heard first, really, is -- we were pretty much getting ready to descend and ready to be landed. It was a long flight, really, everybody was tired, you know.

And next thing we know, there was a -- one pop. And everybody got a little bit startled. And then we looked around and saw nothing. So after a few seconds or so, then there was a little bit of light, a little bit of -- kind of flamish light, and there was fire. And people began to panic almost.

And everybody was rushing towards that area and tried to get water, a blanket and fire extinguisher coming through and passengers, everybody -- that's one of the things that I noticed. They put a lot of effort to get it under control. And we did.

VELSHI: Was there a struggle with this suspect?

JAFRY: There was a young man behind me about three or four seat rows, and he took care of that suspect. He handled him pretty good, I think. And there was a little bit, obviously, of a struggle. And I think he took it under control.

VELSHI: What was the sense on the aircraft? Was there a great deal of panic? Were people sort of look-seeing that it was under control? Were people screaming or crying?

JAFRY: At the time, from my vantage point, I think there was only panic around the sixth or seventh rows up and down.

VELSHI: OK. So basically the people who could get some sense of what was going on?

JAFRY: Right, right. But the rest of the -- rest of the plane -- I don't think all of them knew, no, I don't think so. But again, I could be wrong. But what I see, there was a panic in the immediate area. And then we took care of it within minutes, within a matter of minutes.

Not only that, but we also, with the young man's help, we just took over the whole situation. He subdued him and took him with the help of cabin crew. They took him on the side and kind of isolated him.

VELSHI: Were they holding him? Was he -- did he look like he was struggling?

JAFRY: No, he -- I don't recall that he was struggling, more that he appeared to be more stunned and sort of surprised with the whole act. And then they took him to the side. Because I think he also got second-degree burns. So he was kind of -- kind of more surprised...

VELSHI: He wasn't -- did you hear him -- did he seem to be yelling anything or saying anything, uttering any threats?

JAFRY: No, nothing at all. I, at least, didn't hear anything. Maybe some other people who were closer to him...


JAFRY: ... may have heard him, but I did not hear anything. But they took him on the side and took him all the way up front and isolated him from the rest of the passengers.

VELSHI: Did you at any point -- what went through your mind? Did you think this was a terrorist attack?

JAFRY: First I thought maybe some -- he was trying to smoke. He was a young man. I thought he was trying to smoke. Then the next thing, then I see flames and things and maybe this is more serious than I think.

A lot of people got a little bit panicked. And -- and of course, we were in that plane and we didn't know what was going on. But I tell you what, as soon as I got out of the airport after a four- or five-hour ordeal with the interviewing and all that, and I got home, then I got really, really -- reality sets in, you know?

VELSHI: You got more scared after -- afterwards than you were on the plane?

JAFRY: Absolutely.

VELSHI: All right. I'm looking at an outline of the plane's seating arrangement. You were -- you say you were in 16G. That was an aisle seat on the -- near the right-hand side of the plane. You think he was in 19A, which was on the left side of the plane as you're looking -- as you're facing forward all the way on the left. So you would have been three rows away and about six seats away from him.


VELSHI: Did you have -- I mean, could you look over your shoulder and get some good sense of what was going on? And were you sort of -- were all the passengers kind of looking in that direction? Did they all see what was happening?

JAFRY: Yes, I think so. And the immediate passenger who was sitting next to him, whether it was front or back or side, I think that they all saw him, and they all took control of the situation. And that's one of the marvelous things about being here, is that everybody got involved and took care of it.

VELSHI: And what happened then? Was there some announcement where you evacuated as if there was an emergency when you landed?

JAFRY: There was no announcement except that cabin crew was announcing this -- giving the direction that this is the situation right now, there was the incident. And things are under control now. Everybody sit down, please. And it was handled very, very professionally by the crew. And they handled it very good.

VELSHI: And they didn't say at any point that it was a terrorist act or something like that? They said there's been some incident?

JAFRY: Incident. And also the pilot came on. The announcement, he also explained what is going on. And the good thing about that, and thank God for that on Christmas day at least, that we were on the ground, I think between 10 to 20 minutes after the incident. So that's a good thing.

VELSHI: So you were -- when this happened, were you already informed that you were on final approach? Was everybody getting ready to land at that point?

JAFRY: You know, I believe I am thinking more and more. And I believe it was. And I could be wrong, again, Ali. But to the best of my recollection, I think we had started to descend...


JAFRY: ... into Detroit and for Detroit (ph). We started getting ready to get out of the plane, because we were tired. All of us were very tired. Very long flight.

VELSHI: Now again, I'm looking -- by looking at this -- this layout of the plane, I can see that as he would have gone -- if the cabin crew had taken him from his seat to the front of the plane, he wouldn't have crossed by you. He would have been in the other aisle. This is a wide-bodied plane with two aisles. He would have been over four seats to your left as he went by. So you didn't get -- did you get a good look as to what he might have -- what might have caught fire? Was he wearing it? Was it on him?

JAFRY: I know that he has -- he has sort of white-ish pants and a striped -- light striped shirt. And I think he was burned a little bit. But it was not showing, but he was kind of over -- subdued by people. They covered him up. I didn't get a good look at him. But I looked at his face. Looks like a young man in his 20s.

VELSHI: And you said you turned around and you had seen some kind of flames. What did it look like? Did it look like a firecracker or a sparkler or what do you think -- what did you think it was when you looked at it?

JAFRY: I think he was trying to do something that didn't work. That's what I think now. Because at that time -- if you look at the time capsule over there and look at it, where I was at that time, I couldn't figure out what's going on. I saw the glow or fire or flame, whatever that was, I saw it with my own eyes. But it glowed. It lighted up a little bit. And then -- then I see that a lot of people were trying to take it out. When they tried to take it out, it just had kind of gone a little bit higher for some reason.

VELSHI: And you didn't -- how did the cabin crew learn of this? Did somebody -- did they click their little buttons to inform the cabin crew? Did people shout for them?

JAFRY: No, it was -- it was like immediately. It was, like, instantly. I mean, there was no time left. And that's a good thing, because everybody was trying to set it up -- and there was an announcement that we were about to descend because that was the case and we were kind of busy getting ready to land.

VELSHI: When you got off the plane, was it a normal disembarkment? Was there anything unusual about it? Were the police there when you got off?

JAFRY: Oh, yes. Oh, yes. I mean we were -- they were -- the cabin crew instructed all the passengers that there will be an investigation, there will be law enforcement coming in the plane. They're going to take a look at it. They're going to talk to the suspect. They're going to take him away and they're going to do their investigation. And after that, then we can leave. We couldn't even leave.

VELSHI: And so you had to stay. You and all the other passengers did talk to the police. You gave them a report.

JAFRY: Everybody stayed in the plane.

VELSHI: I see.

JAFRY: And that took about half an hour. Then after the law enforcement left with the suspect, then we were able to leave. And when we -- when we left the plane, then we gathered down the stairs with the immigration and customs people.

VELSHI: What was going through your mind? People worry when there's just a little bit of turbulence sometimes on a plane. Were you -- were you praying? Were you -- were you unconcerned? Tell me what happened. What was going through your mind?

JAFRY: I think most of the people except for the -- except for some people who were kind of panicking, most of the people were in control. I tell you that right now. And the majority of the people on the plane didn't know what was going on because there was only one section, as you know.

VELSHI: Yes, again, it's a very large plane. So it could be that you wouldn't know anything was going on if it wasn't in your immediate vicinity.

JAFRY: Exactly.

VELSHI: Syed, what's your sense of it now? Do you feel differently about this now that you're obviously taking part in this -- in this conversation? In fact, if you can -- Albert, if you can just put that map back up. I want to give the viewers a sense of it.

Syed Jafry, who I'm speaking to on the phone, was approximately in the middle of the plane. The front of the plane is to your left. He was in an aisle seat in the middle section, so he was on the right side of the middle section around the middle of the plane. The -- according to what Syed is telling me, the passenger was a few rows behind him, so again, just beyond the middle of the plane but all the way on the left, or the bottom of your screen.

So he would have been about three rows behind him and about four rows plus an aisle separating them. So he had a pretty good view of what was going on. Did you at the time -- you said you thought he was up to something. But it sounds like you thought he could have been trying to light a cigarette?

SAFRY: No, it's not a cigarette. But what I'm saying to you, as you look at it, you just don't have a clue -- the first clue.

VELSHI: Right.

SAFRY: You don't have anything. It's just that things happen very fast. And -- and at the time, you look at it, you say, you know, first thing that comes to your mind is, it can't be. You know?

VELSHI: Right.

SAFRY: And then you look at it, and then you try to get a hold of it and control it. I tell you, I'm more scared now getting out of the plane and knowing everything what I know now than when I was in the plane.

VELSHI: OK. So now you have -- you have a better sense of the -- could have been a terrorist attack?

SAFRY: Yes, yes. So we were able to handle it better that way. And I think people did a marvelous job. So did the crew.

VELSHI: All right. This is a -- thank you so much for giving us some clarity on this. Because obviously, this is a matter of a great concern to everybody around the country. But we are dealing with very little information. Your firsthand information is remarkable. We're very happy you and the other 278 passengers on the flight were able to land safely. Thanks for joining us.

JAFRY: Do me a favor, Ali. I just want to thank everybody else who helped us and also want to -- hello?

VELSHI: Yes, go ahead.

JAFRY: I just want to also tell you that I wanted to wish everybody in my plane who were traveling with me -- wish them a very, very merry Christmas and happy new year. And this certainly was a very, very good day for all of us.

VELSHI: Sure. A lot to be thankful for.

JAFRY: And especially I'm thankful to my family who waited for me outside for four hours for me to get out of there.

VELSHI: Well, best wishes to you and your family.

JAFRY: Thank you.

VELSHI: And you're right; a very merry -- merrier Christmas than it might have been for all those passengers. And Syed makes a point of noting that the passengers around the area of turmoil on the plane all participated in trying to subdue the situation, as did the cabin crew on Northwest 253. Looks like good work done by everybody to prevent something that might have been worse.

With me on the phone now is CNN national security contributor Fran Townsend. I want to inform our viewers that have just joined us now as to what is going on. A Delta Aircraft, as Northwest flight 253, landed at Detroit today on its way from Amsterdam. And shortly before landing, a passenger who may have been sitting in row 19A on an A-330 aircraft tried to light something. And it does seem that might have been a device intended to -- to do great damage to the plane or those around him.

Fran, we've learned quite a bit since the last -- first time we talked over an hour ago. What now do you think about the situation now that we know that we think that this suspect has identified himself as having connections to an extremist group, says he acquired a device in Yemen, according to the government, and was told how and when to use it, from Yemen?

FRAN TOWNSEND, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY CONTRIBUTOR: Ali, no question that what the government will now do is try and go back and either corroborate his story or poke holes in it. Oftentimes we find people who claim ties to al Qaeda who don't really have them.

On the other hand, I will tell you, the first thing I thought of was the Richard Reid case. You recall, that was right around -- several days before Christmas years ago where he tried to light his shoe. He came to be known as the shoe bomber.

So of course, this does have remnants of an al Qaeda plot. We know that they return to plots frequently, and so I don't have any doubt that my former colleagues who are still in the government remember Richard Reid, remember that case and are going back now to understand how is it possible -- so many years after the Richard Reid case that somebody could get on an international flight having some sort of explosive device on him. And you know, that rightly ought to be a real concern to the government and to flying public.

VELSHI: Well, Fran, let's go back and let's compare these two a little bit. Richard Reid, who we know as the -- as the shoe bomber. And you're looking at on TV here.

Fran, we -- I guess we never really worked out -- a lot of people in their mind didn't work out whether Richard Reid was ultimately a major threat or just didn't have the capability to pull off the major threat that he could have been.

What's your evaluation of this particular situation with that lens? Do you think this suspect who identifies as a Nigerian national, working under possible Yemeni orders, do you think he had the capability of doing more damage than he ultimately did?

TOWNSEND: We need to know -- as you pointed out, Ali, to our viewers, we don't really know enough about the device itself to make a judgment about how big a threat this was. Small incendiary devices tend not to be the type of threat to an airplane that would bring it down. That said, it can do tremendous damage.

And of course, let's remember, in any attack of this nature, the whole point is terrorism. That is, to frighten the flying public, frighten the American people around the world and intimidate them.

And so regardless of whether or not it has the ability -- the capability to bring down on aircraft, which would be tragic, of course, there's no question that such an incident does instill fear in the flying public. And so that is consistent with what we know about terrorism. And I think we have to -- we have to distinguish between the two.

VELSHI: I want to ask you one thing, Fran. Peter Bergen made an interesting point -- I'm sorry, it was Nic Robertson who made the point a little while ago. And that is that we don't maybe need to make the same distinction we used to about whether somebody is an operative of an extremist group or they may have just taken the messages of an extremist group and are trying to carry terrorist plots out on their own. What do you think of that?

TOWNSEND: Well, that's right. Regardless of whether they're closely tied to an al Qaeda or an international terrorist group or they're merely inspired doesn't much matter if you're sitting on the plane next to him when he tries to light this thing off.

We -- this is an ongoing concern, whether there are direct links or not, these sort of like-minded inspired types can do tremendous damage and really instill fear and terror in the public. And so either way, it's a problem that the government's got to deal with.

VELSHI: All right. Fran Townsend, stand by. Thanks very much.

Let's go back to New York Congressman Peter King, the top Republican on the House Homeland Security Committee. I want to remind all of our viewers that we do not have information on anyone having been charged with this report. That said, Peter King, you do believe you've got information as to who this suspect may be?

REP. PETER KING (D), NEW YORK: Yes. I do have a name. I can give it if you want. But he is a 23-year-old Nigerian. And it has also -- it's been confirmed to me that while he was not, as I understand it, on a no-fly list, his name was in -- very quickly, in a database for having terrorist connections in Nigeria, al Qaeda-related connections. His name came up almost immediately once it became known to law enforcement authorities.

VELSHI: Representative King, tell me who you believe this -- the suspect to be.

KING: His -- name I was given was Abdul Mudallad, a 23-year-old from -- from Nigeria who boarded the plane in Nigeria. It was a KLM flight. And then in Amsterdam, switched over to a Delta Northwest.

And you know, there's concerns here because we've been -- there's a real worry about al Qaeda activity, or terrorist activity in Nigeria, so much so that last year the American government gave body detection devices to the Nigerian government to be used at their airports.

VELSHI: And Representative King, that is because there were concerns that Nigerian airports were not as far ahead in terms of security, maintaining security of people getting onto planes as other airports in the world?

KING: Right. The combination of the two, of there being terrorist activity in Nigeria and also because the fact that their level of security, we felt, was not satisfactory and was not comparable to others.

On the other hand, Amsterdam is generally reputed to have outstanding security procedures in their airport. So again, there has to be a very intensive investigation to see what happened, why it happened and exactly where the responsibility is.

Also, if I can put in one very positive sign tonight. My understanding is that he was subdued immediately and very quickly and effectively by the passengers on the flight. And they came forward, which maybe would not have been the case prior to September 11, 2001.

VELSHI: Right.

KING: But these people acted very quickly, very heroically and did bring him down.

VELSHI: Yes. We just spoke to a passenger from the flight who said the same thing. He told us that he felt the passengers and the crew worked quite quickly to subdue the suspect.

Tell me something you just alluded to. You said he was not on a no-fly list, but he does have affiliations to extremist groups. How does that work?

KING: I don't know. And I think that's another issue we have to look into, is -- he was not -- my understanding is -- again, this is all in the early fog of battle here. But the fact is that -- my understanding he was not on a no-fly list. But his name was in a database indicating a significant terrorist connection, and why somebody was in that type database and not on a no-fly list, I don't know. Again, that is something that has to be looked into.

VELSHI: OK. I want -- I want to remind our viewers that we have not been able to confirm the name of the suspect nor have we been informed of any charges being laid.

Representative King, thanks for joining us and bringing us up to speed. We hope you'll continue to do that through the evening. You said we're in the smoke of this right now. We are trying to get as much information as possible.

You'll understand, there is more information coming out and floating around than is actually confirmable. Here's what we do know.

You are looking at pictures on the left side of your screen of Northwest flight 253. That is a Delta aircraft coming in from Amsterdam to Detroit. Shortly before landing, someone tried to light something, according to reports that we've gotten from the government, and from passengers and from Delta.

The crew and passengers subdued the -- the person in question, and he was met by law enforcement as the -- as the plane landed in Detroit safely. We do understand that at least two other passengers were treated for burns as was the suspect after he tried to light something but it did not end up setting the plane -- or doing any damage to the plane.

However, it is being looked at by the U.S. government as an attempted terrorist attack.

Let's go to reporter Michael Rosenfield of CNN affiliate WXYZ in Detroit. Obviously, this -- this must have been quite a scare as that plane came into Detroit, a plane where there was some sense of an attempted terrorist attack in an aircraft landing at one of the most -- one of the busiest airports in the country -- Michael.

MICHAEL ROSENFIELD, REPORTER, WXYZ: Yes, passengers on board this flight telling us it was absolutely terrifying.

Flight 253 was en route from Amsterdam to Detroit this afternoon. It landed at about noontime here at Detroit's Metro Airport. And the incident happened just about 20 minutes before landing.

Passengers tell me all of a sudden they heard a pop and a boom. There was smoke and then some flames and absolute chaos in that section of the plane. At that point, a very brave young man in his 20s, maybe his 30s, jumped over all of the chairs, all of the seats in the plane, from one side of the plane, climbing over to the other side of the plane and subduing the suspect in question. Putting him in a headlock and dragging him to the front of the plane.

At the same time, there was a smoke; there was this fire. Passengers were calling out for water. Flight attendants got to that section of the plane with a fire extinguisher. They were able to put the fire out.

The man, the suspect in question, was brought up to first class. Passengers in that part of the plane tell me it was pretty empty up there, so they put him in a seat in the front row, in row 1. Another passenger in row 1 tells me the man was burned on different parts of his body, that he was very quiet. He wasn't saying much and not reacting to anything that people were telling him or not reacting to any pain, just kind of subdued and restrained in row 1.

We talked to several passengers when they got off the plane -- it took about five hours in between the time the plane eventually landed here in Detroit, by the time they were questioned. Their bags were re-screened. Every single person was interviewed by federal officials here in Detroit. It took anywhere from four to five hours for all of the passengers to go through customs and be welcomed by loved ones here in Detroit or make their connecting flights. Here's a listen to what some of them had to tell us here at the terminal.


ILIANA SCHILKE, PASSENGER: We heard a loud pop and a bit of smoke and then some flames and yelling and screaming.

ELIAS SAWAZ, PASSENGER: There's a lady who shouted, what are you doing, what are you doing? Then we looked back. There were some fumes and some flames. ZEENA SAIGAL, PASSENGER: And they said, there's fire, bring water. People bringing water. Then two of the hostesses brought a fire extinguisher and they put out the fire. And then one guy, a sturdy guy, put a, you know, lock on his head and dragged him to the front, his pants down -- I heard the pants were on fire. I thought they pulled it down so they can't run.

MELINDA DENNIS, PASSENGER: He didn't say anything. He was injured. He was burned quite severely on his leg. They were very careful in trying to make sure that he had nothing else on him. So it was easy to see that from the exposure that he had gotten significantly burned. He was very calm. He, you know, didn't show any reaction to pain or to any feeling of shock or nervousness. You know, he just looked like a normal individual.


ROSENFIELD: Several other international flights were also detained here at metro airport. These were flights coming in from London, Paris, Tokyo and another flight from Amsterdam. All of these passengers were seated on their planes for several hours while all this was figured out. And it took three, four, five hours for all of these other passengers on these other flights to go through customs, to get off their planes, go through customs and get into the terminal to be welcomed here or to make their other connecting flights. But certainly terrifying moments for all of these people aboard Flight 253 from Amsterdam this afternoon.

We have also learned about another incident also on board a flight from Amsterdam to Detroit this afternoon. Another passenger was arrested on that flight as well. Federal officials and local law enforcement here don't think the two incidents were connected but it also did happen on a flight from Amsterdam to Detroit.

A passenger was yelling pro-Afghanistan statements, anti-American statements as well. He was throwing food on passengers in the back part of the plane. He was taken into custody, but law enforcement officials here on the ground thought they think it was just a drunk passenger, did not think these two incidents were connected.

Mike Rosenfield, back to you.

ALI VELSHI, CNN CHIEF BUSINESS CORRESPONDENT: Was that a -- Mike, was that a Northwest flight as well coming in from Amsterdam? Is that a different flight?

ROSENFIELD: Yes, it was also a Northwest Delta flight also coming in from Amsterdam to Detroit. Another incident on that case but again, law enforcement officials think they were not connected. But pretty coincidental that both happened on the same route in the same day.

VELSHI: Michael, thanks very much for all this information. We appreciate it. We'll be checking in with you again.

Listen, we've got our entire, entire team on this story. An attempted terrorist attack on a flight, Northwest Flight 253 from Amsterdam to Detroit landing safely in Detroit after passengers and crew were able to subdue the suspect who is said to be a Nigerian national, who secured the incendiary device that he tried to ignite in Yemen. He says according to the government -- that he said he got instructions on how and when to use it.

We are covering the story and the implications for you. We're taking a quick break. CNN is on it and we'll right back.


VELSHI: Ali Velshi here in New York with breaking news coverage of what the White House is calling an attempted terrorist attack.

If you're just joining us here in the United States or on CNN International, here's what we know. You're looking at a passenger jet, Northwest Airlines Flight 253, branded Delta with Delta markings on it. Allegedly someone tried to blow it up. This flight was an approach to Detroit inbound from Amsterdam today when it happened. A passenger nearby tells us what she saw.


MICHELLE KEEPMAN, PASSENGER: We were in the back of the plane and all of a sudden heard some screams and flight attendants ran up and down the aisles. And I think we knew at the point when we saw the fear in the flight attendants' eyes and they grabbed the fire extinguishers and then all of a sudden we smelled a bunch of smoke. And apparently someone in the front of the plane -- I don't know if he lit himself on fire or lit something on his lap and it went up off in flames.


VELSHI: Well, the would-be bomber was subdued. He is now in custody, a Nigerian national according to the U.S. government who apparently flew from Nigeria, connected with flight 253 in Amsterdam. He's reportedly talking, claiming ties to an extremist organization.

We have a team of reporters and experts on this tonight. Kate Bolduan in Washington. Ed Henry in Honolulu with President Obama. Jeanne Meserve, Peter Bergen and many others.

Joining us from London now is CNN's Paula Newton. She's traveled extensively in the Middle East including in Yemen. Why this is relevant is because this suspect, the government said, is identified as a Nigerian national but says that the incendiary device that he had was procured in Yemen, and his instructions came from Yemen.

Paula, this is complicated but Peter Bergen was telling us earlier that Yemen is giving Afghanistan a run for its money in terms of Al Qaeda and terrorist presence. You've spent some time there.

PAULA NEWTON, CNN INTERNATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Well, it's not too complicated when you think of what went on at Fort Hood. And, of course, there is a U.S. citizen with ties to Al Qaeda who apparently may have inspired the Army major at that time in those shootings. He is also linked to Yemen. He was wanted in Yemen.

I mean, Ali, it was just a few hours ago that with some U.S. intelligence support that the Yemenis went after this cleric in Yemen. Yemen right now is a country that's incredibly vulnerable. The government barely has any control outside of its own city. There are extremists. And what the big fear has been among security officials is that a lot of what's going on in Afghanistan and Pakistan, clearly, may be having an affect on Al Qaeda, many of them trying to re- establish those ties and key here, Ali, the training camps are trying to re-establish some of those in Yemen.

I can tell you, Ali, in trying to travel outside of the capital, whenever I did, even with the government officials, they seemed to have little control over what was going on. They themselves seemed quite intimidated in terms of what could happen at any time. They have a hard time even trying to keep track of what's going on in the capital, even with all the checkpoints that they have.

Again, Osama bin Laden, his family, half Yemeni. There are extremist ties there.

When I was there, Ali, there was a lot of anti-American sentiment. That certainly didn't extend to people supporting terrorist ties. But it's clear to say, Ali, that right now, American officials have had their eye on Yemen for several months as they have found many militants trying to actually physically get to Yemen so they can get this kind of training -- Ali.

VELSHI: You look at somebody from Nigeria and you look at Yemen. The infrastructure in Nigeria is more sophisticated than in Yemen. Is Yemen a place that is a logical base for freelance terrorists who may have more tenuous ties to terrorist organizations to be getting their backing, financing and equipment?

NEWTON: The thing is, is that they're involved in what you call ungoverned spaces. Basically, they're in a no-man's-land. They're in the wild west. They can do what they want most times without little detection, and the U.S. government has been putting a lot of pressure on Yemeni officials for years to really crack down on that with very little success.

As I said, this is a country under intense pressure right now. So what you have are people who've been able to set up any kind of camps that they wanted to, perhaps try and launder money for any kind of terrorist, you know, tasks that they might have ahead, terrorists planning.

Ali, I don't want to overplay this in the sense that it has not been seen as a major problem until now.


NEWTON: And certainly the activity in the last few months, you know, it bears notice that they have looked at this. There are also if you look on a map, it is just a hop skip and a jump across from the Red Sea over in Somalia. We have had some issues from that. There are tens of thousands of Somali refugees in Yemen right now.

It is clearly one of those places where the nexus of terror definitely tends to unite across a singular purpose and that would be to try and plan these kinds of spectacular attacks. You know, and speaking to officials just last week about Yemen, Ali, one Yemeni source telling me that they have U.S. drone support in the country. Clearly it's because the U.S. is becoming more and more concerned about what's going on in Yemen and its potential to be that kind of a terrorist hub.

VELSHI: And there have been activities there and there are some -- there is some speculation that this could be in response to that. Paula Newton is our international security correspondent. She'll stay on this story as well.

We did hear from a reporter in Detroit a few minutes ago, Michael Rosenfield, about another passenger on a different flight also a Delta Northwest flight coming in from Amsterdam to Detroit. This passenger was arrested earlier today. Now have word from Delta Airlines that that passenger was intoxicated, caused a disturbance and was subdued. That flight was also met by authorities at the request of the crew.

Delta at least for now does not believe that that incident was in any way related to the incident on Northwest 253 that we're discussing now. That is the Northwest flight that came in from Amsterdam to Detroit and moments before landing, a passenger attempted to ignite something on the plane.

We're covering that story with all our resources. Let's turn next to CNN's Nic Robertson who's covered too many stories like this one. Nic, you, of all the coverage tonight, you said something to me that really stuck with me.

We're going to come back. We're going to take a break actually and talk to Nic about whether or not this suspect could be tied to other terrorist organizations or could be working on his own. Stay with us. We'll come back to Nic after this break.


VELSHI: All right. I'm Ali Velshi in New York. We're covering breaking news here on the left side of your screen. That is Northwest Flight 253. It's a Delta-badged aircraft. Came in from Amsterdam to Detroit today.

About 20 minutes before landing or approximately, a passenger attempted to light a device. It did not succeed. The passenger was subdued by other passengers and crew. Law enforcement met the plane upon arrival questioning crew and passengers. The suspect has been taken into custody.

According to the government, he's a Nigerian national. He's being treated for the burns that resulted from the attempt and he says that he has tied to extremist groups and got the incendiary device from Yemen and got instructions on how to use it from Yemen. The government is treating this now as an attempted terrorist attack on this flight.

We are following this with all of our resources. Kate Bolduan and Jeanne Meserve in D.C. are following this. Richard Quest, Paula Newton, Ed Henry is in Honolulu, where the president is. Let's go to him right now. He's been keeping up to date on what the president knows and what he is instructed -- Ed.

ED HENRY, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Ali, as you noted, senior officials telling CNN that the White House does believe this was an attempted terror attack. I pressed one of those officials on whether or not they believe there are others at large. Was this person acting as part of a plot or was he acting alone? And they refuse to comment.

Officials are just not going there yet. They realize this is still very early in this investigation. They don't want to get ahead of any of that. So what they're sticking with is what they know so far.

The president was briefed the first time about 9:00, 9:30 this morning here, Hawaii time. That's five hours behind the east coast in the United States. We're told the president sat down and got the secure conference call going with two of his top security aides, Homeland security as well as national security aides, and instructed federal officials to increase aviation security measures around the country to make sure there's no other incident like this, number one. And number two, we're told that since that security conference call, we're now being told by officials the president has been getting regular updates from the situation room back at the White House, getting secure documents basically sent to him here in Honolulu.

So you can that even during this holiday, the president and his staff is very much activated, very much trying to stay on top of this. And the White House situation room is not taking a break. They are open for business and giving the president updates. We're told the next update is expected to get around dinnertime here in Hawaii just a couple of hours from now, Ali.

VELSHI: Ed, give us some sense as to, when you say the situation room is not taking a break, would it have been a little slower? In other words, have they activated more people and more resources as a result of this or are they treating this as still routine?

HENRY: Well, the president is still working 24/7 and they're always trying to be ready and anticipating any possible scenario. So it's not as if the situation room would shut down, per se. But it would always be ready to go if something happened. But the key is that they are bringing in people to make sure that all of these reports are being passed on to the president in real time so that this is not just languishing the information. They're trying to get it up the chain as quickly as possible.

The president as I noted has already instructed federal officials once today to increase aviation security measures. Officials here in Honolulu leaving the door open to any scenario as the president gets more information, so it's not like they'd be shut down. But they are certainly working a lot more aggressively than they were planning to on this Christmas. Ali, I can tell you that.

VELSHI: So are you, Ed, but thanks for the good work and for keeping us up to speed on what's going on in Honolulu. We'll be checking in with Ed again on whether there are any further developments from the president's side.

Joining us on the phone is R.P. Eddy, a former director of White House National Security under President Clinton. Also joining us live in Washington is CNN national security analyst Peter Bergen. Both of these folks are keeping a close eye on this.

I'm going to start with you, R.P. From what you have heard so far, how serious of a threat do you think today's events are?

R.P. EDDY, FMR. DIR. WHITE HOUSE NATL SECURITY COUNCIL (via telephone): Well, we only have temporary and spotty information so far. But from what I can understand, it seems like this could have been catastrophic and is extraordinarily serious. And it comes in a wave of other serious attacks, potential attacks that have been thwarted in the last six months. So I think that this end of itself is real news and I think the fact that we're seeing a cresting of attacks like this, potential attacks like this is something we need to pay an awful lot of attention to.

VELSHI: Peter Bergen, the news has been coming out steadily over the course of the last hour or so. Here's the salient information.

This man, according to the government, is identified as a Nigerian national, says he got this incendiary device in Yemen and got instructions from Yemen. Peter King, the congressman from New York, says that he may have had been known to have terrorist ties, yet he wasn't on a no-fly list. If you put this all together, what do you make of it?

PETER BERGEN, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: Well, the suspect's already admitted he's part of a conspiracy. He's not acting by himself. He's been given the device. And the Richard Reid case is very important here because Richard Reid -- there was another Richard Reid, number two, a guy called Saeed Badiat (ph), who also had a shoe bomb. He got a case of it as if it were, cold feet. Never went through the attack.

He was a British citizen. He's been -- but so, the point is that this may not be the only type of -- the only type of attack or attacker with this kind of device. What authorities are going to be doing is obviously looking at what kind of device this is.

I would suspect that this is a hydrogen peroxide device because it's relatively easy to construct. That's what we saw on the planes in the summer of 2006, the attempt to bring down seven Canadian- American airliners off what Eddy has just mentioned, at a conservation plots that we've seen in this country recently, some of which going back to Al Qaeda. One of it is the Najibullah Zazi case. He was, Ali, if you recall an Afghan American...

VELSHI: Yes. BERGEN: ... who was planning to -- allegedly planning to blow up hydrogen peroxide bombs in the Manhattan area. He was based in Denver, Colorado. So these hydrogen peroxide type bombs have become a signature of Al Qaeda, whether in the United States or in the United Kingdom. And that is I think one of the very first questions that authorities will be looking at, what kind of device this is, and if it is linked back to Al Qaeda in Yemen, as in fact the suspect seems to be implying, that is likely the type of device we're looking at.

VELSHI: R.P., you were just saying the same thing. The issue here, of course, is how you handle situations like this with the public. We know that the terror level for aircraft transport is at orange right now, higher than the national level of yellow. But it's been at orange for a couple of years.

How do you measure an instance like this and decide, OK, we've got a serious problem? We've got people who are potentially freelancing as attempted terrorist as opposed to just terror organizations which we have a good, better sense of, perhaps, from a security perspective?

EDDY: Yes. Well, it brings me no pleasure to say this. But the situation that we've faced far long time pre-9/11 is that and even now, airline security is still insufficient. It's insufficient certainly for cargo and it's also insufficient for passengers.

There's been initial reporting that there was some sort of powder used here. It certainly could have been a hydrogen peroxide weapon, as Peter was saying, Peter Bergen was saying. But it could have been any number of weapons.

As you know, if you have black powder or other explosive powders with you when you go through security, it's unlikely those things are going to be found. So the current screening right now is still insufficient and that means that the entirety of our -- and, of course, also we know that airlines and airplanes are very ripe and attractive targets for terrorists. So what's notable here also is sometimes different routes are targeted. And this plane transferred through Amsterdam and then was flying to the United States.

Amsterdam, we've seen recently, has also been security instances on Amsterdam departing flights. But Amsterdam could be an area of increased Al Qaeda targeting because of the Muhammad cartoons that came out of there a few years ago.

Ironically, this plane was heading to Detroit, which as we know is the largest population of Muslims in American. So that also speaks to some of the hypocrisy of these terrorists if they're Al Qaeda directly connected or lone wolf however it might be. So there's a lot of issues going on here but air travel is still a very ripe target for terrorist of all stripes.

VELSHI: R.P Eddy, Peter Bergen, thanks very much.

EDDY: Thank you. Merry Christmas. VELSHI: Given what Peter and R.P. just said, a lot of attention as you'd imagine is now turning to security, as in where did it break down? HLN law enforcement analyst Mike Brooks has some new information on that, joins us now on the phone -- Mike.

MIKE BROOKS, HLN LAW ENFORCEMENT ANALYST (via telephone): Ali, good to be with you. Well, I'm hearing from my federal law enforcement and airline security sources that apparently this man got on this Northwest flight off of a flight that originated in Nigeria but it was on a KLM flight in (INAUDIBLE).

Now, Ali, when I was on the FBI Joint Terrorism Task Force, I was going back and forth quite a bit from Washington, D.C., to Africa through the airport. And very, very good security there. When you get to the gate, you go through additional screening. They put you in a holding area.

So, you know, what a pat-down search most likely would not have found, whatever this was. And they don't know exactly what kind of device this was, Ali. They said they're not sure if it was on the body, on his body, or maybe secreted in his clothes.

My sources are telling me that he apparently suffered second and third-degree burns to his thigh area. He was hospitalized but is not in any kind of life-threatening condition. They don't know exactly what kind of device it was. They don't know if it was a powder, like a black powder, flash powder, or as Peter Bergen just pointed out, could be possibly like Richard Reid used, a hydrogen peroxide-based explosive. They don't know that yet. All of the evidence we're collecting right now, they're taking it right overnight to the FBI explosives lab in Quantico where the explosives experts and examiners there will try to determine exactly what kind of device this was.

VELSHI: All right. Mike, how long is that --

BROOKS: But it's still early on in the investigation.

VELSHI: How long -- obviously that can be a very obvious investigation if they open it and it's got wires and fuses. How long could that analysis take? Is that usually a fairly, quick thing?

BROOKS: It's usually a fairly quick thing to go ahead and tell what kind of explosive was used and basically what kind of device it was, Ali. We've seen a number of different devices that have been used. We talked about the Richard Reid, the shoe bomber. It was something we called triacetone triperoxide (ph) that was in the sneakers of Richard Reid and it's very susceptible to heat, shock and friction. But through the current device of screening right now, the airline security screening, it would not have detected this.

VELSHI: Right.

BROOKS: And as Eddy said, also any kind of powder, black powder, this kind of thing, unless you go through one of the puffer machines where it can detect explosive residue on your clothes, they're not going to detect that either. VELSHI: Hey, Mike, quick question. And I need you to take yourself out of your own body because all of us who know you know you're that a big, strong guy in law enforcement. We spoke to passengers from the plane. They said that it was passengers and crew members who subdued this fellow after they figured out what was going on.

For people who are traveling, who get panicked about something like this and they see somebody doing something that could lead to setting the plane on fire or bombing it, what are you supposed to do as a passenger?

BROOKS: Ali, and as I tell everyone when I was with the FBI and also when I was with Delta Airlines corporate security, if you see anything at all or your gut tells you there's something wrong, that you're not sure about something, let somebody know. I don't care. They can do it very unobtrusively, go up to talk to someone. But again, I think, you know, this heightens everyone's awareness. And if you just think there's something wrong onboard a flight or prior to a flight in the gate area, let somebody know about it. It's very important.

VELSHI: HLN law enforcement analyst Mike Brooks, a good friend of ours, he is working the story. So is everybody else.

Here's the story. A Northwest Flight 253, branded a Delta Airlines plane you're looking at right there, was incoming from Amsterdam to Detroit shortly before landing, a passenger possibly sitting in row 19 attempted to ignite something. There was some sort of a fire.

The passenger was subdued. Whatever it was was extinguished. The passenger was separated from other passengers and upon landing was greeted by law enforcement. Passengers and crew were interviewed. The government is now treating this as an attempted terrorist attack. We believe that the suspect in custody is a Nigerian national who said he has ties to extremist groups, got the device in Yemen, as well as instructions on how to use it.

We will continue our live coverage of this attempted terrorist attack with all of our resources here at CNN.