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Terror Attempt on U.S. Airliner

Aired December 25, 2009 - 2100   ET




ALI VELSHI, CNN GUEST ANCHOR: Ali Velshi here in New York with breaking news coverage as we learn more about the attempt on Northwest Delta Flight 9 -- I'm sorry 253, a passenger allegedly tried to detonate a device and blow up the Airbus A-330. The flight was on approach Detroit in-bound from Amsterdam when it happened. Passenger Sayed Jafry was sitting just three rows ahead of the would-be bomber.


SAYED JAFRY, PASSENGER, SEAT 16G (via telephone): Things happened very fast. At the time, you look at it, you say, you know, first thing that comes to your mind, oh, it can't be, you know.

VELSHI: Right.

JAFRY: And then you look at it and then you try to get hold of it and control of 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: Well, the would-be bomber was subdued. He's now in custody, a Nigerian national who apparently flew from Lagos, Nigeria, connected with Flight 253 in Amsterdam. He's reportedly talking and he's claiming ties to an extremist organization saying that he got the device in Yemen, as well as instructions on how and when to use it.

And as we've been reporting, the White House is calling the attempt a terrorist attack. Ed Henry is traveling with the president who is in Hawaii. Ed joins us now with what the president knows and what he's instructed his staff to do -- Ed.

ED HENRY, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Ali, good evening. The president early this morning, we're told, convened a secure conference call with two of his top aides: John Brennan, his chief Homeland Security Adviser, as well as Dennis McDonough who is a top aide on the National Security Council at the White House. And basically he was briefed on the situation and then ordered federal officials to take all means necessary, all appropriate measures to increase aviation security all across the United States. Officials stressing that the president is not raising the color-coded level beyond orange where it is already but that there will be other measured, some visible, some perhaps not to flyers around the country to show that it's beefed-up at key airports all around the country.

White House knows that this is obviously a peak time for holiday travel; people moving all around the country and around the world. And they do not want a repeat of the situation. That's why I'm told that the president since that secure conference call this morning has also had a series of paper updates from the White House situation room back in Washington, sending secure communications to the president so he has the latest possible information.

I'm told he's expected to get one more around dinnertime here in Hawaii which is a couple of hours from now. We're five hours back from the East Coast. So you can tell, even while the president is on vacation, this White House realizes it needs to move quickly to stay on top of this situation and make sure there's no repeat of this situation and make sure that this is not some bigger plot and that they get to the bottom of this with this investigation -- Ali.

VELSHI: And that of course, is a major issue here. Is this part of a bigger plot? Is this suspect tied to some larger organization or is he a freelancer, as it were? Is he someone who is carrying out his own views with the assistance of a larger organization perhaps based in Yemen?

The other issue that you brought up, Ed and I think this is interesting to get into a little bit with our viewers. That is, that while the threat level for air transportation in the United States has been at orange since October of 2006, we were talking to Jeanne Meserve earlier who was saying there's a great deal of latitude within that color system.

So without changing the threat level to a level higher than orange, passengers over the next few days may see changes at airports.

HENRY: That's absolutely right. Important to note that in recent months, this administration has expressed a lot of skepticism about the whole color-coded system that was instituted by the Bush administration and has actually been reviewing whether to scrap that system altogether.

So they're not focused on just the broad outlines as you noted. Instead, the latitude within each of those colors, in this case, orange, to basically say, what can we do within there? And as Jeanne Meserve has been reporting, that could mean more K-9 dogs, that could be more behavioral monitoring. So you put more personnel from the Transportation Security Administration at various security checkpoints to be looking at people and seeing whether or not they're acting suspiciously, doing more checks, et cetera.

It goes without saying that that makes it more likely that they'll be some delays at airports all across America and that's going to add to some of the pain people have been feeling with all these delays with the holiday travel. But it also goes without saying that security comes first here. And the administration is going to try to do everything it can whether it causes more delays or not to make sure that there's not a repeat of this situation.

In fact, I just got a statement a few moments ago that was put out by Senator Susan Collins of Maine, a top Republican on the Homeland Security Committee in the Senate. She was saying that she's expecting a briefing from the Department of Homeland Security because she has a lot of questions starting with how did this person get these materials on the plane in the first place?

So there's going to be a lot of questions asked of this administration.

KING: Yes.

HENRY: ... in the days ahead about what security officials have been doing and have not been doing -- Ali.

KING: And Ed, whether this person had any ties to an extremist organization as the government claims he said he has. If he did should he had been on some list somewhere. There are a lot of questions, Ed, you're getting us a lot of answers in Honolulu, thanks very much. We will check in with you again.

I want to remind you, you're looking at a Delta plane that was a Northwest flight. Delta and Northwest have merged. The planes are all in the process of being changed over to Delta planes but there are still Northwest flights. That plane that went from Amsterdam to Detroit; Detroit is a major hub for what was Northwest Airlines and a longstanding relationship with KLM which is why a lot of people cross from Europe to the United States between Amsterdam and Detroit.

We did learn from Representative Peter King earlier that he believes that this passenger, the suspect, may have started in Lagos, Nigeria, also on a KLM flight connecting in Amsterdam and then ending up in Detroit.

Let's turn to Kate Bolduan who's been breaking news on this story all day and all night. Kate, what do we have?


Well, as you've talking about, you know, we've learned from this federal security bulletin that was put out that this was a Nigerian national that ignited some type of a small explosive device. But real questions remain as we've been discussing and gaps and details remain about what type of device this was.

We had early reports from Delta Airlines that this was firecrackers. We hear from Congressman Peter King who is briefed on the situation said it was a fairly sophisticated device. Now, the FBI is leading this investigation and are obviously checking into this person's background and capabilities.

And I'll tell you, I spoke with a Dutch aviation security expert just a short time ago. And in general, we were talking about general security issues. And he tells me that Amsterdam is one of the busiest airports in Europe and a very popular route for people traveling from Africa.

He says that the Amsterdam airport is working under a heightened alert now and that there are extra security measures in place, as we've been discussing, here in the states as well.

He says from his perspective, the real concern in the near term Ali, is the possibility of any copycats over the next 12 hours. We don't even want to talk about that. But in terms of timing, he says choosing this holiday is not surprising. It's a period of heightened alert for a reason as people trying to do harm see it as a chance for maximum impact as these flights are so packed.

And we also talked Ali, that I thought it was really interesting, about how he possibly got through security with this -- with this device, whatever it was. And he was talking about feeder flights and how in general when you're talking about security issues, that after you're on one of these flights that goes to a larger airport, these feeder flight, security seems to be a little less stringent.

So maybe they think they can get around some of the more serious and strict western security measures by taking some of these feeder flights, you know, starting in Nigeria then heading to Amsterdam in order to get to the states.

VELSHI: And Peter King was also talking about the fact that Nigeria was one of those countries where security was thought to be lax...


VELSHI: ... in the years after 2001 and was increased in fact with help from the United States.

The other thing, Kate, that's interesting is we're not quite sure -- we're using the term device but we don't really know whether it was powders or liquids, or whatever the case was.


VELSHI: ... that actually happened.

Mike Brooks just mentioned to us a few minutes ago that he believes whatever it is, is on its way to the FBI lab in Quantico to get some sense, some analysis of what it was, at least to determine one of our major questions. How did something get on a flight with all the security that we've got there today? How do you get something that you can set fire to onto a plane?


VELSHI: So another one of the unanswered questions that you're continuing to track down for us.

Kate, thanks so much for all of your great work. And we'll be back to you... BOLDUAN: You're welcome.

VELSHI: ... very shortly.

Richard Griffith was on the plane in question sitting in seat 36B. Now, that was -- we think that the suspect was in 19A. This is what you're looking at on your screen. So on the left side of that plane as you are facing the front of the plane, this passenger was some distance back in another cabin. But he spoke at length to the gentleman who was sitting next to him.

Richard joins us by phone. Richard, you spoke to the man who was sitting next to the suspect, is that what the story is?

RICHARD GRIFFITH, FLIGHT 253, SEAT 36B (via telephone): I was talking to the guy that was sitting next to him, yes, sir.

VELSHI: And you believe that he was in row 19. Does that information make sense?

GRIFFITH: Yes, sir. That seems to be right.

VELSHI: Ok, tell me what you heard.

GRIFFITH: He told me that he was just sitting there and it sounded like a champagne bottle -- the cork off a champagne bottle went off. And they're looking around and trying to figure out what it was and they couldn't find out what made the noise. Then he looked down and said there's smoke coming from the guy's crotch.


GRIFFITH: And then there's fire. The guy was sitting on -- I was told the guy was sitting on like a pillow and the pillow started catching fire and then some blankets underneath the seat. They stood the guy up and stripped him down trying and then and getting to get the fire out.

VELSHI: All right, that makes sense because we heard people say that there was a pop. Nobody could see what it was. And then moments later they saw flames -- they saw something burning. So there was some sort of delays. So that would make sense that something caught fire.

But did the passenger who was sitting next to the suspect tell you that he saw what it was that that might have set the cushion or the blankets or his clothes on fire?

GRIFFITH: No, sir. He said -- thinking about it, he said, it must have been in his pocket -- in the guy's pocket because it was right there at his crotch. And it's just kind of weird that somebody would do something like that.

VELSHI: All right, so you were in 36B, which would be in the cabin behind the cabin that this took place. Did you know any of this? Did you know anything was going on in the cabin ahead of you? GRIFFITH: No. It sounded like there was a baby crying and all of a sudden there's like chatting going on. But I looked up and it looked like there was a medical emergency. And then trying to figure out what was going on because the stewardesses were all -- they're all doing what they had to do to take care of the situation and running up there with fire extinguishers. And then they came out and told us what was going on and then they took him to the front of the plane.

VELSHI: You were not under the impression that there was something going on that might have been an attack or a terrorist attempt?

GRIFFITH: Not at that time, no, sir.

VELSHI: When did you first get that sense?

GRIFFITH: When I started seeing all the FBI agents there in metro Detroit.

VELSHI: So you got all the way down. You were landed before you realized there was a problem.

What communication did you get from the crew or the pilot to indicate that there had been some incident?

GRIFFITH: Oh that there's just a fire -- maybe firecrackers that went off. But not -- you know, they were just trying to make everybody calm because it got a little exciting up towards the cabin there.

VELSHI: Now, I spoke to somebody who was in the cabin ahead of you who said there was some excitement and perhaps the fringes of panic. But he said it never really got all the way out to full-out panic. It seemed to have been contained fairly early. Is that the sense you got?

GRIFFITH: Yes, sir. Yes, sir, it's just different ways there. They took care of it. My hat's off to them. They did a great job.

VELSHI: When you got some sense -- when you got off and you realized what had happened, now that you're thinking about it in hindsight, obviously it didn't worry you very much while you were on the plane. Now that you look back at this, do you think you were on a plane where there was a terrorist attack and how does that make you feel?

GRIFFITH: Well, I don't know if it was a terrorist attack or not. I'm just glad it's been taken care of. And that's about it.

VELSHI: Tell me one other thing. We're just trying to get time lines established here. This happened 20 or 30 minutes before touchdown? About how long before you landed?

GRIFFITH: Yes, about -- about that time.


GRIFFITH: It was unbelievable how fast we got to the ground. When the pilot found out what was going on, he came on and told us what was going on. And then we were headed down.

VELSHI: You never saw the suspect, either seated or being removed from the plane?

GRIFFITH: No, sir.

VELSHI: Did you see anybody else injured or did you hear of other injuries on the plane?

GRIFFITH: Yes, I heard there was one other guy that was injured trying to take care of the situation with the gentleman there.

VELSHI: Meaning trying to subdue him?

GRIFFITH: Whatever was going on; I don't know if he was trying to subdue him. If it was me, I would have tried to take the guy out.

VELSHI: We're hearing a lot about what you know, the roles of the passengers and crew played in this sort of thing. If you were right around this and you had seen somebody set fire to something around them or try to set a fire, how would you react?

GRIFFITH: I would take care of the situation. I would take care of the primary situation. Trying to get the fire out and take care of the individual that caused the problem.

VELSHI: The passenger you talked to, the one who was sitting next to the suspect, was he injured in any way?

GRIFFITH: No, sir.

VELSHI: So the fire didn't hit and fortunately, whatever this fire was, it didn't seem to get him. It does seem that one or two other people were injured. They may have been injured I guess, in trying to put the fire out?

GRIFFITH: That's just -- yes, you could say that. But I'm not sure.

VELSHI: Did you smell smoke at any point?


VELSHI: All right. We're getting a lot of information. Thank you for clearing up a lot of this thing. We're glad that you're on the ground safely and enjoying the rest of your Christmas night and that this didn't turn into anything more serious...

GRIFFITH: I'd like to say one quick thing here. The guys that took care of us up here in Detroit, the FBI and the staff at the airport, we were there for quite a while. They did what they had to do and they did a great job. Interviews and everything else, they did a great job.

VELSHI: Yes. Well, we're hearing a lot of that. We're hearing it was handled very professionally. Thanks very much for joining us. We're glad you're home safe. GRIFFITH: Thank you.

VELSHI: Richard Griffith. He was sitting in row 36 on the plane on Northwest Airlines flight 253.

We want to take you inside the flight as the suspect was allegedly trying to ignite an explosive. Listen to what these passengers on board had to say about it.


MELINDA DENNIS, PASSENGER, NWA FLIGHT 253: 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 he had nothing else on him. So it was easy to see from the exposure that he had gotten significantly burned.

He was very calm, didn't show any reaction to pain or to any feeling of shock or nervousness. He just looked like a normal individual.


VELSHI: Investigators will no doubt pay close attention to those first-person accounts. They have interviewed everybody or are in the process of interviewing everybody from the plane

Let's get reaction from our next two guests. Clark Kent Ervin is a former inspector general for Homeland Security. Also with us, terror expert, Glenn Schoen.

Mr. Ervin, let's start with you; your evaluation of this situation as you've heard it. We're getting more and more details over the last few hours. We now seem to have a relatively good picture of what happened. We're lacking a good picture of who the suspect is and why he did it.

CLARK KENT ERVIN, FORMER INSPECTOR GENERAL, HOMELAND SECURITY (via telephone): Right. Well, Ali, this just serves to underscore that aviation for some reason continues to be a real focus for terrorists in general and al Qaeda in particular. It's still unclear exactly whether this particular Nigerian had ties to al Qaeda. But clearly he had terrorist intent.

And the reason for focus on aviation is clear. It's a mass transportation mode obviously it involves a lot of people. Two, it's visually impactful, needless to say. And three, we in the United States have spent, of course, the bulk of our resources and attention since 9/11 on shoring up the aviation sector since 9/11, since that's the means by which we were attacked on 9/11.

If there were a successful terror attack on aviation post-9/11, God forbid, it would show that we remain weak even at our strongest points...

VELSHI: Well, what does this tell you? What does today's incident tell you? Does that there was an attack or it was a failed attack because we've managed to handle these things? Because it sounds to me like somebody got something on a plane that at least effectively allowed them to set fire to something.

ERVIN: Right. Well, you know, this raises a number of troubling questions. One is, we've heard conflicting things about whether this guy was on a terror watch list. We've heard that he was known to have some terrorism ties but was not on a watch list. We've also heard that he may have been on the watch list. We need to nail that down obviously.

VELSHI: Right.

ERVIN: If he was on that watch list, then obviously he should not have been allowed to fly on any plane and certainly not a plane bound for the United States.

You may recall, Ali, that a couple of years ago -- two or three years ago -- right around Christmastime, the holiday season, there were a number -- I want to say about a dozen flights that were headed for the United States who were then diverted in mid flight from the United States back to their points of origin in Europe when it was learned by DHS officials that somebody on the plane manifest had a name that was apparently connected to terrorism.

What I don't understand in this case is if in fact -- whether he was on a list or not -- if somebody knew apparently that this fellow had known terrorism ties, why was he allowed to stay on a plane that was bound for the United States?

The second issue which we've been discussing obviously for a number of hours is exactly how this incendiary device made its way past airport screeners. We don't know whether he had it with him when he boarded the flight in Nigeria. If he did, then that's somewhat understandable since as a number of people have pointed Nigeria is notorious for having lax aviation security.

In any event, he ought to have been along with every other passenger re-screened once he boarded the flight for -- in Amsterdam, especially since that flight was bound for the United States. That should have happened. If it did happen, why wasn't the device discovered then? If it wasn't discovered, it certainly should have been.

It also points out, by the way, that there are a number of things that can't be detected. We're not very good at detecting explosives and liquids as a number of people have said. This just points to continued vulnerabilities in our detection technology. Just last week or a few -- about a week ago or so, there was this big snafu about TSA releasing its screening protocols.

Now this is not a result of that obviously but it should underscore that it's easier than it ought to be to get guns and knives and certainly explosives which appears to be terrorist weapons of choice; screeners not just in the United States but all over the world.

VELSHI: Glenn Schoen, it does sort of bring this into two areas. One is a policy issue, whether or not we were able to track somebody who's connected to a terror network or whether or not this was somebody largely operating on their own with limited capability.

And then the second issue which is a technological issue. What did he have and how did he get it on the plane?

GLENN SCHOEN, TERROR EXPERT (via telephone): That's right. And it's going to take some close looking at the situation particularly in Amsterdam, obviously. One question, too, is separately, if he did get the device in Yemen, how did it get from Yemen to Amsterdam to get aboard the flight? Did it travel through or with him from Nigeria or not?

Amsterdam is one of the largest airports in Europe. It's on the scale of, say, Heathrow or Frankfurt in Germany; around 40,000 to 50,000 people a day. Security there is headed by military police and they have a platform in which different operators in which private security cooperate. U.S. flights definitely get more -- additional security coverage than others. But clearly this is going to be a focal point.

I just spoke to some people in Amsterdam two hours ago. And there's a major operation under way there to support Homeland Security and the FBI in its endeavor to figure out what's going on.

VELSHI: Clark, let's talk a little about next steps. We spoke to Mike Brooks who said FBI is involved in this. They're probably taking this incendiary device or whatever liquids or powder, whatever it ends up being, to Quantico and trying to get a handle immediately on what it is.

Until we have a handle on what it is, are we likely to see increases in airport security?

ERVIN: We absolutely are. As Jeanne Meserve and others had been reporting, we are definitely likely to see that. The terror alert level, the color code has been high, at orange, for a number of years now. So that's not going to change. But as she and others have noted, there are likely to be some increased measures within that color level.

For example, we'll surely see increased armed police presence in airports around the countries, certainly in the significant cities. We'll see bomb-sniffing dogs. We'll probably see an increase of behavior, detection officers who tend to be plainclothes transportation screener officers who are trained to look at behavior and things that might indicate anxiety, deception, terrorist intent.

A number of things are going to be going on at airports in these next few days. That's important. There really are two things going on.

One, we have to focus on the investigation. How did this happen and how can it be prevented? And in the meantime, we have to step up aviation security around the country.

VELSHI: Clark Kent Ervin, thanks for joining us. Glenn Schoen as well. We're continuing to follow the story and get every individual thread that we can.

We want to get a bigger tapestry here -- get a picture of where this all stands. Joining us with that is CNN's Jeanne Meserve -- Jeanne.

JEANNE MESERVE, CNN HOMELAND SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Ali, hi. Yes. Listening to this conversation you've just been having about airport screening, can't help but note that there's a misperception that screening catches everything. And the fact of the matter is it doesn't.

Most of us when we get on an airplane, we walk through a magnetometer. A magnetometer is going to pick up a metal object on our body. It is possible you'll go through a through a puffer machine, that might pick up a trace of explosives. It is possible you might go through an imaging machine which might catch something strapped to your body if in fact that was the case in this matter.

But here's the puzzling thing. If this individual was indeed on some kind of a watch list, even not a no-fly list but on a watch list, one would have think that he would have been flagged for secondary screening. And when he went through secondary screening, one would have expected that they would have done an explosive trace detection test on this individual and the things that he was carrying. And one would think that would pick up the trace of an explosive, if in fact that's what he was carrying.

If it was a liquid, it becomes infinitely more complicated. They have been working very hard, Ali, to develop better technologies to better detect liquid explosives. But they do not have anything deployed at airports now that does that effectively -- Ali.

VELSHI: We're going to talk in a minute about the type of explosive it may be. I want to ask you this though Jeanne. You cover this very closely. For people who don't know as much about it, I guess, one of the questions is, is this a simple act? What are your sources saying?

Is this a simple act of somebody who might be acting alone or is it very sophisticated that he may have managed to get something through security that otherwise shouldn't? I mean, he was on a big plane. The A-330 300 is a large plane; it had 278 people on board, going from a major airport to another major airport. What's the initial view of this?

MESERVE: Right now they're saying it's just impossible to tell at this moment exactly how serious this was. They don't know yet exactly what this explosive or whatever was that he was carrying. They don't know enough about this individual. They don't know who he is networked with.

Those are all the courses that this investigation is taking right now to try and figure out exactly what the dimensions of this situation are. They don't have a handle on it.

VELSHI: Interestingly, though, he apparently has said, according to our reports, he's said he's got tied to an extremist group. So it doesn't look like there was much of an interrogation before they got to that part of it. It's curious as to...

MESERVE: But isn't that suspicious? You would not suspect that somebody who was actually an al Qaeda operative might be anxious to throw that out in front of investigators without prompting. So I think they want to look at this very carefully.

Another thing on the size of the aircraft, a couple of years ago, I went out to a TSA testing ground where they were working with liquid explosives and computer modeling and trying to figure out exactly how much liquid it would take to bring down an airliner. And it is possible that if this was a small enough quantity of whatever it was he was dealing with, it would not have done grave injury to that plane or to the systems on the plane.

But that clearly is another thing they're trying to get a handle on. Not only what it was. How much did he have and how much damage could he have done with that.

VELSHI: And as Fran Townsend said earlier, if you're on that plane with him, you're not as concerned as to whether he's a freelancer or a major operative in an extremist organization if he's posing danger to your life in your flight.

MESERVE: You're absolutely right. And you know, I have a friend who always says the biggest improvement to aviation security since 9/11 is the empowerment of the passengers and the crew. If they see something suspicious on an airplane, they act to stop it. And that's exactly what happened...

VELSHI: And from the reports we've been hearing, that's what happened, that passengers and crew got involved very early to subdue the suspect.

Jeanne thanks very much. You've been working the story and you'll continue and we'll continue to come back to you with every new piece of information you have. Jeanne Meserve in Washington.

Here's the situation we're tracking an ongoing situation. There is a plane on the tarmac in Detroit. Passengers have been released from that plane, 278 of them. But the government is treating it as an attempted terrorist attack. That flight, Northwest 253, even though it is badged a Delta flight -- there was somebody who tried to light something on fire about half an hour before landing. The person is in custody. He's a Nigerian national and he has, according to the government, said that he is part of an extremist organization or has ties to an extremist organization.

We do not know what he was trying to light on fire. But we are getting to the bottom of that with all of our resources here at CNN. We're following the story very closely.

Ed Henry is with the president in Honolulu. We have our reporters in Washington and across the globe. We'll also be talking to Paula Newton, our international security correspondent in just a moment to find out a bit more about what the explosive might have been.

Stay with us. This is breaking news on CNN.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) ALI VELSHI, CNN SENIOR BUSINESS CORRESPONDENT: Coming up on the bottom of the hour, let me bring our viewers watching us worldwide and here in the United States up to date.

Breaking news, a long flight across the Atlantic and a terrifying one for the nearly 300 people on board. Our breaking news coverage of the alleged terror plot on flight 253 continues here in the U.S. and for our viewers around the world as we've been reporting.

A man is in custody tonight for allegedly trying to blow up the Delta Northwest plane as it flew from Amsterdam to Detroit. One passenger said the suspect who was sitting in seat 19a lit some kind of device that sent fire and smoke into the cabin.

The man who sources say claimed to have ties to a terrorist group is now being detained in Detroit. The White House calls it an attempted act of terror. President Obama who's in Hawaii has been briefed and is receiving regular updates from Washington.

Team coverage with Ed Henry in Hawaii, Jeanne Meserve in Washington, Paula Newton in London, Mohammed Jamjoom in Atlanta, and CNN's resources around the world.

And just in now, CNN's Deb Feyerick with new information about the suspect. She has just arrived at Detroit airport and is with us now by phone. Deb?

DEBORAH FEYERICK, CNN CORRESPONDENT (via phone): Well, Ali, we can tell you we landed just a short while ago here at the Detroit airport. Police have blocked off an area of the north terminal. That's outside of the airport.

Inside, it is really relatively quiet. Only about a dozen flights scheduled to leave tonight. One of them going back to Amsterdam. I asked our pilot just after we landed whether he had heard anything about this incident. And he recapped what we had initially heard which was there some guy with a firecracker.

But we have spoken with officials familiar with current airport security in the United States. And that official tells us that within the next 12 to 24 hours what law enforcement has been really working to find out is whether this was a lone jihadist or some sort of a Internet recruit who's identified himself with al Qaeda or in fact whether he's part of something larger. And it really likely comes down to the explosive device itself.

The big question on law enforcement's minds right now, this passenger was able to get the device from Lagos, Nigeria, to Amsterdam really, virtually into U.S. air space. The question, why did the explosive device burn and not necessarily detonate or did it detonate but not burn as fully as it was supposed to?

And that really is a big question because being able to bring it on but having it not work properly at the last moment, that is something that's under investigation right now. VELSHI: All right, Deborah Feyerick is one of our best when it comes to terrorism issues. She has followed that beat for a very long time. Very interesting points there, whether this was somebody acting on his own or is part of a larger group.

As our sources are telling us, he has identified with and what that incendiary device was, how it got on the plane, he claims it came from Yemen, according to our sources. He claims he got it in Yemen. So how it got from Yemen to Lagos to Amsterdam and to Detroit. We're going to follow that.

Also at Detroit, reporter Frank Holland from CNN affiliate, WDIV.

Frank, what do you know?

FRANK HOLLAND, WDIV REPORTER: Well, you can definitely still feel the tension here at Detroit metro as people get dropped off and are waiting for their holiday flights again. This is Christmas. A lot of people just hearing about this incident a short time ago or hearing about it when they arrive here now.

What's now being called an attempted terror attack happened at noon Eastern Time, this is what we're here -- where we're at here in Detroit. And for about six hours, the 278 people on that plane were held here, interviewed by the FBI, the TSA and other federal agencies about what they saw, what they heard, what they might know.

Now we actually spoke to a number of those people. I spoke to one family from Amsterdam myself. They say it was very terrifying. For minutes, all they first -- all they heard was a loud bang. Then they saw flames. Then they saw smoke. And they say that the man who is now the suspect, a 23-year-old Nigerian man, actually lit himself on fire.

They say they believe he hit his leg on fire. But here's more firsthand accounts of what happened inside the cabin.


MICHELLE KEEPMAN, WITNESS: Right at the end of the flight when we were about to land, there was some commotion in the back. And from what we can tell, there was a gentleman that had some sort of device on him that caused him to catch on fire.

They put out the fire, brought him up front where they stripped him down to make sure he had nothing else. And they brought him -- took him off the plane. We landed at about 12:40-ish. Around there. Well, around 12:00 or so. Actually we landed quick. But we've been in containment ever since then.

ELIAS FAWAZ, WITNESS: What we heard at the beginning was a bang, sounded first like a balloon being popped and then it was a minute later, there's a lady shouting back and she was saying things like, what are you doing, what are you doing?

(END VIDEO CLIP) HOLLAND: Now according to these passengers, the first person that realized that what was going on was another passenger and he jumped on top of the man and put out the flames before this man could continue doing whatever he was trying to do.

Now we also have confirmed that the suspect was taken to the University of Michigan Hospital to be treated for his injuries. Other than that, we're still waiting for more confirmation from the FBI as well as Delta Airlines.

Here at the Detroit Metro Airport, Frank Holland, WDIV.

VELSHI: Hey, Frank, we've been hearing that your person you spoke to said it sounded like a balloon popping. We heard champagne cork, sort of thing. It was an initial noise and then sometime before people started to see smoke and flames, some little time in between.

That seems to be consistent. But we do not know. Nobody's been able to tell us what the device was or what he might have been setting fire to. You don't have any more on that, do you?

HOLLAND: The people we spoke to said they weren't really clear. But it did create a lot of smoke. They said it also created flames. So I think the FBI is still trying to figure that out themselves right now.

VELSHI: Frank, good to talk to you. Frank Holland from our affiliate in Detroit, WDIV.

Well, more now on the suspect. We've been reporting that the alleged bomber is Nigerian, that he departed from Lagos and joined flight 253, Northwest flight 253, in Amsterdam.

Our international security correspondent, Paula Newton, has done extensive reporting in Nigeria and Yemen where this suspect reportedly says he got the device. Also with us, CNN international's Mohammed Jamjoom.

Let's start with you, Paula. He is claiming or our sources saying that he claims he got this device in Yemen. And the question seems to be surrounding what this thing is that he tried to set fire to and how he got it from Yemen to Lagos to Amsterdam and to Detroit.

And what is the connection to Yemen?

PAULA NEWTON, CNN INTERNATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Well, what's interesting here -- and let's talk again about -- you know, Jeanne Meserve was bringing up earlier about what you can bring on to a plane. The difference between being able to bring something -- a small quantity of something that's dangerous on a plane, which you can still do right now, Ali. But the fact of trying to detect it all is impossible.

What authorities have tried to do is to make sure that they can contain the threat. We had the liquid bomb plot here, Ali, in August 2006. Many Americans will remember that. These guys never got on the planes but they were convicted of trying to blow up nine airliners trans-atlantically.

Ali, how are they going to do that? Hydrogen peroxide, think of that as what you use -- the chemical you use to dye hair, and tang. What was the detonation device going to be? Hallowed-out double A batteries.

Now I've just mentioned things that people can still imagine that they can bring on to airplanes, but in very small quantities. And Ali, the key here is that authorities that I've spoken to in Britain, even though we've been in labs and we've seen things for ourself, is a kind of -- I wouldn't call them explosive.

They are, in fact, more of something that can cause smoke, can cause a small flame but not explosive. And a lot of authorities here have done a lot of research into this and think, look, so that we don't have to shut down travel, so that we're not sitting there with absolutely ridiculous safety concerns at the airport, this is a reasonable risk to take.

And we've all been there with our plastic bags at the airport.


NEWTON: We can get probably a half liter of liquid in there altogether if you really jam them in there. But the point is, they're saying look, this was called the liquid bomb plot for a reason. They used soft drink bottles, Gatorade bottles. In doing that, Ali, they are saying that look, those were huge quantities of liquid that really could have done some damage.

Now what I just explained to you, though, this gentleman, if -- you know, he had an opportunity, probably could have gotten those component parts on an airplane and as we see did a little bit f damage. I have no confirmation that that's what he tried to do. Ali, this stuff is all over the Internet for people who are looking for those kinds of things.

Where does Yemen play into all of this? A lot of the experiments that people might want to run undetected, he could. He could have been able to look at some of this either remotely, through the Internet of what was being done in Yemen, or been trained in Yemen.

This is complete speculation.

VELSHI: Right.

NEWTON: I'm just saying that in this case, remember, that the liquid bomb plot, they got the tang from Pakistan is what prosecutors said during the court case. These kinds of centers, things like Yemen where they can kind of unfetter try and experiment with these kinds of things and obtain the chemicals that they need, these are important hubs of terror that aid them in trying to get these kinds of liquids on an airplane.

VELSHI: And you brought up a point earlier that the similarity that some of our viewers may make now between Yemen as a hub for terrorist activity like Afghanistan is that they're a large, ungoverned part. So there are places where people can establish centers where they can be training people or equipping potential terrorists.

NEWTON: Absolutely. And that's what has concerned the government. I remember in the Bush administration, having talks with officials about Africa and huge ungoverned spaces there. In the Middle East, they have been concerned about this for sometime.

The difference now, Ali, in the last few months, they've really seen that Yemen has become more of a problem and they have confirmed reports militants moving from the Afghanistan/Pakistan regions into Yemen.

What's going on in those areas, not even the Yemeni government has a good handle on what could be going on, both north and south in these regions in terms aiding al Qaeda.

VELSHI: Mohammed Jamjoom is on our international desk following this development very closely. Obviously a lot of moving parts across the world.

Mohammed, what have you got for us?

MOHAMMED JAMJOOM, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Ali, speaking about Yemen specifically, I mean people ask is it easy or is it difficult to smuggle weapons in or out of Yemen? It's not difficult at all. Yemen is in a very tenuous situation right now.

Of course there is the problem of al Qaeda in Yemen. You've seen in the last two-week strikes that are being carried out. Last week over 34 al Qaeda-linked suspects were killed in those strikes. Just yesterday there were other air strikes where there were over 30 militants and al Qaeda suspects killed.

Yemen is really going after al Qaeda in a big way because right now in Yemen, you don't just have Yemeni al Qaeda, you have other forces of al Qaeda coming there. Last year, you had Saudi al Qaeda and Yemen al Qaeda merging. That's a big regional threat.

Al Qaeda there is saying they're going to carry out attacks not just in Yemen, not just in the west, also in other Middle Eastern countries. But beyond that, let me tell you how bad it is there. Not only do you have the problem with al Qaeda, and it a huge one, you have the problem of a separatist movement in the south. People wanting to break away from the unified government.

And you have these clashes that have been going on for months now in the north of Yemen, on the border with Saudi Arabia, with the Hawthis Shiite rebels. The government is going after them. The Hawthis are fighting back. It's really bad. It's so bad, in fact, that in the past week, we spoke to a Yemen expert who told us it's not just a collapsing state, it's practically a collapsed state.

And so the U.S. is concerned, regional neighbors are concerned. Everybody is worried. What's going to happen here and is the Yemen government going to be able to basically get this under control? Ali? VELSHI: All right. So we're still trying to make the connection. We should bring up that what we -- this story has gone far and wide from a plane that you're looking at on your screen, a Delta plane that is a Northwest flight 253, that originated in Amsterdam and landed in Detroit with somebody who tried to set something on fire on that plane.

Now we're having conversations about Yemen and Nigeria. And I'll tell you why, because the suspect who is in custody, our sources tell us, is a Nigerian national, may have started his flight in Nigeria. He was sitting on flight -- on seat 19a that you can see there, on the flight from Amsterdam to Detroit.

About midway on the plane, it was an A-330, Airbus 330 plane. He apparently has told authorities that he got the device or whatever it was he was trying to set on fire -- we have heard that he got it in Yemen. And that's why we're making these connections, why Paula is helping us understand Yemen's connection and what it may be that he put on that plane or why he tried to set fire to.

And why Mohammed is helping us understand what it is about Yemen that might have been serving others.

Let's go back to Paula Newton for a second.

Paula, so we are -- we've got threads. You pointed out that these are little threads that we've got. We don't know any of this to be a fact just yet. But it is possible that he could be part of an extremist organization in Yemen. It's also entirely possible that this guy could be what we call a freelancer.

NEWTON: Absolutely. He could have been acting alone. It really will stand to reason exactly who he claims to be with. But that doesn't mean they aren't dangerous, Ali. Whether or not they have these affiliations or not and who they actually had connections to.

I can tell you, when we've followed these terror plots here in Britain, and there have been a few attempted and obviously unfortunately some successful. In following those plots through the court cases, Ali, some of them were freelancers who would have attempted to make some connections.

But there was a wealth of information why -- either aspirationally, trying to get some incentive to do something, and also physically in trying to experiment with these kinds of things. They can still find that information on the Internet through intermediaries. That doesn't mean that they've actually come into direct contact with al Qaeda or anybody who works with al Qaeda.

But it does mean that they have access to figure out how to get a small amount of powder, to get some hydrogen peroxide and perhaps, perhaps a small detonator on to an airplane.

As I said, Ali, the key thing here for authorities has always been to try and contain the threat. And that's what they have tried to do, even in the small quantities that are allowed on airplanes, there are some things that you can still get on in certain airports that are dangerous.

How dangerous? Well, we'll figure out today exactly as they test these things that are apparently on the way to the lab, how much damage that it can do. But I think, again, important to bring up here, they cannot find everything. It is not that sophisticated.

I know here in Britain they have been experimenting with different security apparatuses to figure out if they can actually see the density of certain liquids, to figure out if it is explosive, if it is hydrogen peroxide or something more explosive than that.

Those things are certainly held by authorities here and they continue to experiment. Right now, though, definitely worldwide, you can still get those liquids on to airplanes in small quantities.

VELSHI: All right, Paula and Mohammed are going to continue to work on this. Who is this suspect? What did he try to set fire to? Where did he get it from? And is he working alone? We'll continue to cover that breaking news story.

We've also got some breaking news, boy, right across the country. Dangerous weather as people are coming home from Christmas dinner.

CNN meteorologist Chad Myers is in the Severe Weather Center. He joins us with that news. Chad?

CHAR MYERS, CNN METEOROLOGIST: A couple of things, Ali. Blizzard warnings all over the upper Midwest. Seven states with blizzard warnings posted. You might also be asking yourself, what's going on in the air space? Are planes flying? Are they grounded? No. Three thousand planes still in the sky at this hour. And for this hour of the night, that's a pretty high number.

I'm thinking some planes probably got a little bit delayed, TSA lines were a little bit long today as all of the extra security, going into probably place. I have a 6:30 flight tomorrow morning. I can imagine what my line is going to be like already.

There is the snow from Minnesota back into Kansas. That's the entire area with the blizzard warning. So flying might be your best bet tonight considering what visibility is like in here, basically zero. Winds are 40 miles per hour. Heavy snow coming down. And it's not going to get better until at least morning.

And for the most part, I wouldn't say travel would be -- at least until the noon hour tomorrow, as at least you'll be able to see something. The sun may come out a little bit for you and you may get roadways that are clearing because of the men and women out there in those snow plows.

VELSHI: All right, Chad, thanks very much for that. And of course, we've been talking about how it's going to be a little tougher to travel over the next few days potentially at airports because of increased security.

After the break, look, we've been talking a lot about who the suspect is, where he got his incendiaries and who he's working with. But what is it like to be aboard Northwest flight 253 when this alleged terror attempt unfolded? And what happened right after it?

We'll take you aboard the flight through the eyes of one of the passengers. A man, to say the least, with quite a story to tell.


VELSHI: 278 passengers were aboard that plane that you're looking at on the right side of your screen. Northwest Delta flight 253 from Amsterdam to Detroit. One of them was allegedly trying to take it down. 277 others, plus the cabin and flight crew, now have quite a story to tell.

One of those passengers, Syed Jafry, told us in detail how it all went down. The incident happened just three rows behind him.


VELSHI: 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? Are you there?

SYED JAFRY, FLIGHT 253, ROW 16G: Yes, I'm here. Go ahead.

VELSHI: You were in row -- you were in seat 16g on this A330 aircraft. Is that correct?

JAFRY: Yes, I was.

VELSHI: Where we you in relation? 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.

VELSHI: OK. 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 be landed. It was a long flight, really. Everybody was tired, you know.

And next thing we know was this one pop. And everybody got a little bit startled. And then they look around and see 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 a fire.

And then people started to get concerned and panicked almost. And everybody was rushing towards that area and trying to get water, blankets and fight extinguishers, cabin crew and passenger, everybody. So that's one of the things that I noticed. A lot of efforts to get it under control, and we did.

VELSHI: So was there a struggle with the suspect? JAFRY: There was a young man behind me about three or four seats row. And he took care of that suspect. He handled him pretty good, I think. And there was a little bit, obviously, 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 would say about around six or seven rows up and down.


JAFRY: And...

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

JAFRY: Right. Right. But 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, also, with the young man's help, we just took over the whole situation. He subdued him and took him with the help of the cabin crew, they took him on the side and kind of isolated him.

VELSHI: What? 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 appears to be more stunned, and kind of surprised with the whole act. And then they took him to the side. Because I think he was -- 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 anything threats?

JAFRY: No. Nothing at all. I at least didn't hear. 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. 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 plume -- maybe he was trying to smoke. He was a young man. Maybe I thought he was trying to smoke then the next thing -- then I see flames, I thought maybe this is more serious than I think. A lot of people got a little bit panicked. 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 four or five hours' ordeal, within (INAUDIBLE) and all that, and I got home, then I got really, really -- kind of reality sets in, you know?

VELSHI: You got more scared afterwards than you were on the plane.

JAFRY: Absolutely, 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. And you think he was in 19A which was on the left side of the plane as you're looking at -- as you're facing forward all the way on the left. So you would have been about three rows away and about six seats away from him.

JAFRY: Right. Yes.

VELSHI: Did you have some good -- I mean could you look over your shoulder where you can 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's 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? Were you evacuated as if there was an emergency when you landed?

JAFRY: There was no announcement except that cabin crew was announcing -- just giving the direction that this is the situation right now. There was an incident and things are under control now. Everybody, sit down you, 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 just 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 started to descend. VELSHI: OK.

JAFRY: In the Detroit. For Detroit. And we were started to 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 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 a -- did you get a good look as to what he might have -- might have caught fire? Was he wearing it? Was it on him?

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

VELSHI: And you said you've 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 did you think it was when you looked at it?

JAFRY: I think he was trying to do something but didn't work. That's what I think now. Because at that time -- and if you look at that -- and put that time capsule and look at it where I was at that time, I couldn't figure it out, what's going on except the glow of fire or flame, whatever that was.


JAFRY: I didn't see with my own eyes, but it glowed. It lighted up a little bit. And then I see that a lot of people running after it and trying to take out. When they tried to take it out, it just 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. No. It was like immediately. It was like instantly. I mean there was no time any left. And that's the good thing because everybody was trying to set it up. And there was an announcement that we are started to descend or we're 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 there police there as you got off?

JAFRY: Oh, yes. Oh, yes. I mean we were there, there was 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, we can leave. We can leave.


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

JAFRY: Everybody stayed on 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 left the plane, then we gathered down the stairs with the immigration and customs people.

VELSHI: What was going through your mind is? People worry when there is such a little bit of turbulence sometimes on a plane. Were you praying? 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 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: Right. 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 conversation? In fact, if you can -- Albert, if you can just put that map back up...