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Attempted Act of Terrorism on Delta Flight

Aired December 25, 2009 - 22:00   ET


ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

ALI VELSHI, CNN ANCHOR: To our viewers here in America and around the world, we're bringing you continuous breaking news coverage of an alleged terror plot aboard a major commercial airliner. Here's what we know right now.

A passenger on a Delta Northwest flight is accused of trying to light some kind of explosive device as the plane approached Detroit from Amsterdam. The jet with nearly six -- 300 people on it was coming in from Amsterdam.

Sources tell CNN the suspect, a Nigerian national, ignited a small explosive. Passengers told us they saw a flash, flames and then smoke. The man was restrained by passengers and crew. He also suffered burns to his body. He allegedly says he has ties to a terrorist organization.

Lots of moving parts to this story and lots of details that are rapidly unfolding. One thing is clear. There was sheer terror on Flight 253. Listen to what these passengers had to say.


MELINDA DENNIS, PASSENGER: He was -- stood up. He was belligerent. He was yelling, swearing. He would put hats on. He was screaming about Afghanistan. He was fighting with the wonderful stewards that we had. There were five men, big men. and three women. I said to my husband, I was so thankful there were three -- five men on the flight, because I kept tapping him that I was nervous. And he kept telling me, "Relax, relax."

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: He didn't say anything. He was injured. I -- he was burnt 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.


VELSHI: We've got every angle of this story covered. Ed Henry with the president in Hawaii. Paula Newton is in London. Mohammed Jamjoom is in Atlanta. Many others of our staff around the world are working this story. Let's start with Ed Henry. He's traveling with President Obama.

Ed, what does the president know and what has he said?

ED HENRY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Ali, senior officials tell CNN that the president has been briefed throughout this Christmas day and has been told that White House officials believe this was an attempted terror attack. That's why, even though the president is on vacation here in Hawaii, he's been getting these secure briefings, including updates, I'm told, that are coming throughout the night from the White House situation room back in Washington.

The next one is coming around dinner time here in Hawaii. It's about 5 p.m. here, just after 5 p.m. We're five hours back from the East Coast. So he'll be getting that next briefing just in the next little while here.

It started on Christmas morning about 9, 9:30, when I'm told the president had a secure conference call with two of his top aides: John Brennan, his chief homeland security advisor, as well as Dennis McDonough from his National Security Council staff.

We're told by White House spokesman Bill Burton that on that phone call, the president ordered federal officials to beef up aviation security around the country. We're told that they will be not be raising the color-coded threat level, which is currently at orange, they're not raising it to red, but that within the orange level, there are various measures they can take to beef up security. That undoubtedly will lead to more delays at airports around the country in what has already been a very frustrating holiday travel season.

But White House officials say that, obviously, security is paramount in this situation, and they certainly don't want a repeat of it, and they want to get to the bottom of exactly what went wrong here, Ali.

VELSHI: We'll continue to follow that situation, what the president is doing about it and what -- what degree of concern he and his officials have about the situation.

With me on the phone now is CNN national security contributor Fran Townsend. She was President Bush's homeland security adviser.

Fran, a number of questions here as we get more details about this. Who was this individual? What did he use? How did he get it on the plane? And was he acting alone? What stands out in your mind as the biggest issue?

FRAN TOWNSEND, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY CONTRIBUTOR (via phone): Well, there's no question. The thing that they're trying to -- I'm sure they're trying to figure out right now is how did he get these component pieces on the plane?

We don't know a lot, Ali, about -- we first heard it was firecrackers. Then we heard from Representative King it was a more complicated device. We don't know much about it. The key here is going to be figuring out what were the component pieces to this device, why were they missed, and how do we get word to screeners around the world about what to look for.

VELSHI: Yes, and that seems to be an interesting development, because what we don't -- we heard firecrackers because a number of passengers we've spoken to said they heard some kind of a pop. Could have been a champagne cork or a balloon. That they said it was that type of a pop.

And then suddenly they saw smoke and some flames. So we haven't really been able to arrive at what we think this is. Whether it was a device with electronics or liquids or powders. What we have learned, Fran, over the last few hours from Paula Newton in London and Jeanne Meserve is that clearly we've got a whole lot of things that our screening at airports may not be catching.

TOWNSEND: That's exactly right. But they're right, Ali, not to raise the color-coded alert. Judge Webster and I, at the request of Secretary Napolitano, looked at the color-coded system. There is, in fact, as Jeanne Meserve reported, a lot that can be done without raising the terror alert level. And we've got to assume that that's what federal officials are doing now, working with their counterparts around the world to try and increase screening measures within the orange-color-coded system.

VELSHI: Which means for people who are watching us who are traveling, and this is a very, very heavy travel weekend for Americans, it is entirely likely and possibly appropriate that you'll be facing further delays in the next couple of days?

TOWNSEND: Absolutely. And people should be checking with their airlines and with the airports. Often, you can do that online, even around the world, to make sure that they understand if screening measures change or requirements change and what delays they can expect.

I would think, Ali, that the place you're most likely to see these sorts of delays is in international travel. And as you say, this is a very heavy travel time.

VELSHI: One other question, Fran. We do not know yet -- we've heard from sources that the suspect has identified himself as having ties to an extremist group. And we understand that he said he's got ties to Yemen. But what we don't know is whether he was on a watch list or a no-fly list.

TOWNSEND: Well, that will be pretty important for federal officials to understand whether or not -- Representative King said he was in some sort of database as having extremist ties. That wouldn't be enough to keep him off on a plane. He would have had to be on a no-fly list.

And undoubtedly, that's another issue, in addition to what this device is like, that federal officials are looking at now to understand, was on a watch list? If he was, how did he get by it? And is he wasn't, why not? Should he have been? What did we know about him? And these are things that we're going to learn as more details emerge.

VELSHI: Fran, if you were in office now, in the office that you held, would this alarm you a great deal? Would you think this is somebody who's -- who's perhaps not very capable and not very connected? Or would you say that this could have been -- this is a near miss like Representative Peter King told me earlier?

CALLER: You know, Ali, it's a little bit of both. I mean, he's obviously not very capable, but neither was Richard Reid and he had did have ties to al Qaeda. And so whether or not these guys are good at what they do is less important to me than their actual attempt and how sophisticated that attempt is.

And so, regardless of the fact that this guy wasn't very good at what he was trying to do, that's a blessing. I think we need to do more of the details about what -- who does he affiliate with? Was he getting direction from someone outside the country? And how sophisticated was the device that he was attempting to explode?

VELSHI: All right. Fran Townsend, thanks very much for that.

CNN's Deborah Feyerick arrived at the airport in Detroit a short time ago. She joins us now by phone.

Deborah -- oh, she's right there. She is. All right, Deb, what have you learned so far?

DEBORAH FEYERICK, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, you know, we can tell you that inside the airport it is very, very quiet. The last two flights of the night are, indeed, going out. I spoke to the pilot who brought us from New York here to Detroit. He said the only thing that he had heard of as that there had been some incident involving a firecracker. Clearly, now, people know that there's much more going on.

I did speak to an official who's familiar with current airline security. You can look at some of the planes here behind me. Sort of a pretty magnificent view. We're just standing by the Westin Motel.

What they need to determine within the next 12 to 24 hours is whether, in fact, this was some sort of lone Jihadist or whether he's some self-proclaimed al Qaeda member who sort of joined online on the Internet, or indeed whether he is part of something larger.

Federal law enforcement right now looking at the kind of device that was used. Clearly, it took a measure of sophistication to bring that device from Lagos, Nigeria, through to Amsterdam and then, really, within miles of the Detroit Airport.

Now, we're trying to find out whether there was some secondary screening in Amsterdam. This airline security official who I spoke to said really, you know, the U.S. sort of took a beating when they instituted that secondary customs where, when people arrive in the U.S., they have to go through customs, check their bags and then catch their flights afterwards.

It is not clear whether that same kind of security is in place at the Amsterdam airport.

The device itself, why didn't it cause more damage? That is something right now that is under investigation. Did it simply burn brightly after that sort of popping sound? Did it fully detonate, or, in fact, were the passengers spared a much worse fate because the device failed to go off? All of that right now under investigation.

We are told that the man is at a nearby hospital. And again, all those passengers spoken to, interviewed, luggage checked. There was only one plane that was headed out internationally tonight when we arrived, and that plane is going back towards Amsterdam -- Ali.

VELSHI: Deborah, we spoke to a number of people from the plane. His gentleman -- it was an A-330 -- 300, a large, wide-bodied plane. He was apparently in seat 19A.

We spoke to a gentleman who was in another cabin but spoke to -- this man had spoken to the alleged suspect's neighbor. And he said it sort of went off and his pants caught fire. It looked like it didn't go off the way that it was intended.

But I spoke to Richard Quest earlier in the evening. He said sometimes people who want to do things on planes like to do them over oceans because harder to rescue everyone and certainly harder to gather evidence. Interesting that this one waited until 20 or 30 minutes away from landing in Detroit, given that the plane had come all the way from Amsterdam. So a lot of mystery surrounding exactly why he acted the way he did.

FEYERICK: Absolutely. You know, Ali, that's an interesting thing. Because there was a larger al Qaeda plot, the Bojinka plot, really, which was supposed to be a coordinated attack on jetliners overseas. They wanted to simply get rid of the planes. They wanted those planes to disappear into the oceans so that they would never be recovered. You're absolutely right.

The timing of why he set this device so close to U.S. soil when, clearly, all the pieces would have been -- would have been recouped, had it been worse. So again, that's something that investigators are also looking at very deeply. The FBI on this case trying to figure out exactly what's happening here.

VELSHI: All right, Deborah. You'll be on it and we'll get back to you. Deb Feyerick, now in Detroit, getting to the bottom of this story.

Let's turn back to Paula Newton, our international security correspondent. Mohammed Jamjoom, who's in Atlanta on our international desk. They've been gathering information from their global contacts throughout the evening.

Paula, we keep referring to a device that he tried to set off. But we don't actually know what it was. And I've spoken to a number of passengers. No one has been able to clearly identify what it was. Was it liquid? Was it powder? Was it something that looked like a bomb with a fuse and electronics? Very unclear. And you know a little about this. There are still things that you can get on to a plane that may not be detected by a lot of detection equipment at airports.

PAULA NEWTON, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Absolutely. And all you have to do is look at the liquid bomb plot here, which we did in court, Ali. And this was the plot in 2006 that Deborah just mentioned where, really, it stalled traffic at airports for days, until they figured out what these bombs could have been made of.

Now, these guys never got on the airplanes, but in the labs, the explosion was severe, Ali. It would have caused great damage to the airliner, certainly over the ocean. Most likely would have brought it down.

What is it made of? Hydrogen peroxide. It is a very easy chemical to get your hands on. It what they use, basically, to dye hair. You would need some kind of a powder. You can change the color of hydrogen peroxide. You can mix it with a powder. There are many different things that you can do with it.

And then they had hollowed-out batteries in a lab, which they intended to fix to a disposable camera. Everything I'm talking to you about, Ali, is fairly easy to get your hands on. And more than that, in small quantities, these liquids, hydrogen peroxide, it doesn't mean that that will be detected. If you're bringing just three ounces, which is allowed, of hydrogen peroxide onto an airplane, it doesn't mean that that will be detected.

What seems -- there's a few things that could have happened here. The suspect could have waited until the last minute because strategically he thought that was the thing to do, or perhaps it could have taken him that long to actually get this device together -- Ali.

VELSHI: All right. Paula, thank you.

Let's talk to Mohammed Jamjoom.

Mohammed, here's what he have heard about this suspect. Authorities and sources combined tell us that he's a Nigerian national and that he has admitted to having ties to an extremist group in Yemen where he said he got the incendiary device or whatever it may have been and was instructed as to how and when to use it.

There are some people we've spoken to this evening who expressed some skepticism about why he would have given that up, that information up so quickly after the plane landed. But let's -- let's take him at his word for now and suggest there's some connection to Yemen. Why and what would that connection be?

MOHAMMED JAMJOOM, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Ali, first let me tell you that, you know, we've reached out to Yemeni officials. There's been no comment about this yet.

But I can say that I've spoken to contacts tonight who said they know a lot about Yemen. They said it would not have been difficult for this suspect to have gotten this kind of weapon or device out of Yemen. Yemen is a very poor country with very porous borders. And there's a lot of militant activity there. There's a lot of al Qaeda activity there. That's one of the reasons why the U.S. is so concerned.

Now, because of this possible link to Yemen, if it turns out to be true, there's going to be a lot more pressure put on Yemen by the U.S. government. We're already seeing the U.S. take a much higher degree of interest in Yemen the past few months. In the past year, you've seen John McCain with a congressional delegation going to Yemen to visit. You've seen General David Petraeus go to Yemen. People are saying the U.S. needs to cooperate to help Yemen in their fight against terror, because al Qaeda is such a problem there.

In the past week, we've seen two different strikes against al Qaeda. More than 60 al Qaeda militants killed, according to the Yemeni government. Many people are speculating that the U.S. government is involved in this, that perhaps they're sending in drones to help locate the targets. That has not been confirmed. But there is a lot of speculation about it.

Whether or not that turns out to be true, the Yemeni government maintains they are doing this. They are doing this of their own volition. They are planning the attacks. They are carrying out the attacks. They're trying to get things under control.

And yet they're also saying they're relying on information and intel from the U.S. and they're getting over $100 million in aid to help in their fight against terror.

So clearly, it's a big problem there. Yemen is being -- told by many of my sources this week that tell me not only is the state collapsing, it's practically collapsed. You've got separatists in the south. You've got Shiite rebels battling the government in the north and you've got a massive al Qaeda problem. Doesn't look like this is going to get under control any time soon. And that's why this link doesn't seem like it's so incredible. It seems like this could actually be the case -- Ali.

VELSHI: OK. Interesting that we don't have that link on -- on reporting or intelligence reporting. We've got it from people who say this man actually told authorities. Of course, that is leading some of our experts to say it's not typical for people who, once they are interrogated, after an incident like this, to all of a sudden give that information up. So we're not sure how -- how authoritative that information is. But at least we're understanding now a bit of the link between Yemen and Nigeria and this possible suspect.

We're going to take a break. We're going to come back and talk to Representative Peter King, Republican of New York. He is the ranking Republican on the homeland security committee and has some information you're going to want to know about this suspect.


VELSHI: We are continuing our breaking news coverage of the attempt on Northwest Delta Flight 253, what the White House is calling an attempted act of terrorism.

That is the plane. Now we've been telling you it's Northwest Airlines Flight 253, but it looks like a Delta plane. That's because Delta and Northwest have merged. And while that is a Northwest flight, many of the aircraft are being changed over or being used as Delta aircraft. So it is a Northwest flight. It originated in Amsterdam, and it came into Detroit about 20 or 30 minutes -- we're not sure about the timeline yet -- we've had disputed information from some of the passengers who we've interviewed -- but about 20 or 30 minutes before it landed, apparently passengers heard what they described as a pop, like a balloon pop or a champagne cork.

And then moments later they saw smoke or smelled smoke. Some passengers saw a flame coming from seat 19A in the plane. That's a window seat on the left side of the plane. You can see it there on the bottom of your screen.

Apparently, crew and other passengers were on this immediately. A couple other passengers have also been treated for -- for burns, as has the suspect. The suspect is now in custody. He is said to be a Nigerian national. Sources said he has said he has ties to an extremist group in Yemen, where he got the incendiary device. We don't know what the incendiary device is.

With us on the phone is New York Congressman Peter King. He's the top Republican on the House Homeland Security Committee. He's been with us for much of the evening, giving us information on who he believes this suspect is and why he did what he did -- Congressman.

REP. PETER KING (R), NEWS YORK (via phone): Ali, how are you, sir?

VELSHI: Good. What do you know?

KING: I can tell you, I've been in contact with the Department of Homeland Security. And all of our intelligence agencies are doing everything they possibly can. They're in contact with all our intelligence allies around the world. Not just for airlines but for any type of transportation.

You know, they are on -- they are going at this 1,000 percent. I'm saying this in a bipartisan way. The president is doing everything that he possibly can to make sure that there are no further attacks. Whether or not this is part of any larger plot.

Let me make it clear: there's no evidence that it is, but when something like this happens, you always have to look to see that there's not something else that -- you know, that could be coming next, as we saw on September 11. (UNINTELLIGLBE) tend to attack more than once.

KING: Representative King, tell me what difference it would make to you? How would you think about it differently if you thought this was a guy acting on his own, versus it being part of a larger plot? Which one would alarm you more? KING: Well, part of a larger plot, because of the fact that there could be follow-up attacks.

As far as the actual attack itself, whether it's an individual, or whether it's a group that really doesn't matter that much. But the danger would be if it's part of a concerted plot which would involve other attacks, like on September 11, where we had the two attacks in New York and on the Pentagon and the one that was apparently going to be against the Capitol.

So it's that type of thing, whether they wanted it to be a concerted plot with this follow up, and that's one of the things we're looking at right now to make sure that there is not anything coming next.

VELSHI: And we understand that the threat level for air traffic is not going to be increased from orange to be made higher. But would you expect, because of the uncertainty as to whether this is a larger plot, that we're going to see a crackdown on security at airports?

KING: Well, you're going to maybe not see exactly what's being done. I can tell you the Department of Homeland Security and secretary Napolitano has measures in place and the TSA, which is part of homeland security, has measures in place which are going to be implemented. Some you'll see. A lot you won't see. And it's -- it's something that they've planned for.

And so they are -- you know, that has been put into operation. And that's what the president has ordered. And I've been in contact with the secretary's office, and that's what they're implementing now.

VELSHI: Do you know whether the information we've heard, that he has told authorities that he is connected with an extremist group in Yemen? Do you know that to be the case?

KIND: I've heard that. I've not had that confirmed. That has not been confirmed to me. But I have heard that from some very reliable sources. So I'm inclined to believe it, but I cannot give you absolute confirmation.

VELSHI: What do you think of the capabilities of the person who's in custody? Do you think he was capable and something went wrong? Or do you think that this is one of these guys who wanted to make a hero of himself but just didn't have -- have enough behind him to do it?

CALLER: My understanding is that there is a classified file on him, that he does have al Qaeda connections and terrorist connections. So he's not just a wannabe. There is a -- there's a record that he has that our government's been aware of.

Secondly, the device that he had -- this was not just a firecracker. This was, from what I understand and what we know so far, was a somewhat sophisticated device. And the detonation did not include flames. It did not include a match or a cigarette lighter or anything like that. So this was more sophisticated than, to me, just some wannabe trying to make a name for himself.

VELSHI: Congressman Peter King, stay with us for a minute, if you will. We've got some new information coming in.

CNN homeland security correspondent Jeanne Meserve has the info. She's just off the phone with her sources and joins us from Washington -- Jeanne.

JEANNE MESERVE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Ali, I just talked to a U.S. government official who tells me the full name of this individual who allegedly tried to light an explosive powder on his leg. His name is Umar Farouk Abdul Mutallab. He was born on September 22nd of 1986. He is a Nigerian citizen.

According to this U.S. official, his name does appear in a U.S. government database. However, this individual explains that there's sort of a triaging that goes on. And the most serious people, the people who are committed terrorists, are put in the top category. Those are the people you'd find on the no-fly list.

And then there are people with softer and softer connections. This individual appeared to be somewhere fairly far down in the list of people to be concerned about. The U.S. government official I spoke to wasn't aware specifically what information they had about this individual.

But they said the sort of thing that might get you into this category was your cell phone number showed up someplace suspicious or your e-mail, something like that.

But this individual said that he has seen no evidence indicating that this person was a hard-core trained member of al Qaeda. No evidence that that is the case.

Frankly, they're trying to do a lot of investigation now to figure a little bit more about the networks, of course, that he is involved in.

This person also says that he's been doing a lot of reading of some of the traffic -- the voice and e-mail traffic within the federal government this evening. This individual tells me that it's his understanding that this individual, this Nigerian man, did not go through secondary screening when he went through the Amsterdam airport.

Amsterdam, of course, a very high-security airport. A city that there is grave concern about. An airport where they usually take a very careful look, particularly at flights coming to the U.S.

VELSHI: Umar Farouk Abdul Mutallab was 23 years old and a Nigerian national. We now have that confirmed. Do you know if he's been charged with anything and where he's being held?

MESERVE: No. You know, as my understanding is that he is still in the hospital. I do not have any information about charges at this point in time, Ali. VELSHI: All right, excellent. Jeanne Meserve, thank you for getting that to us.

Congressman Peter King, there's the information. You had his name earlier this evening. We were not able to confirm it until now. What do you make of the information you just heard from Jeanne?

KING: Yes, what Jeanne Meserve is saying is pretty much my understanding. The only variation I would have on that, I heard the reason he was not on a no-fly list is that none of the terrorist allegations or none of the terrorist connections he had involved aviation. And that's why he was not on the no-fly list.

Now again, I think this is going to be something we're going to have to look at. Whether it's the homeland security committee in the House and the Senate or just the intelligence community overall. Is what standards we use to put somebody on a no-fly list. And that's why it's important now we do get to look and examine his classified file, so -- to see if there's anything we can learn from that, to make sure that, in the future, that we might put somebody on the no-fly list, you know, such as he.

VELSHI: What's your general feeling about the no-fly list? Do you feel like they -- they cover enough people generally? I mean, are you a proponent of making that net a lot wider?

KING: I wouldn't call it -- not necessarily wider. But I think there are people on it who don't belong on it, and there's others who are not on it who should be on it. I think we have to make it more sophisticated. It's tough. We're talking about so many -- so many names.

I'm not trying to be a Monday morning quarterback here. But I think we can use this as a test case. Thank God no one was killed. Let's take his file. Let's examine it and let's see how we can -- you know, what was missed. What the Department of Homeland Security, what the TSA missed in going through you that file to -- why he was not on the list, or whether or not there was nothing to indicate.

But again, if a person has some kind of al Qaeda connections at all and he's coming from Nigeria, a country where there is a strong al Qaeda presence and which has historically weak security measures. To me this seems to be one that slips through the cracks.

VELSHI: All right. Representative Peter King, thank you for joining us and thanks for the information you've been giving us.

You're looking at a map there that has the suspected route Peter King was telling us he believes that the suspect, Umar Farouk Abdul Mutallab, the 23-year-old Nigerian national, may have started in Nigeria, making his way to Amsterdam where he got onto Northwest Airlines Flight 253 making its way to Detroit with 278 passengers on board and attempting to detonate or set fire to something 20 or 30 minutes before the plane landed.

More now on how the investigation is unfolding. With us on the phone, CNN contributor and former FBI assistant director, Tom Fuentes.

Tom, what's happening now in -- what's your understanding of what's happening now?

TOM FUENTES, FORMER FBI ASSISTANT DIRECTOR: Well, currently, in the investigation, they continue to interview the subject in the hospital. And he's freely talking about who he was and what he was trying to do.

And also, the other aspect of the investigation that's very important is the forensic examination, looking at the items that burned, the chemicals that he had with him. All of that will be examined at the FBI laboratory at Quantico, Virginia. And the determination will be made of whether or not it actually was an explosive device. It may have been improperly assembled and only be an incendiary device, which obviously it burned...

VELSHI: Let me interrupt you there for second. Because I guess -- for those of us who are not in the bomb-making business. We're not quite sure. When we say device, what we mean, this could be liquids. This could be powders. This could be a bomb with fuses and electronics, right?

CALLER: Right. It could be any of those things. And most of those components would not be detectible through a metal detector examination at the airport.

Now if you fly, you know that randomly, you will have your check- in or your carry-on bags or your clothing examined where they take a cotton swab with chemicals on it, swab you, put it in a machine. It's looking for those kind of chemical residues, explosive residue, other gases that emanate from explosive chemicals.

But they don't have the ability to do that for every passenger, every bag, every piece of carry-on or checked luggage. So it would bring aviation to a halt if they tried to do that to every single person. But again, in this case, he had some type of either device or container or holder of chemical strapped to his leg, you know, and was trying to...

VELSHI: You have heard that it was strapped to his leg? He had something strapped to his leg?

FUENTES: Yes, that's what I heard.

VELSHI: So probably didn't get through security or he didn't go through you that at Amsterdam. So we think that sometime between him getting to the gate and 20 minutes before the plane landed, he put something in his pocket or put it on his leg?

FUENTES: But he may have already had that strapped his leg and gone through metal detectors undetected, if it was in some type of plastic container and strapped with tape or something, you know, nonmetallic material, it would not be detected.

VELSHI: Yes. FUENTES: He could go through metal detectors all day and not be discovered.

VELSHI: Tom, tell me something. Does it strike you as strange that this was handled very quickly. Gets down on the ground. He's been interviewed, and really, within hours of this plane landing, he has apparently told the government where he got this thing, and he's told them that he's got some connection to an extremist group and he's told them that it's from Yemen is? I mean, does that sound just strange to you that people give it up that quickly?

FUENTES: No, not really. The purposes of these terrorist acts is to gain worldwide attention. So if the act is intended to gather the attention of worldwide media and explode, fails to bring that airplane down and kill 300 people, he's going to want people to know he at least tried, and that was his intent.

So this is not something that he's going to want to keep a secret. Most of these type of terrorists, when their devices fail -- there were suicide bombers where the strap-on vest doesn't work -- they often talk all about it, because they want you to know they did intend to do the act and that it's not their fault. They're almost apologetic to their colleagues or other people with similar notions, that the device didn't work.

So it's not unusual for them to talk about it or for FBI interviewers to -- you know, to discover from them what the motive was and what he was trying to do.

VELSHI: Should the FBI and the FAA and the Department of Homeland Security and the White House all be concerned right now that there might be more to this than just him? In other words, could there be somebody else in the air right now or getting on a plane? Could this be part of a larger, concerted effort?

FUENTES: Well, it could be. But that's one of the concerns. And -- but normally the coordinated attacks occur almost simultaneously or they try to make them. Because they want everybody to be on a plane and detonate their devices before the first plane has the incident. And then security is clamped down for future flights.

So the fact that this incident already happened. If there's additional security measures around the world, it's going to be harder to do the attack after the first one has either succeeded or failed. So normally, a coordinated effort is their intent.

But the other -- the other concern for the authorities are also the copycats. And that's -- if another incident happens in the next 24, 48 hours, it could be a copycat situation where somebody else watching the coverage decides, I'm going to try that also and go ahead and does it. Then the authorities have to determine are these two people, or three or ten connected to each other.

VELSHI: Now tell me about this, Tom. The -- whatever it is that he tried to light, whatever forensic evidence is there, is that going to be examined in Detroit? Is that on its way to Quantico? And how long is it going to take to figure out what it is?

FUENTES: It could take -- depending on the chemicals, it could take a day or several days to weeks to examine it. The residue chemicals that were unburned that were still on him or on the floor of the aircraft.

So you would have crime scene investigation of his body, his clothing, the pillows and blankets that may have burned, the residue that may have spilled on the floor. All of that will be packaged and examined at the FBI lab at Quantico.

VELSHI: We talked to congressman Peter King of New York, who was saying there is apparently a file on this guy. We don't know who's got the file. Apparently he's had some connection.

Jeanne Meserve was telling us, as well, that uhe seems to be low down on the risk assessment of who he was. That said, maybe he didn't make it onto a watch list or a no-fly list. But if there's a file on him, how does he get a visa to come into the United States?

FUENTES: Well, that's a good question of what travel documents he had and whether or not they were fraudulent. I've been told that actually for the moment being held on immigration charges until the full terrorism charges are assembled.

And in these situations, that's more of a clerical challenge than anything else. I mean, they know what he tried to do and how he tried to do it. Obviously, they'll need the results of the forensics to say what the capabilities would have been. His intent to bring down that aircraft is evident by starting the fire in the first place. So the charges of terrorism and other related charges will be brought against him.

But again, they're going to have to -- it takes time just to physically type out all of the documents that need to be filed for that.

As far as his visa and all that, that investigation will continue. And it's 4:30 in the morning in Amsterdam and in Nigeria. So to determine from those authorities who he was, what records he had, what records those intelligence services may have had, and then what records U.S. intelligence and law enforcement may have had, that again will be part of the investigation.

VELSHI: All right. Tom Fuentes, former FBI official and CNN contributor, thanks for that.

We're talking about Umar Fartouk Abdul Mutallab, the 23-year-old Nigerian national. CNN's Deborah Feyerick is on the ground at the airport in Detroit where Flight 253 landed this afternoon from Amsterdam. Also with us, Kate Bolduan, who was among one of the first to break many of the key details that we've been reporting through the afternoon here on CNN.

Deb, let's start with you. What information do you have? FEYERICK: Well, Ali, I can tell you that I spoke to one woman who was on that plane. She was actually over-nighting here in Detroit. She was supposed to catch a plan to savannah.

She said that she had seen the man in Amsterdam, and he seemed to be pacing. It's unclear whether, in fact, he had all the materials when he left Nigeria or whether, as sometimes federal law enforcement officials will speculate, he was gathering those materials on his way. So that's something that's under consideration right now.

Also, we are told, in fact, security at airports -- not just here in Detroit, but all over the country will be more strict tomorrow. There will be additional screening. There will be a heavier police presence.

Also you're likely to see a lot of dogs just -- who are there searching for any kinds of chemicals or chemical residue on any bags. And passengers will be further screened. We are told that law enforcement will be checking to see, in fact, what the bomb was made of, whether it was detonated properly or whether it just simply caught fire and didn't do what it was supposed to do.

That is a big question. And that could determine whether, in fact, this guy was some sort of al Qaeda operative or whether he was certainly acting independently as sort of a lone jihadi -- Ali.

VELSHI: All right. Those are some major questions that we need to get some answers to. And we're going to have our team around the world continue to work on those -- those questions for us.

One of those members is Kate Bolduan. She's been working the story, really, since the beginning. It's evolved since then, Kate. We thought there were firecrackers on that plane. And now we think that this might be a more sophisticated terrorist with a bit of a file and some -- some intent to do harm.

BOLDUAN: Yes. The developments -- developments have been just amazing that we started at firecrackers earlier today, Ali.

Well, according to a federal security bulletin that was obtained by CNN. This is a bulletin that goes out to federal officials, state and local officials when something like this happens.

This all started when an in-flight emergency was called due to a fire indicator light. So that suggests that almost immediately, from the cockpit to on the ground, FAA officials really had an idea of some indication that something had gone wrong.

And now we're told, and you're been reporting, Ali, this is a Nigerian national that ignited some type of small explosive device. But real questions remain about just what type of device this was. Because we're talked about early report from Delta Airlines was that this was firecrackers. But Congressman Peter King, who has been briefed on the situation that you talked to extensively, said it was a fairly sophisticated device. Now the FBI is leading this investigation and continues to do so. They are obviously checking into this person's background. We're getting a few details and also taking a real look at his capabilities. What was he capable of? I spoke to Dutch aviation expert. Amsterdam is one of the busiest airports in Europe and a very popular route for people traveling from Africa.

And this expert says the Amsterdam airport is also working under heightened alert now, as you can only imagine, and that there are extra security measures in place there, as there are now here in the United States.

In terms of the timing, this expert said choosing a holiday is not surprising. It's a period of heightened alert for travel, as it is. And people trying to do harm see it as a real chance for maximum impact as flights are much busier, which is clearly not settling news for people trying to travel over the next few days.

VELSHI: Yes. And he picked a big plane, an A-330, 300 with almost 300 people on board.

Kate, thanks very much for your great work today.

BOLDUAN: Thanks, Ali.

VELSHI: We're going to continue this story of an attempted terrorist attack on Northwest Airlines Flight 253 from Amsterdam to Detroit. A suspect is in custody. Got a lot more for you. CNN is covering this breaking news.


VELSHI: A pop, a puff of smoke and then panic. That's how one passenger on Northwest Airlines Flight 253 describes the alleged terror plot aboard the plane.

And with each hour, new information on this breaking story is coming into CNN. This is a fast-moving situation, but we do know a Nigerian national is in custody for allegedly trying to ignite an explosive device on the plane as it flew from Amsterdam to Detroit. He was restrained by crew members and passengers.

Our Jeanne Meserve says a government source told her he has seen no evidence indicating that this person was a hard-core, trained member of al Qaeda.

You can see that on the screen. That's where he was sitting, Row 19A on an Airbus A-339, a wide-bodied jet, from Amsterdam to Detroit. Apparently, this incident occurred 20 or 30 minutes before that plane landed.

President Obama is in Hawaii and has been briefed on what the White House is calling an attempted terror attack.

Two hundred and seventy-eight passengers were aboard Northwest Delta Flight 253, right there. It's a Northwest flight but it is a Delta aircraft. One of them was allegedly trying to take it down. Two hundred and seventy-seven others plus the cabin and flight crew are telling quite a story tonight.

One of those passengers, Syed Jafry, gave me a detailed account of how it all went down. The incident happened just three rows away from him.


VELSHI: Are you there?

SYED JAFRY, WORKER: 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>

JAFRY: Yes. Yes, I was.

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: 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 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 then people started 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 the 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, Syed, 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 merrier Christmas than it might have been for all those passengers.


VELSHI: Syed Jafry was just three rows away from the suspect. And as we come up on the top of the hour, let's quickly bring back Jeanne Meserve with a quick wrap-up of where the story stands now -- Jeanne.

MESERVE: We have an identification on the individual, Umar Farouk Abdul Mutallab, born on December 22 of '86, a Nigerian citizen. A U.S. government official tells me he was, in fact, in the U.S. government database. He did not appear to have been on the no-fly list. As this government official explains, and they rate people. They triage people. The most serious people, the people most closely tied to terrorists groups are, of course, on the no-fly list.

Then there are people with looser and looser contacts. This guy apparently was somewhere towards the lower end of that spectrum. This U.S. government official says he's seeing no information to indicate that this individual was a hard core, trained member of al Qaeda. But of course, the investigation still very much under way to learn more information about him, about who he knew, and figure out just how widespread this plot might have been.

VELSHI: All right. And then the other thing we want to know about is what it is that he got on the plane and how he got it on. Now, most of us who travel think we're experts on the TSA and what gets through and what doesn't. But you've actually done a great deal of studying on exactly what can and can't get through at airports?

MESERVE: That's right. They talk a lot about a multilayered system. And it's multilayered because each layer has its weakness.

The machines, for instance. If you go through a magnetometer, that's going to figure out if you have a gun or something metal on your person. But that's not going to pick up a plastic explosive. And, you know, not everybody goes through the explosive trace detection.

But I'll tell you, an interesting story we did a couple of years ago was going with TSA testers to a screening checkpoint as they tried to get a simulated bomb through the check point. What they did was put it in a back brace, and they went through you. The screener did not catch it. The machines did not catch it.

The TSA testers went back to that checkpoint said to the screener and his supervisor, "This was a test. You were supposed to find this bomb. Let's try it again."

The tester went through a second time. The screener still could not find it even though he'd been told that this individual had a device somewhere on his body. There were problems, sometimes with the people, sometimes with the machines. Not a perfect system. That's why they have the many layers. And that's why they're ramping up a lot of tonight, Ali.

VELSHI: If you're living in a small sense of security, you've been lulled out of it tonight. Jeanne Meserve, thank you for great reporting tonight.

A very troubling night. One man in custody. The investigation now in full swing. We'll, of course, be following all the developments into the night and breaking into special programming as needed to bring you up-to-the-minute details. You can also get all of the latest information at any time through the night at

For now, I'm Ali Velshi in New York. For all of us at CNN, have a good night.