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Airline Bombing Suspect Goes Before Judge; Tighter Security Measures at Airports; New Violence in Iran

Aired December 26, 2009 - 22:00   ET


DREW GRIFFIN, CNN ANCHOR: And welcome to our viewers around the world.

A man accused of trying to blow up a US airliner on Christmas Day goes before a judge from his hospital wheelchair. The FBI says he was carrying a high explosive similar to nitroglycerin, but how did he get it, and how did he get it on board?

And in the aftermath of a near tragedy, Republican Congressman Peter King takes on the Obama administration for not being more visible in the face of what he says could have been a Christmas massacre.

And for countless airline passengers this busy holiday, the direct result of this terror incident, even tighter security rules and longer lines.

Thanks for joining us. I'm Drew Griffin, in tonight for Don Lemon.

New details tonight about exactly what happened Christmas Day aboard Northwest Flight 253. Just 20 minutes before that plane was to land in Detroit after a nine hour flight from Amsterdam, this Nigerian passenger, 23 year old Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, allegedly tried to set off a high explosive. He was seated in seat 19-A.

In the pandemonium that ensued, passengers and crew subdued the man, extinguished the flames and the plane landed safely.

Abdulmutallab appeared before a judge today where he was formally charged.

CNN's Deborah Feyerick joins us live from Detroit with the very latest - Deb.

DEBORAH FEYERICK, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, you know, Drew, for someone who allegedly tried to kill himself and some 300 people on board that passenger plane, by all accounts he appeared surprisingly calm during his initial appearance where he was charged with not only carrying an explosive device on board but also trying to detonate it with the intention of destroying that airplane.

Now, he was - he's being treated in a burn unit at the University of Michigan Medical Center. He was brought into a conference room that had been set up as a makeshift courtroom. There were prosecutors on one side, his lawyers from the Federal Defenders Office on the other, and a judge and a stenographer there, basically to address him.

He seemed very calm, polite. Witnesses say that he appeared much younger in person than his 23 years of age, that he seemed almost baby faced. He answered the judge's questions, said he had a much better day today, and he spoke English.

So this all took place about 4:00 this afternoon. They say that during this initial appearance, he understood the charges that he was being accused of, and his Federal Defenders who now will be representing him, and the reason for that is because he says he simply just doesn't have the money, even though his parents are very well off. So, clearly, whether he's separated from them or whether it's because of some self-radicalized notion that he's had by even meeting with people or because of the - what path he took in his route to pursue more of an Islamist theory, he basically said, no, he just didn't have any money.

The Federal Defenders do want to have access to the airplane to see exactly what transpired. Clearly, prosecutors had questioned many, many people who were on board. They tell a story of somebody who got up just as the plane was descending, spent about 20 minutes in the bathroom, came out, complained of a stomachache, pulled a blanket over his stomach, and then, within moments, there was a fire, an explosion, and part of the wall and part of the gentleman's calves caught fire. Passengers acted pretty quickly.

So all this right now in - entered into the record as he is at the burn unit, recovering from the wounds - second and third degree wounds he suffered to his lap - Drew.

GRIFFIN: Thanks, Deb.

Accord to the FBI, this guy had PETN. That is an explosive related to nitroglycerin. It was developed after World War I. It's among the least stable of military explosives, but extremely powerful, and it can be stored for long periods of time without losing its effectiveness.

FBI agents also recovered a syringe that we've been hearing about from near the suspect's seat. It's believed to have been activated - used to activate the device. PETN is the same substance that the shoe bomber, if you remember, Richard Reid, tried to use exactly eight years ago.

The White House calling this an attempted act of terrorism, the president on vacation in Hawaii. Some critics already sounding off, Congressman Peter King among them. The New York Republican says he wants answers from the commander in chief, not just press releases.

I talked to the ranking minority member of the House Homeland Security Committee just a little while ago, and here is what he had to say.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) REP. PETER KING (R), NEW YORK: Drew, this came very close to being one of the greatest tragedies of the history of our country. If we lost almost 300 people on Christmas Day, this would be remembered forevermore as the Christmas Day Massacre. We avoided it by luck and because of a number of very courageous passengers.

This was an assault on the United States, and it is important that at a time like this that the president of the United States or someone in the administration with stature step forward - whether it be the Vice President or the Secretary of Homeland Security, but basically, we see - there is no face of the administration on this issue.


GRIFFIN: Well, there will be a face from the administration tomorrow. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano. She's going to be on CNN's "STATE OF THE UNION." Candy Crowley is going to be the host tomorrow, starting at 9 AM Eastern, and you can sure that the secretary will be asked about this.

And despite the criticism, the president remains hunkered down in Hawaii. Officials insist he's fully plugged into the situation. CNN's Senior White House Correspondent Ed Henry is there with the president in Hawaii - Ed.

ED HENRY, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Drew, you're right, administration officials trying to push back on that criticism from Republican Peter King and others, saying that the president is allowing the intelligence professionals to handle this, allowing officials to handle the investigation. He's staying behind the scenes and does doesn't feel he needs to go public. In fact, the president was only really public thing today going out golfing.

Amid all of this, White House officials say they're not concerned about the appearances of that. They say the president works hard, he's had a long year, and that the American people will not begrudge him having a little time off.

In the meantime, behind the scenes, he is very much in the loop, as you suggested. Starting this morning, 6:20 AM local time, it's 5 hours behind the East Coast, and basically the president was briefed by two of his top security aids about that criminal investigation. What we're told is that the president is being told that while the suspect is talking a lot to the FBI and suggesting maybe he's got some connections to al Qaeda, senior US officials are very skeptical of that.

They say when someone's arrested they can say all kinds of things. It doesn't mean it's true. They're trying to run down everything the suspect is claiming, and they're saying that in the initial phases of this investigation, they do not see a formal connection with al Qaeda and they're very skeptical of that. The other quick thing, all noticed that the administration is trying to push back on reports suggesting that maybe the suspect was on some sort of a list that would have tipped off US officials, that he shouldn't be on a plane. They say, look, the only list he was on includes some 400,000 individuals who may have potential terror ties and that he was maybe on that list, but not on two smaller lists, including a no fly list. And so, there was really no red flag there as far as they can see in the early parts of this investigation suggesting that he shouldn't be flying.

They also say they welcome any scrutiny that they're going to face from Congress and others about what might have gone wrong here, and, believe me, that scrutiny is coming. Various committee chairmen on - chairman on Capitol Hill, including Democrats like Jay Rockefeller saying they're going to hold hearings into what went wrong here early in the New Year, Drew.

GRIFFIN: And I have to point out that the president went golfing today. We don't see any pictures of him golfing. Was that a closed event?

HENRY: Well, you know, he was out in - in the public golfing. There was a press pool there. But the White House is very careful in what kind of access they allow, and they do not allow the cameras anywhere near where he was on the golf course.

They were on - the press was put through a much different area. Is it because they don't want the image of him golfing out there? They insist no. They insist that they're not worried about that, that, again, they believe the president is allowed some downtime, if you will. But it is very interesting that on a day like this, they did not allow any photos of him out golfing, Drew.

GRIFFIN: Indeed. Ed Henry in Hawaii with the president. Thank you, Ed.

Well, here is how it all unfolded. On Christmas Eve, about 5:00 PM Eastern time, the suspect boarded KLM Flight 588 in Lagos, Nigeria for a nonstop flight to Amsterdam. Six and a half hours later, 11:37 PM, the plane lands at Amsterdam's Schiphol Airport.

After a three-hour layover there, the suspect took off on an early Christmas morning flight. This is 3:00 AM Christmas morning, Northwest Flight 253 takes off on a 9-hour journey to Detroit.

At about 12:30 Christmas Day, 20 minutes before the plane lands in Detroit, the suspect allegedly sets off some kind of explosive device on his lap. Passengers and crew put out a small fire, subdued the suspect, who wasn't fighting back. The plane lands safely at Detroit Airport at 12:51 PM.

CNN's Richard Quest in Amsterdam for us tonight at the airport where Mutallab is said to have gone through normal security procedures, Richard, and by normal that means he must not have been swabbed or puffed or sniffed for explosives.

RICHARD QUEST, CNN CORRESPONDENT: And that is just about the story. He went - he went through the normal security procedures, which basically means going through a metal detector and, of course, having any hand luggage that he had with him x-rayed at the gate here at Schiphol and passengers transfer from one pier to the next, particularly to those US flights, they - the security is done at the gate itself.

But only if there are any questions about that at all (ph), any suspicions with the - with the person, then either be patted down or would they have their luggage opened and investigated further. That wasn't the case with this suspect. He just went through the normal security, Drew.

GRIFFIN: And Richard, let me ask you this, because we're talking about this list that the suspect was on. Not a no fly list, not a Triple A screening list, just some sort of list that he might be a suspect somewhere. Did the Dutch authorities have access, or would they have access to that list? And, if they did and knew about it, would that increase the screening of this particular individual?

QUEST: Now, that is an interesting point, because there is something known as the API - the advanced passenger information. Airlines collect that. There's about 13 to 18 different points of information that are taken about passengers - everything from name, destination, passport, right the way down to details of credit cards used sometimes.

That information is transmitted, by law, from the airline to the US authorities. It is done for every flight going to the United States. Flights are not allowed to take off until the airline has received back clearance from the US authorities that it's OK to fly. It's a - it's a routine operation. The information is sent electronically. It's a well worn path.

But, Drew, what I know tonight from the authorities here is that Delta or Northwest did send the API information to the United States, which would have included the man's name. They did not get anything back, even though he is apparently on this - this watch list because of the size of the watch list, and Flight 253 was given clearance to take off. If you - if you tighten that list or put more and more people on to that list, inevitably you're going to have more and more flights delayed and ultimately more inconvenience for passengers.

GRIFFIN: All right, Richard Quest on this in Amsterdam tonight. Thanks for staying up, Richard. We appreciate your work, as always.

Screeners at airports aren't taking any chances. We're going to look at what's being done now to make sure there isn't a repeat of Flight 253 and how it's affecting your travels and wait times.


GRIFFIN: Across the nation today, the TSA tightened up its safety precautions. Our Homeland security correspondent Jeanne Meserve has a look at what took place.

JEANNE MESERVE, CNN HOMELAND SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Drew, holiday traveling is daunting enough. Now, add security concerns and you can just imagine the picture at the nation's airports. (BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

MESERVE (voice-over): Security was up at airports across the country and the effect was obvious - longer lines at checkpoints.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We were pretty sure that security would be highly increased, so we came early. We - we brought food. (INAUDIBLE) and they'll make us throw it out.

MESERVE: The Transportation Security Administration says for now there are no new restrictions on travelers. A single carry-on bag is permitted, as are three-ounce liquid containers placed in a one-quart plastic bag.

But screeners are clearly increasing scrutiny of passengers and what they're carrying.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: A young lady with her child, they x-rayed the milk how many times, then they took the milk out and sampled each and every bottle of the milk. It's - I've never seen that before.

MESERVE: A TSA official says a new security directive was issued for international flights. Passengers heading for the US are feeling the impact.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Two agents checked everybody's hand luggage, going through each item, taking out every stuff (ph) item that was within the bags, going through in detail. And this was after we cleared security.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: The last hour on the flight we weren't going to be allowed to walk around. We had to stay in our seats with our seat belts on. And we wouldn't be able to have like the blankets or the pillows or anything covering our laps.

MESERVE: Aviation security experts say as investigators learn more about the incident and the device used, additional steps could be taken.

GLENN SCHOEN, SECURITY EXPERT: If this was part of a larger plot, can we assume somewhere there's a master bomb maker who might be making a new generation of devices, using different chemicals, using different technologies, using the different detonator, perhaps, or a different approach to how they use these devices?

So it's certainly possible we may see some significant changes and adjustments in the days ahead.


MESERVE (on camera): Travelers may see more canine explosive detection teams, more security staff, more random screening. And government official insist security has been enhanced in other ways not seen. Their advice, get to the airport early and bring plenty of patience.

Drew, back to you.

GRIFFIN: And the biggest change we've seen so far today is flights coming into the US from overseas. One of the travelers today is photojournalist Steve Lefranc. He joins us by phone from Fort Myers, Florida.

Steve, you flew in from London to Atlanta this afternoon, is that correct?


GRIFFIN: What changes or what did you notice that was different today than other flights?

LEFRANC: The only big difference I noticed was the second screening when you got to the gate itself. If anybody's ever flown out of London, they know - Gatwick, once you get to the actual gate itself, there's another little set of rails you go through, and they were actually taking everybody one by one, went through your checked on bag, pulled everything out, asked about it, asked where it was, you know, who packed it, all that type of stuff. And then they did a full pat down. You know, guys were patted down by guys, obviously, and girls by girls.

So, it - it delayed the flight about an hour, but we got in on time. But, you know, that - that was the big difference before leaving.

Once on the flight, we noticed the very last hour the captain came on and mentioned the fact that we were all going to have to remain in our seats with our seatbelts on. No pillows, no blankets, nothing was allowed to be on your lap, basically as if you were (ph) landing. And it was a very quiet last hour, but, you know, I'm all for it.

GRIFFIN: Yes. And - and so, when you were in London, they went through by hand all of your carry-on at the gate?

LEFRANC: Yes. They opened up each little, tiny zipper pocket of your carry-on - carry-on bags, pulled stuff out, looked through it, and the question, what - one of the things was I have a, you know, a digital SLR camera. They pulled that out and looked at that, opened up the little compartment on that. So they went through piece by piece by piece.

GRIFFIN: Steve, on the flight, any signs of nervousness? Were people talking about this?

LEFRANC: No. See, the funny thing was, on our way to the airport - we left my grandmother's around 4:00 in the morning, British time, and we - I had no idea that the event took place yesterday until we turned on the radio. And at what time we're on call (ph), wonder what that's going to change.

But, you know, that - that very last hour, (INAUDIBLE), you know, there was a bunch of people walking around, talking for the entire - talking through the entire thing. More people walking around on the plane than I've ever seen. But that last hour, you know, nobody moved, nobody got up.

People were kind of looking around that last hour, but I don't think really - a lot of people, when I mentioned it to them, had no idea that it even happened until, you know, I - I brought it to their attention. So...

GRIFFIN: All right. Steve Lefranc from Fort Myers, Florida. Thanks for joining us, Steve. Welcome back. Welcome home.

LEFRANC: Thank you.

GRIFFIN: A voice for change in Iran, facing a regime trying to stifle the opposition. A religious holiday and ceremonies of mourning could lead to a clash on the streets of Tehran.

And a sight for sore eyes in Fort Drum, New York. Stick around for this one. Home from the battlefield, soldiers reunited with their loved ones. It's a sight to see.


GRIFFIN: Here's another developing international story coming out of Iran tonight. Police are out in force in Tehran, patrolling the streets in a show of force there.

Today, mourners remember a fiery cleric who was one of the regime's most vocal critics. A solemn (ph) commemoration coincides with the religious holiday of Ashura. That is setting the stage for clashes Sunday between the regime and opposition protesters who refuse to be silence.

Reza Sayah is here with me and, you know, a lot of my friends who are Iranian say this movement has never stopped. Every time there's any kind of ceremony, gathering, mourning, it's - it's a powder keg waiting to go.

REZA SAYAH, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Not only is it not stopped, there are indications that it's escalating and gaining momentum, and what a day today in Tehran. We saw protests and widespread clashes throughout much of the day. Members of the opposition movement coming out despite repeated warnings by the government and police officials not to do so. Once again, we saw clashes again in the southern parts of Tehran and northern parts of Tehran.

But, right now, we want to get you to one of the most dramatic pieces of video that I have seen since the disputed elections on June 12th. This is video on Saturday of former two-term Iranian president Mohammad Khatami. There he is speaking in Jamaran, which is the former home of the late Imam Khomeini in Northern Tehran.

Now, Drew, a lot of - and there you see members of the besieged will in just a few minutes knock on the door, break it open, and there's going to be some commotion. Drew, over the past few months, analysts have described the turmoil in Iran as a face-off between the new military establishment dominated by the Revolutionary Guard, by the besieged, against the old establishment, the religious clerics who founded the revolution, and nothing illustrates this is face-off more.

Listen to the commotion here.




SAYAH: Now, keep in mind, this is a former two-term president of the Islamic Republic of Iran, his speech being disrupted by what appear to be members of Iran's besieged.

Again, this really illustrates what many analysts say is happening in Tehran, and that's a face-off between the new establishment, the military establishment led by the Revolutionary Guard, and the old establishment, the establishment that Mohammad Khatami, the former president, is a part of.

This was the culmination of a day that started with protests and clashes, beginning around 11:00 AM and lasted throughout the day. A couple of hours ago, we spoke to some witnesses who were seeing clashes as - as long as 9:00 PM Saturday night. That's a good chunk of the day.

And let's talk about the significance of this weekend, because it's steeped in symbolism, and it really shows you how symbolism and martyrdom is important in Iran. This weekend commemorates Ashura. In 680 AD, Imam Hussein, one of the most revered figures in Islam, was martyred by a Sunni caliph, and for ages Iranians have been commemorating his passing by coming out into the streets and mourning and engaging in self-flagellation, beating themselves in the chests. And this is one of he first times in recent memory that security forces tried to hold back, tried to cracking down on what is a religious ceremonies (ph).

Again, what the opposition tried to do was once again target a religious holiday, hijack it and - and disrupt it, and so much symbolism today because many of the - much of the opposition movement sees itself as playing the role of Imam Hussein, the martyr who was outnumbered by Yazids, the Sunni cleric, and then of thousands of his followers. He was - he was martyred. They are taking on his role right now, fighting against what they describe is an unjust and brutal force, which is the regime right now.

GRIFFIN: And so, the big question I always have when you were covering Iran is are Iranians seeing this? Are they able to see what happened here?

SAYAH: I - I think your answer is in the video. If they wouldn't be seeing this, they wouldn't be coming out en mass.

And keep in mind these are people who know that there is a crackdown underway. Their lives are at risk. They are well aware of the stories and allegations of - of rape and torture in prison. They know the risk that they're facing. Yet what do they do over and over again? They keep coming back despite the dangers that they face.

These are two sides that appear to be digging in. They don't appear to be backing down. Something's got to give. When that something gives, nobody knows. But, in the meantime, there's certainly a severe political crisis that we're witnessing unfold in Iran.

GRIFFIN: All right. Well, we'll watch this for the rest of the day, certainly. Happening in Iran today. Thanks for coming in.

So the Middle Eastern country of Yemen emerging yet again in the middle of a terrorism investigation, this time, the Nigerian man who's now charged with trying to blow up Northwest Flight 253 on Christmas Day. A closer look at the Yemen factor is just ahead.

Also coming up, one of the most successful coaches in college football, Urban Meyer, suddenly going to call it quits. We're going to tell you why Florida's coach has decided to step down.


GRIFFIN: He's accused of trying to destroy a Detroit-bound plane on Christmas Day. We know a lot about the charges against Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, but what do we know about him?

Right now, the 23-year-old Nigerian is hospitalized with burns. He's in an Ann Arbor, Michigan hospital, and that's where he was charged, by the way, with attempting to destroy a US airplane and placing a destructive device inside the aircraft - two counts.

But before Abdulmutallab was a terror suspect, he was a mechanical engineering student at the University College of London, and today, counterterrorism investigators searched that apartment building there - very posh building in a - in a high-end neighborhood in London, where he once lived.

Well educated and from a well to do family. His father there is a retired bank chairman in Nigeria. He reportedly warned US officials in Nigeria that he feared his son had become radicalized during trips outside his West African homeland.

Tonight, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab is being linked to past travels to Yemen and possible ties to al Qaeda. This isn't the first time Yemen has made headlines because of its links to the terror network.

I sat down with CNN International Correspondent Mohammed Jamjoom who has spent time in Yemen.


MOHAMMED JAMJOOM, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: There's a great concern by the US and by regional neighbors that Yemen is very small, very dangerous country, very poor country in a neighborhood of very rich countries. It's going to destabilize the region.

The government there is seen as ineffective. The state is seen as collapsing. They've got so many issues, in the past several months you see General David Petraeus go there, you've seen John McCain and the Congressional delegation go there, trying to see if the US can help more. They're giving money, they're giving intel, they're giving aide, but it doesn't seem like it's really affecting it that much, and there's still a lot more to do and people are really worried this is going to spill over into other countries, it's going to destabilize Saudi Arabia, and - and that's just going to be a big, big problem for the region.


GRIFFIN: Nearly half of the 210 detainees at Guantanamo are from Yemen, Yemeni nationals.

Well, the incident on Flight 253 could have ended in tragedy, if not for a few passengers and a brave crew. Today, one of those passengers is being hailed as a hero. He spoke exclusively to CNN. You're going to hear what he had to say.

Plus, a reality TV contestant brings out some people's true feelings about race in China.


GRIFFIN: It all could have ended so badly. After all, security did miss the explosive device brought along on board, but fortunately for Flight 253, one passenger saw what was happening and didn't freeze.

He told his story to Fredricka Whitfield earlier today.


JASPER SCHURINGA, HELPED SUBDUE TERROR SUSPECT: I was on -on the right side of the plane, and the suspect was on the left, so there were quite some - some seats in between. So when I - when I saw that the suspect, he was getting on fire and, you know, I freaked, of course. And without any hesitation, I just jumped over all the seats and I - I just jumped to the suspect, and because I was thinking, (BLEEP), you know, like, he's trying to blow up the plane.

And so, you know, I was trying to - to search his body for, you know, any - any explosives. And then I - I took some kind of object. There was already some melting and smoking out of him and I tried to - I tried to put out the fire. And then, when I did that, I was also restraining the suspect.

And then the fire started beneath his - his seat. So with my hands and everything, you can see (ph) it's a little burned up. I - I put out the fire and then other passengers helped me as well. And, of course, I was screaming for water, water, because we really had to, you know, a fire in the plane is not that good, of course.


GRIFFIN: That was Jasper Schuringa, speaking to Fredricka Whitfield earlier today in a CNN exclusive.

There is a huge story breaking in the sports world tonight.

He has won two national titles in just five seasons. Tonight, Florida Gators head coach Urban Meyer said he's calling it quits. We're going to tell you why after the break.


GRIFFIN: Big story rocking college football tonight. Florida's Urban Meyer says the Sugar Bowl on New Year's Day will be his last game as the Gators' head coach.

Reporter Joe Kepner of WFTV in Orlando joins me. Joe, why? What is the deal? What's going on there?

JOE KEPNER, WFTV SPORTS ANCHOR: Well, this all kind of stems from health issues. He was actually hospitalized after the SEC championship game, when the Florida Gators played the Alabama Crimson Tide. He went to the hospital with chest pains and apparently those health issues have finally caught up to him and just decided that - that it was better for him to walk away from the game now and focus on his health and his family.

GRIFFIN: He - he looks like a young guy. What is he going to do?

KEPNER: Yes, really young, 45 years old. And, in fact, he just signed a - an extension through 2014 for $4 million a year, so he's walking away from a lot of money here, and word is that he's going to stay with the university at least in some capacity, just not as a head football coach any more.

GRIFFIN: Obviously, we're not seeing him. There's been no press conference today. How did you guys learn about it, and what is the university saying?

KEPNER: Well, the university actually sent out what appeared to be a preplanned e-mail, something that, you know - it was obvious they knew this was coming because the e-mail was pretty lengthy, describing his entire career. They sent that out at about 7:00 tonight, just kind of a blanket e-mail to the - to all the media.

GRIFFIN: And nothing from the coach?

KEPNER: Nothing from the coach. He is expected to have a press conference tomorrow in New Orleans when his team arrives for the Sugar Bowl, the game they're playing on January 1st. So he's expected to have a press conference at 3:30 then.

GRIFFIN: All right, Joe. Joe Kepner, thanks for bringing us up to date on that big issue, Urban Meyer retiring. A lot of other teams in the SEC, I guess, happy about that.

KEPNER: Oh, yes. Definitely.

GRIFFIN: All right. Thanks, Joe.

Northwest Flight 253 isn't the only plane in the news this holiday. We have an update on the American Airlines jet that broke apart while landing in Jamaica earlier this week, nearly ended up in the ocean.

BONNIE SCHNEIDER, CNN METEOROLOGIST: I'm Meteorologist Bonnie Schneider.

We are still tracking blizzard warnings in parts of the Plains. Plus, I'll have a look ahead to Sunday's forecast and your current travel weather.

That's coming up.


GRIFFIN: Bonnie Schneider joins us on a night when a lot of the country has some severe weather - Bonnie.

SCHNEIDER: Yes, unfortunately, and a lot of people are still trying to get where they're going, Drew, because we still have some travel delays. And a lot of people are still heading out to their destination, maybe on an extended holiday.

Here's the way it looks right now. Not as much activity, although it looks jam packed with airplanes. We have about 3100 planes in the air right now, a lot of the activity on the eastern half of the country. But still, things are moving on this busy holiday weekend, and, yes, there are some delays, even at this late hour of the evening.

They (ph) are in New York, which really isn't surprising because the weather, as I'll show you in a moment, is not so terrific there. Clouds and showers in New York City, so the delays are increasing at JFK Airport. And check out airports in Newark, New Jersey, over three hour delays there, so much worse as you head towards New Jersey.

Here's the way it's shaping up right now, and this is really some much better news. These blizzard warnings and advisories had stretched over many, many states over the past few days, and they're slowly shrinking, but you still have a lot of snow on the ground, two feet, actually, in the - in the Black Hills of South Dakota. That's not as much, of course. That's a lot more than what we saw in Iowa. But I want to show you what it looked like in Des Moines, tough to plow through because the winds have been so strong with this system that we've seen the winds kind of blow the snow back onto the roads even after they've been plowed.

But now we still have snow falling from the sky across Omaha, Nebraska. Plenty of snow through Chicago, and now it's sliding a little further to the east, so we'll see it in Indiana, we'll see it in Detroit, mixing in with rain. New York City will see rain only, but when you start driving to the north and east we do have freezing rain, and that's happening right now and overnight tonight, Drew, in the Berkshires, into Western Massachusetts. So not quite done with this one weather system just yet. It's taking all of the holiday weekend to get there.

GRIFFIN: Oh my goodness. OK. Thanks, Bonnie.


GRIFFIN: We have an update, by the way, Bonnie, on that American Airline accident in Jamaica on Tuesday. The pilot of that broken jet there is back home in Florida with his family. Brian Cole yesterday talked with affiliate WPTV.


BRIAN COLE, PILOT, AMERICAN AIRLINES FLIGHT 331: Thankful to be home with my family, and that I have the highest gratitude for my first officer and the flight attendants that were with us on that flight to be able to get everybody home to their families.


GRIFFIN: Well, Flight 331 ran off the runway during very heavy rain there, and despite severe damage to the plane, all 154 passengers and crew survived. Pilots call that a good landing.

More now on our top story. He's accused of trying to destroy a Detroit-bound plane on Christmas Day. We know a lot about the charges against Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, attempting to destroy an aircraft and placing a destructive device on it. But what do we know about the man?

Mutallab claims he is linked to al Qaeda. CNN's Senior International Correspondent Nic Robertson and our Terror Analyst Paul Cruickshank weigh in on whether that could be true.

NIC ROBERTSON, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: I'm joined here by terrorism expert Paul Cruickshank.

I mean, Paul, is it important these days, you reckon, to be part of al Qaeda to do these attacks?

PAUL CRUICKSHANK, TERRORISM ANALYST: Well, you're absolutely right, Nic, that it - it doesn't matter too much because, you know, everybody would have potentially been killed on this airplane, everyone on the ground also. There would be a lot more victims on the ground. So it wouldn't matter much for them.

But this - but this attack, this attempted attack does have a lot of the hallmarks of al Qaeda. They have an obsession over the years of attacking aviation. We saw in the Operation Bojinka, which is this plot in '95 to attack 12 American airliners over the Pacific. That was a plot linked to al Qaeda, Khalid Shaikh Mohammed. 9/11 obviously, Richard Reid in 2006, in the summer, an airline plot involving liquid explosives.

Now, this plot has a lot of similarities to Operation Bojinka in '95 because it's the same sort of explosives related to nitroglycerin that's been used. So we're seeing some indications that this could be al Qaeda. He's claiming that he's part of al Qaeda in Yemen, Nic.

ROBERTSON: Yes. I mean, Drew, when you look at this, it's - as Paul says, it's got all the characteristics of al Qaeda, and his claim that he's been sent be al Qaeda and he's been told what to do with these explosives.

But it's the al Qaeda ideology. It's putting terror in the people's minds around the world, wherever, attacking the United States. But to do it on Christmas Day, I mean, this just - whether it was going to be successful or not for al Qaeda and whether or not he'd signed up to them, whether or not he'd signed a loyalty or whatever, it doesn't matter because this for them is a tick in the good box. We know that they've degraded - their capabilities are degraded, but their idea is - is to strike terror, and I think that's what we're seeing here, Drew.

GRIFFIN: And we can tell that you that authorities in the US, in London, Nigeria and Yemen are all now investigating exactly where this device came from, where this person on Flight 253 may have gotten direction, and whether or not there is any al Qaeda or other terrorist connection going on.

Well, she was vying to become China's version of "American Idol" but it wasn't just her singing that had people talking. Ahead, how she is sparking debate about race in China.


GRIFFIN: Racism in China - it's not something you often hear about, but when one young woman stepped into the national spotlight on a reality TV show, much of the attention quickly turned to talk about the color of her skin.

Emily Chang reports from Shanghai in a story you will only see here on CNN.


EMILY CHANG, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): It started with the lure of the glitz, the glamour, the dream of being China's next pop star. But Lou Jing's instant fame had its consequences.

She was born in Shanghai to a Chinese mother and an African- American father who she's never met.

CHANG (on camera): (INAUDIBLE) one year old? So cute!

CHANG (voice-over): Growing up with a single mom, 20-year-old Lou Jing says she had a normal life, good friends and only rarely felt out of place. LOU JING, TALENT SHOW STAR (through translator): Sometimes people on the street would ask me, why do you speak Chinese so well? I'd say, because I'm Chinese.

CHANG: When Lou Jing stepped into the national spotlight on a Chinese reality show called "Go! Oriental Angel," she got attention not necessarily because of her talent...

JING: (Singing).

CHANG: ...but because of how she looked. Hosts fondly called her "Chocolate Girl" and "Black Pearl." The Chinese media fixated on her skin color. Angry netizens vented online, saying she never should have been born and telling her to get out of China, sparking a bitter debate about race.

CHANG (on camera): In many respects, China can be considered a very homogenous society. More than 90 percent of the population is Hun Chinese, so people who look different standout.

CHANG (voice-over): "At first, I cried a lot," she says, "then I got angry, and finally I just started to ignore it."

Lou Jing's background became national gossip. Show producers convinced her mom to appear on air, the most private details of their life becoming painfully public.

"Lou Jing didn't ask me about her dad until she was 16," she told the audience. "I cried and she never asked me again."

But, as the show went on, so did Lou Jing, listening to Beyonce, her favorite artist, hanging out with classmates and going to school.

"I was so angry," says her drama teacher, "but she said she wasn't letting these things get to her heart."

Fans continued to vote for her, the judges praised her confidence. Lou Jing was eliminated before the finale, but not without a powerful parting message.

JING (through translator): I think I'm the same as all the girls here, except for my skin color. We share the same stage and the same dream.

CHANG: Emily Chang, CNN, Shanghai.


GRIFFIN: And still ahead, a holiday homecoming for US soldiers who have spent a year in Afghanistan. It's a treat for them. This story will be a treat for you.


GRIFFIN: Hundreds of military families are getting a belated Christmas present in New York. About 300 soldiers returned from Afghanistan early this morning to be reunited with their families in Ft. Drum.

Here are some of the sights and sounds from the holiday homecoming in a look at "What Matters."


LT. COL. PAUL SWIERGOSZ, PUBLIC AFFAIRS OFFICER: In a couple minutes it's going to be pandemonium. About 300 soldiers coming back today.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: They're almost here! It's almost time for daddy.

VANESSA SCHILLING, HUSBAND RETURNING FROM AFGHANISTAN: Jayce Rider (ph) Schilling, and Jason's waiting on his daddy. He hasn't seen him since he was four days old.

SWIERGOSZ: You look at all the kids, babies, husbands, wives - everyone who's in this crowd waiting for their - their soldier to come home.

V. SCHILLING: He likes new people, so he should like his dad.

SWIERGOSZ: They've done great work over there, but it's been a hard road, and these families miss them.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I've been (ph) trying to hold it together, you know?

COL. DAVID HAIGHT, COMMANDER, 3RD BRIGADE COMBAT TEAM: We were sent into two provinces that had been completely controlled by the Taliban. I know we made a huge difference in those provinces.

SWIERGOSZ: We've really done a great job routing out the Taliban and improving the lives of the Afghans, but it's come at a cost. They've lost over 24 soldiers in combat-related death.

HAIGHT: (INAUDIBLE) have been kind of called the spearhead of the surge.

SWIERGOSZ: As soon as they say dismissed, we're going to have people launching themselves at each other.


LT. COL. DAMON PFALTZGRAFF, 3RD BRIGADE COMBAT TEAM: Hey! Oh! Hello, hello, hello. How are you?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: If you've never seen one of these before and you watch it, it's like getting kicked in the throat.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: (INAUDIBLE). I'm just so glad he's home, and I'm so glad he's safe.

SGT. JAMES SCHILLING, 3RD BRIGADE COMBAT TEAM: I was actually worried about coming back. I don't know if he's going to like me or not. That was the - that was the hard part.

He's bigger. So much bigger.

PFALTZGRAFF: Everybody's grown, everybody's changed while I've been gone, huh? So now - now I got to get back into the family.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Christmas came a day late, and that's OK.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: She's the greatest present we could get, and I have her home. I couldn't ask for more.


GRIFFIN: Good story there.

We know a lot of you will be traveling tomorrow - long lines, extra security at airports. We want to ask you to help us tell the story as the security picture changes in our nation's airports and international. is where you can send your reports to us, and we will be viewing them throughout the day tomorrow.

And I'll be back tomorrow night at 6:00 Eastern with continuing coverage of our breaking news from over the Christmas holiday season and with all the other news.

Thanks for joining us. Have a great night, everybody.