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CNN NEWSROOM

Terror Attack Thwarted on a Flight Bound for Detroit

Aired December 26, 2009 - 19:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


DREW GRIFFIN, CNN ANCHOR: I'm Drew Griffin at the CNN Center in Atlanta, in today for Don Lemon. This is a special edition of CNN NEWSROOM.

Face-to-face with the terror suspect, that's his face. Federal investigators say this is the man who allegedly plotted to blow up a passenger jet over Detroit on Christmas Day. But instead of disaster in the air, there was just a pop, a puff of smoke and a commotion to tackle that man, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab.

He's hospitalized now, facing with charges of attempting to destroy a U.S. airplane and a charge of a destructive device inside an aircraft. Officials claim that he claims he is tied to al Qaeda. And now, the investigation is growing across three continents as airports worldwide amp up security.

We're using our global resources to tell the story from every angle. How did this happen? Who is the suspect? Did al Qaeda really play a role? And who is the passenger who took divisive action?

We're going to get the answers to these and other questions for you as our rolling coverage continues on this attack.

But first, who is he? Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab had his first hearing before a judge just a short time ago. Suspect wasn't in the courtroom; he was at an Ann Arbor, Michigan hospital where he's being treated for burns.

Peggy Agar from CNN affiliate WXYZ was there, as the suspect was charged. And here's what she says about his state of mind.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, WXYZ)

PEGGY AGAR, WXYZ REPORTER: At one point, they asked him if he could afford his own attorney or if he needed, you know, a counsel to be appointed to him and took a little while to explain that to him, what that meant. But he said he did not have funds and that he could not afford his own attorney.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

GRIFFIN: And our Deb Feyerick is joining us live from Detroit International Airport with more on that hearing.

Deb, what can you tell us about this guy? DEBORAH FEYERICK, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, you know, Drew, what we can tell you is that there was a lot of excitement over at the hospital. This man was wheeled into this makeshift courtroom, actually. There were U.S. attorneys, who had brought the charges against him, and there were members of the Federal Defender's Office, they're the ones who will be representing him.

Also a number of people from the FBI, they were there both to provide evidence and also to stand guard over this guy. He was wheeled into that room wearing a green hospital gown. He had a blanket over his legs. He was handcuffed to that wheelchair.

According to one of the Detroit reporters who was inside, they say that he was calm. He smiled, he was very polite, and he answered the judge in English. A couple of questions the judge asked him, "So, how are you doing today?" And he said he was doing much better today.

U.S. attorneys say that he is a danger to the community, that he is a flight risk. They have asked the judge to try to get a DNA sample for him. That's something the judge is going to decide on Monday.

The federal defenders, those who are going to be representing him, they want access to the plane. They want to see exactly how this all played out. They're also saying that this -- they're client may need skin grafts. So, that is something that they're going to keep in mind. Clearly, they don't want to move him from the hospital and run the risk of any sort of complications.

He is going to have a formal detention hearing on January 8th. The charges against him, which are having an explosive device and trying to detonate that explosive device to bring down a passenger plane, that brings a total of 20 years for each count. So, all of this, right now, is playing itself out here.

He remains at the hospital but, again, he seemed in good spirits and the judge was talking to him and when asked, "Do you have money for an attorney?" And he said, "No, can't afford one." It's kind of surprising given that he comes from such an affluent family -- Drew?

GRIFFIN: Yes. Deb, very interesting. And I want to point out in the charging papers which we also got this afternoon. We learned a little bit more about the details of what the flight attendants said. And apparently, this guy did not resist being tackled on the plane. He didn't fight back. He didn't shout anything out as we've seen in other attacks.

And when -- according to the court papers -- when the flight attendant asked what he had in his pocket, he just matter of factually said, explosive device. It seems like he's carried on this matter of fact kind of attitude in court.

FEYERICK: Absolutely. And you have to remember, Drew, we checked with the airlines, this was a nine-hour flight. Now, if he had this device on him, when he left Nigeria, he would have had that device on him for close to 20 hours. But the Amsterdam to Detroit portion was nine hours.

So, he sat there that entire time. It wasn't until it was the end of the flight, when he got up, witnesses say that he's in the bathroom for about 20 minutes, and when he came back, he was sort of saying that he had a stomachache. So, he took his seat back in 19A, right next to the window, pulled the blanket over him. And, all of a sudden, an explosion, fire, and that's when the passengers and the flight attendants sort of sprung into action.

GRIFFIN: All right, Deb Feyerick live in Detroit, where this thing ended.

Here is how it started. On Christmas Eve, at about 5:00 Eastern Time, the suspect boarded KLM Flight 588 in Lagos, Nigeria. He was on a nonstop to Amsterdam. Now about 6 1/2 hours later, at 11:37, that plane landed at Amsterdam's Schiphol Airport, a three-hour layover there. Then the suspect takes off again on Christmas morning, just before 3:00 a.m. on a Northwest flight number 253, a nine-hour flight -- as Deb reported -- to Detroit.

At about 12:30, Christmas Day, this is just 20 minutes outside of Detroit, the suspect allegedly set off some kind of explosive device in his lap. Passengers and crew put out a small fire and subdued the suspect. The plane landed safely in Detroit at 12:51 p.m.

Air travelers are already feeling the fallout from yesterday's failed terror attack. If you're heading to the airport, get ready for a wait at the security line. This is the line at Detroit airport looked like today and it's not just Detroit. Travelers around the world are feeling the security crackdown.

Across the nation today, the TSA tightened up its focus on airline safety. Our homeland security correspondent Jeanne Meserve has that report.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

JEANNE MESERVE, CNN HOMELAND SECURITY CORRESPONDENT (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 brought food, in case we got -- and they'll make us through 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.

JOHNNY MCDONALD, PASSENGER: A young lady with her child, they X- rayed the milk, I don't know how many times, and they took the milk out and sampled each and every bottle of the milk. I've never seen that before. MESERVE: A TSA official says a new security directive was issued for international flights, passengers heading for the U.S. are feeling the impact.

RADHIKA SRIVASTAVA, PASSENGER: Two agents checked everybody's hand luggage, going through each item, taking out every sub-item that was within the bags, going through in detail. And this was after we cleared security.

NIKI YAZZIE, PASSENGER: 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 is a master bomb-maker who might be making a new generation of devices using different chemicals, using different technologies, using different detonator, perhaps, or a different approach to how to use these devices. So, it's certainly possible we may see some significant changes in adjustments in the days ahead.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

GRIFFIN: Well, here's what we know about the suspect, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab. He's 23 years old, a young man from Nigeria, educated at the University College of London, from September 2005 to June of 2008. Excuse me. He went through normal security procedures in Amsterdam, and he had a multiyear, multi-entry tourist visa from the U.S. embassy in London, which was issued back in June of 2008.

Sources tell CNN while he's not believed on any no-fly list, his name does appear in a U.S. database of people with suspect connections. His father is a retired chairman of the First Bank Plc in Nigeria. We're learning it was the father who contacted the U.S. embassy in Nigeria just a few weeks ago, saying he was concerned that his son had become radicalized and could be planning something.

CNN's senior international correspondent Nic Robertson is in London with the latest on this investigation.

Hi, Nic.

NIC ROBERTSON, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Hi, Drew.

Well, as we continue to put the pieces together on this investigation, the period of three years when the accused man was studying at university here in London, about 10 minutes walk away from this apartment complex where he lived in his family's apartment for three years, between the summer of 2005 and the summer of 2008, it does appear during that period, as if he was becoming radicalized, certainly to the point that -- his family have told CNN -- that they were concerned about some of the suspicious characters that he was meeting.

And after he finished studying here, he told his family he wanted to go and study in Saudi Arabia and Egypt. They told him no. He ended up going to study in Dubai. They didn't want to send him to Saudi Arabia or Egypt because they were concerned about the influences he might come under there.

And the investigation the police have under way -- have in the premises behind me has been suspended overnight. And that does seem to give the indication, although there are going to restart tomorrow, that they're not coming up with anything that's giving them a direct lead for an ongoing terror plot, if you will. If that were the case, almost certainly, one would imagine, that they would continue the investigation through the night.

But throughout this day, we've seen them coming and going with cases, with carrier bags -- not carrying away anything large that we've seen, but sort of a very steady movement. About six officers, it appears, have been working through this ground floor apartment where the family lived here, Drew.

GRIFFIN: Nic, just a signpost of what you're reporting, you're saying that authorities in London are pretty confident -- or based on your observations -- pretty confident that this was over. This is one and done, and there is nothing else out there looming.

ROBERTSON: Well, I think the caution, you know -- I mean, you're absolutely right. That does appear to be the case. And I think the caution we often get from terror experts is, that when they get information, they have to sort of -- it all comes as tiny little slices or grains on a beach, they say. You have to put these slices, grains, whatever the analogy is, you have to put them together and that helps you build a picture.

They will over time, no doubt, build a much fuller picture of what Abdulmutallab was doing here in Britain, had done in the past. It's quite possible for the police here already have a certain amount of knowledge about him. Perhaps they're fitting in with what they're finding here with that.

But in terms of: is there another active plot that's been -- that the police have discovered from what they've learned in this apartment here, that doesn't appear to be the case. Of course, they have taken some items away. They do appear to be small. But if there were an active, active terror plot connected to this apartment, one would expect to see a lot more activity going on overnight tonight, Drew.

GRIFFIN: All right, Nic.

This investigation, obviously, is going on three continents and we're going to talk next after the break with former homeland security adviser, Frances Townsend, who, for a long time, was trying to put together the pieces of many of these terror plots to see where this particular one, the investigation, is heading. We'll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) GRIFFIN: Piecing together the puzzle of what happened is easier said than done.

Fran Townsend, CNN national security contributor -- she is the former homeland security adviser to President George W. Bush.

And I imagine, on days like today, back in the date, Fran, this was just nerve-wracking time for you, wondering what was coming next. How do you manage an investigation like this, while you're also trying to currently protect every other flight in the air?

FRANCES TOWNSEND, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY CONTRIBUTOR: That's right, Drew. I mean, that is the challenge. But mostly, what you're relying on are the FBI, the CIA, the investigative agents, operational agencies, that are actually trying to piece together what we know and what we need to find out about the attack that just has been thwarted.

In the meantime, you're coordinating the activities of the Department of Homeland Security, who are working with the Transportation Security Administration, and others, to ensure the safety and security of the flying public. They also have to work with their allies around the world at international airports, and we've heard the sorts of measures that are being put in place.

As they learn more and understand more about the attack that was thwarted, those -- that -- those pieces of information are shared both internationally and domestically with security officials so that those pieces of information can be sort of assimilated into screening procedures.

We hear that people are now not permitted to get up in the last hour of the flight. Obviously, that goes back to the fact that this guy got up and spent 20 minutes in the lavatory.

They're taking blankets and pillows away in the last hour of the flight. Obviously, that's related to the fact that he covered himself before he tried to detonate this device.

And we're going to see increasingly new security measures that relate almost directly to the plot.

The real challenge now for the -- for security -- federal security officials is anticipating how the -- our enemies, al Qaeda, for example, might take this and twist it, change it just a little bit, to try and get around even the changes that we're making now.

GRIFFIN: And, Fran, we have seen some evolution taking place. There was an attack in Saudi Arabia where, you know, there's no easy way to put this, but a would-be assassin put a bomb up his back side. Now, this man has some material, we're told, in his underwear.

I mean, when you have somebody who is willing to die for the cause, a willing dupe, if you will, and somebody puts some kind of material in his hands, how realistic is it that we can set up any kind of screening, short of strip-searching everybody on a plane, to prevent this from happening? TOWNSEND: That's right, Drew. It really is a tremendous challenge for security officials. But -- and, you know, when I was -- when I was in the job, we used to say, you know, they only have to be right once and we have to be right every single time, every single day. But that doesn't mean you give up. Of course, we have explosive detection equipment.

What you want to know is what are the component pieces look like. It's like putting together a puzzle. And the screeners have to know what are the different pieces of that puzzle look like so if they see those two, three, four pieces all in one carry-on or all associated with one passenger, they know to be alerted, they know to give that person extra screening.

We have to look at, is there better explosive detection equipment that we need to put in place. Remember the Richard Reid bomber, the "shoe bomber," we're all still taking our shoes off because we haven't developed the technology we need to do detect those explosives when you're walking through.

I don't have any doubt, Drew, that this is going to generate a whole new rash of explosive detection capability.

GRIFFIN: All right. Well, we're going to have you on later in the show. I'm going to ask you specifically about what kind of cooperation we're going to get from Yemen in all of this, if, indeed, this is where his plot was developed. So, we'll see you later this evening. Thanks, Fran.

And passengers are now beginning to come forward with their own stories from Flight 253. We're going to speak to one about his harrowing trip to Detroit after the break.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

GRIFFIN: Joining us now from St. Louis is Roey Rosenblith. He was on Flight 253 when this incident took place.

And you're joining us there live. Roey, tell me what seat you were in, first off, and then what you heard or saw or noticed when this incident began to unfold.

ROEY ROSENBLITH, PASSENGER ON NWA FLIGHT 253: Hi, Drew.

I was in seat 38J, towards the back of the plane. When they announced the plane would be landing, immediately there was a commotion. I heard people screaming, yelling, there was a struggle, a fight seemed to break out. As soon as that went on for a while, and immediately, I saw flight attendant rushing back to where we were, grabbed something from an overhead compartment and rushed back to the front. Later on, we learned that was a fire extinguisher.

GRIFFIN: Did you happen to notice this fellow at all during the flight or the wait for the flight over in Amsterdam? Did -- once you found out who it was and where he was seated -- did that person stick out to you in any way, shape or form? ROSENBLITH: I'm afraid not. I, myself, was actually flying from Kampala, Uganda. I run a small startup solar lighting company called Village Energy in Uganda. I'm going home on vacation.

There were plenty of other folks there from Africa. There was nothing about this fellow that stood out. I think there were other Nigerians there, some folks from Somalia, and that one individual from Ghana. So, no, I don't recall him sticking out at all.

GRIFFIN: So, the flight attendant runs back and grabs something and runs forward. We believe that's probably a fire extinguisher...

ROSENBLITH: Right.

GRIFFIN: ... that she was retrieving.

How quickly did this unfold until you realized, "Oh, my gosh, something happened," and then, "Oh, my gosh, whatever happened is over and we are going to land safely"?

ROSENBLITH: After the commotion and it seemed that the screams died down a little bit, there were whispers of fire going out throughout all the passengers. And a flight attendant came back and seemed to motion for everybody to stay seated. Then another flight attendant got on the intercom and in a very kind of panicked-sounding voice saying, we're landing, we're landing. The exact quote was, "Your federally-trained flight attendants have the situation under control. We're landing. The landing gear is down."

And at that point, we were all looking at each other and really, you know, we were afraid. We felt like something had gone terribly wrong. We weren't sure exactly what. We didn't know if it was an equipment failure. We didn't know if somebody had started this fire.

But quickly, we were learning -- as the word made its way down -- that somebody had started a fire and there were these rumors of it being firecrackers and popping and all of that. But...

GRIFFIN: Did you -- did you smell smoke or see flame at anytime? Now, you're pretty far back...

ROSENBLITH: Right.

GRIFFIN: ... from where this took place. But did you smell smoke in the cabin?

ROSENBLITH: I myself did not smell smoke. But I could -- when I -- when I looked down the aisle, I could see smoke during the time that there was the commotion.

GRIFFIN: You landed -- I want to go through this quickly, Roey, I know that it's hard -- but when you landed, how soon -- how quickly did the plane come to a stop? When did -- when did the agents come on board and what did everybody do when that door opened up? Did you all just sit there? ROSENBLITH: Yes. The flight attendants were very clear that everybody was to remain seated while the agents came on board. After we landed, I think we taxied for only about 10 minutes before we came to a stop. At that point, the agents came on board, I could see that somebody was being dragged away and then the young man that I found out later tackled him, when he stood up and walked towards the exit, everybody started clapping.

GRIFFIN: Real quickly, did you walk past seat 19A on your way out of that plane?

ROSENBLITH: I was on the other side of the aisle.

GRIFFIN: You didn't see anything, any burn marks or anything?

ROSENBLITH: No. But I heard from other passengers that it was significantly burned.

GRIFFIN: All right. Roey, thanks for joining us. Roey Rosenblith in St. Louis, home on vacation -- I hope you have a much better vacation than it started out to be, sir.

ROSENBLITH: Thank you.

GRIFFIN: Take care. Thanks.

Well, we're hearing a lot about Yemen and the potential leaks to this terror plot. Could this country, perched on the southern tip of the Arabian Peninsula, have played a role? We'll explore that -- next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

GRIFFIN: The son of a prominent Nigerian banker was charged today with trying to destroy a plane and placing explosive device on an aircraft. That's a picture from school, we're told, of the family, of the 23-year-old man who was subdued by passengers and crew yesterday aboard Northwest Flight 253. He was taken into custody as it landed in Detroit about 20 minutes later. Passengers say there was a pop, like a firecracker and then smoke and flames rising from the lap of that suspect.

In Iran, signs the opposition hasn't been silenced. Riot police clashing today with protesters in the run-up to the Shiite Muslim holiday known as Ashurah. The holiday is celebrated on Sunday, and there are concerns that more violence in Iran is possible. Tomorrow the country is also going to be mourning a recently deceased cleric who was a vocal critic of the government and a champion of the opposition movement.

Big news from the world of college football. The University of Florida head coach Urban Meyer has resigned. He HAS won two national titles in just five years with the gators. He says he's stepping down for health reasons.

The man suspected of trying to bring down Northwest flight 253 is being linked to past travels in Yemen and possible ties to Al Qaeda. And this isn't the first time Yemen has made headlines because of its Al Qaeda connections. Yesterday's failed bombing attempt comes as Yemen's government is intensifying its military attacks against the terror network.

In fact, dozens of people were killed in an air strike on Thursday after a radical Yemeni cleric told Al Jazeera's web site that he helped inspire last month's massacre at Ft. Hood. And nearly half of the 210 detainees at Guantanamo are Yemeni nationals.

Something else to keep in mind, back in October of 2000, the guided-missile destroyer "The USS Cole" was in Yemen's port of Aden when a small boat with a bomb blew a massive hole in the hull. 17 sailors were killed. 39 more wounded.

Going back to London now where CNN senior international correspondent Nic Robertson is standing by. Nic, unquestionably there is a link between terror in Yemen. What we don't know yet is the link between this suspect and Yemen, correct?

NIC ROBERTSON, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: That's correct. We do know from his family that they say that while he was supposed to be studying in Dubai, he then called the family from Yemen saying that he was in Yemen, that they wouldn't be able to contact him again. They sent him a text message. He said he was getting rid of his cell phone SIM card, the chip inside the phone, so they wouldn't be able to contact him.

The family have established that he had told them via this text message that he was in fact inside Yemen. That seems to be at this stage the most credible link we have other than what he's reported to have told police soon after his capture, Drew.

GRIFFIN: Are you surprised how much this person is talking to authorities, if we're getting our information correct? And, also, Nic, the lack of any kind of religious outburst before the attack, or any kind of furor in the courtroom today, seems to be a very mild mannered person.

ROBERTSON: All the indications are a slender man. He didn't seem to react when he had been burned. He wasn't reacting when these charges were read to him in the hospital. I think there is certainly, you know, Al Qaeda, we know, trains people and gives them information and it is available on the internet as well, that, you know if they're trying to attack people then they should not be giving away what they're about to do by shouting about it.

Obviously, there are cases where we hear about a suicide bombers driving cars full of explosives at check points, et cetera, and they're shouting out in praise of god. That doesn't appear to be the case here. His mission a lot more subversive than that, can certainly be argued. So I - it is not terribly -- not terribly surprising.

But again, it is not - it wouldn't be the first time somebody with an intellectual affluent background had been converted to a radical form of Islam and had gone off to participate in terror attacks. And this, again, seems to be what we're witnessing here, Drew.

GRIFFIN: All right, Nic Robertson, up late tonight in London, following this investigation. Thanks, Nic.

We're going to talk more about the suspect in this case with New York security analyst Glenn Schoen joining us from New York. He is head of security and integrity services at Ernst & Young. Glenn, you just heard our conversation with Nic about this suspect, well educated, apparently mild mannered both on the flight and in court, and from an affluent family. Nic says not surprising.

GLENN SCHOEN, ERNST & YOUNG: No, indeed. We have seen with a lot of suspect particularly by the way tied to the Al Qaeda movement a lot of them being fairly well educated, a lot of them being fairly calm in demeanor. A lot of that from what we heard from debriefings of prisoners also having to do with their religious resolve, being at peace with themselves and what they're undertaking.

But this background indeed that we see of engineers, computer experts, people with a background in chemistry, we have seen that in a number of attacks. Think about 9/11, and the suspects there who had studied all manner of studies in Germany, including getting graduate degrees. Other suspects we have seen in the attacks in London, and also the more recent attempts in 2007 including at Glasgow Airport, we're looking at doctors.

So it is definitely not, so to speak, canon father type people. They try to select some of these people who self-radicalize and are also not people low on the totem pole or of low intellect. A lot of them indeed are fairly bright people, and fairly smart people and technically very adept.

GRIFFIN: When you look into cases like this and investigate, who put the idea in this guy's head, who recruited him, who brought him in, do you look for somebody in London, perhaps, who is out there seeking these kind of people, or do these people readily come and volunteer for this kind of service?

SCHOEN: Well, you have different degrees of what they call pre- radicalization. Ironically the Dutch, of course, this involves the Netherlands, this whole story, I've done a lot of research on this in recent years, looking at different stages of radicalization.

And also in the U.S., the New York Police Department has done a lot of work on this, where they look at people and there is different patterns and models. Sometimes we see people who have been essentially working for quite a while, working their way through a process of adaptation by themselves, getting deeper and deeper into their religion, getting deeper and deep into ear certain philosophical or political viewpoints, and then quite often someone from the outside sort of giving them a new perspective.

And if you will, almost a twist to their thoughts and position and suddenly they end up in a maelstrom leading towards radicalization. Sometimes it is well before they join a group. So a lot of these people essentially are already looking for supporting the cause before they even join it.

GRIFFIN: Glenn Schoen in New York. Thanks for joining us. We want to switch to our Pentagon correspondent Barbara Starr to talk about Yemen. How this country both poses a problem for the U.S., but I also think, Barbara, poses some kind of solutions as well as what I'm hearing the government is trying to root out Al Qaeda in their own country with U.S. help. You've been there. Describe to us what this state is like and whether or not the country can control who is inside its borders.

VOICE OF BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: You know, Drew, that is the fundamental question right there. Can the Yemeni government control its own country? That's the problem. You know, Yemeni official told me this week, even before all this started, he said, look, we know we have a problem. We're asking for U.S. help now. It is going to be expensive, but if our country fails, it is going to be disastrous.

The problem is this, if you look at the map, Yemen is rapidly becoming the worry, a failed state, and an Al Qaeda safe haven. There is a revolution in the north. There is a separatist movement in the south. There is a central government, but it doesn't control the whole country. And Al Qaeda is on the rise there.

General Petraeus has been saying for months that Yemen is the new headquarters for Al Qaeda in the Persian Gulf. So that's why you saw over the last couple of weeks several rounds of air strikes, not at all clear whether U.S. planes flew in those air strikes, but we have confirmed that U.S. intelligence, especially U.S. military intelligence, provided information about Al Qaeda targets inside Yemen.

This is for months now really been a top priority. And when you look at the map, it is so clear why that is. Saudi Arabia right next door, the Saudi oil fields, and right along the horn of Africa water ways, this is a major international cargo shipping route area. And this is an area where Al Qaeda has set its own sights. Drew?

GRIFFIN: And Barbara, I this it is fair to say that the neighboring countries there have a lot more at stake than U.S. interests involved in this. From your Pentagon sources, any indication that the Saudis are trying to help Yemen stabilize or there is any kind of controls from other neighbors in that area?

STARR: Well, the Saudis, you're absolutely right, the Saudis are deeply, deeply worried about this because Yemen, of course, on their southern border there, there has been fighting on that border between this rebel movement, Shiite rebel movement on the Yemeni side of the border and the Saudis, Saudi warplanes have flown there. This is a war going on in Yemen that most Americans probably haven't really paid a lot of attention to, you know.

Our focus has been Afghanistan and Iraq and Pakistan. But it really is the horn of Africa and indeed across northern Africa, all the way to Nigeria, where Al Qaeda has been on the rise by all accounts and it has the Saudis worried, and it has many countries in the Persian Gulf worried.

And again, especially, again, the maritime industry. This is the part of the world that lives on the water, good commerce security all up and down the water ways, and there is a lot of concern that Al Qaeda, and they may have demonstrated it here, can stage some kind of attacks well beyond its borders in Yemen that they will now have some reach, and that is a huge concern, Drew.

GRIFFIN: All right. Barbara Starr, Pentagon correspondent reporting tonight from Washington. Thanks, Barbara, for joining us.

Well, it is the season of giving, let's not forget. Coming up, how one program is successfully nourishing newborns by feeding their impoverished mothers. A good story out of all this. Stay tuned.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

GRIFFIN: Bonnie, on any other night, the weather story you're about to tell us would probably lead any newscast just about anywhere. I mean, the bad time of year, and weather delays at many, many airports.

SCHNEIDER: That's so true, Drew. And also it is interesting because they're hitting some of the major hubs, a lot of people are catching a flight in one city or maybe a connecting flight in another and there are a lot of people just to let you know that are in the air now. We have 4,800 planes coast to coast as you can see here on Flight Explorer.

So that is a lot of activity. Unfortunately though we are dealing with some delays. Well, actually quite a few. Chicago has a ground stop now and O'Hare airport reporting delays of over four hours. JFK, over two hours. Newark, New Jersey, well over two. And Philadelphia, an hour and 15 minutes. Now, most of these delays are related to low clouds and rain, poor visibility and even some winds. Not the snow we have seen across the Midwest.

Check out some pictures of Iowa, getting hit with this blast of wintry weather. As you can see, it makes for very tough driving conditions, you have to take it so slow on the roads. Even the plows had a tough time keeping up with it because the winds were so strong that they blow the snow back on to the roads after they were plowed. We still have winter weather advisories right now in Chicago, two to four more inches of snow.

It is still snowing in Chicago. It is also snowing in Minneapolis. And then back out further to the west, notice the snow bands coming into Omaha, Nebraska, Kansas City, a place that had a blizzard warning earlier, that subsided. But still lots of snow through Indianapolis, and across Chicago.

Just to let you know what's going on in the northeast, we're tracking some wet and raw conditions, temperatures are in the 40s in New York City. But in upstate New York, and northern New England, Drew. It is cold enough for ice. Be careful out there tonight and early tomorrow morning. GRIFFIN: All right. Bonnie Schneider, thanks a lot for that.

SCHNEIDER: Sure.

GRIFFIN: There may be no need as fundamental as the hunger of an infant and yet in very poor places mothers are often so malnourished, they can do little to help their own children. That's where an unusual program comes to the rescue calling on nursing mothers to truly give of themselves.

CNN photojournalist Tawanda Scott chased that story for today's "Giving in Focus."

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: My name is (INAUDIBLE), I have 13-month-old Lilly (ph). You want to open the freezer.

NICOLE MCGUCKIN: My name is Nicole McGuckin. And I have a 16- month-old daughter named Ella (ph).

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I'm very passionate about breast-feeding and knew I wanted to nurse her exclusively. So I started pumping and very quickly my freezer filled up with a lot of frozen milk.

MCGUCKIN: I realized I don't know what I'm going do with all this milk. I'm producing it faster than she can drink it. My freezer was just filled top to bottom with breast milk. The first thing I did was Google 'donate breast milk' and the first thing that popped up was breast milk project.org.

I looked over their web site and knew that once I was reading about how they were sending the milk to South Africa and helping these malnourished infants, I knew that it was something that I wanted to do.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: They send somebody, a nurse to draw blood, make sure that you qualify and you're healthy enough to donate and they ship you a cooler.

I probably shipped four or five coolers full of frozen breast milk, over 300 or 400 ounces worth.

MCGULKIN: I would guess that I've donated about a thousand, maybe a little bit over a thousand ounces of breast milk.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Breast milk is the healthiest for babies. It has the mother's natural antibodies and you pass along your immunities to the baby. So especially for the babies that are born in these critical situations.

MCGUILKIN: As I'm pumping, every day, I'm picturing, you know, these little children, these little infants in South Africa receiving this breast milk and thriving on it. UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: It is so satisfying to give this milk, knowing that I will probably never meet the people that - the babies that are benefiting from it.

This has probably been the most rewarding and gratifying volunteerism I've ever done. You're not writing a check. You're not, you know, buying books for little kids, or giving money to a homeless man on the street. It is very personal.

And I spent a lot of time thinking about that. It has been very rewarding.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

GRIFFIN: Interesting. While some of the milk is donated to needy mothers and children, there is also a commercial aspect to this project. As a California-based company that processes and ships to Africa at least a quarter of the milk at no charge to the project or the donor. The company pays the charity for the remaining milk and then processes and fortifies it by selling it to neonatal intensive care units across the U.S..

For more information on this, on how you can help, go to cnn.com/givingtowatch. More stories on people making a difference in their community and beyond.

Still ahead, a holiday homecoming for U.S. soldiers who spent the year in Afghanistan.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

GRIFFIN: Hundreds of military families got a belated Christmas gift today in New York. About 300 soldiers returned from Afghanistan early this morning to be reunited with their loved ones at Ft. Drum. Here are some of the sights and sounds from the holiday homecoming.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: In a couple of minutes it is going to be pandemonium.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: About 300 soldiers coming back today.

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

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Jace Rider-Shilling (ph). Jace is waiting on his dad. He hasn't seen him since he was four days old.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Look at all the kids, babies, husbands, wives, everyone who is in this crowd, waiting for their soldier to come home.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I feel like (INAUDIBLE).

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: They have done great work over there but it has been a hard road and these families missed them.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: He has been trying to hold it together, you know.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We are proud to be in the army of the free.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We were sent into two provinces that were completely controlled by the Taliban. We made a huge difference in those provinces.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: They have done a great job rooting out the Taliban and improving the lives of the Afghans but it has come at a cost. They've lost 24 soldiers from combat-related death.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We've actually been called the spearhead of the surge.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: As soon as they say dismissed, you are going to have people launching themselves at each other.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I saw him.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Dad!

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Oh, hello! Hello! Hello! How are you?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Awesome.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I'm awesome now.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Oh. It's so good to see you.

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

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Very emotional. I'm just so glad he's home and I'm so glad he is safe.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I was actually worried about coming back. I didn't know if he was going to like me or not. That was the hard part.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: So much bigger.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Everybody's grown. Everybody's changed while I've been gone, huh. Now I've got to get back into the family.

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

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: She is the greatest present we could get. I have her home. Couldn't ask for more.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

GRIFFIN: That's nice. Well, from those heroes to another hero. The hero of Flight 253. You are going to hear from him in his own words, next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

GRIFFIN: Just in to us is a statement from the Nigerian embassy in Washington. The Nigerian official saying that they are in contact with relevant U.S. authorities over the incident. They looked like they are vowing to help in the investigation and also saying that officers from the embassy have already flown to Michigan to gain counselor access to the individual.

That is happening as we are learning more about the hero of this flight. A quick-thinking passenger in seat 20-J. His name is Jasper Schuringa. He is being credited with leaping over seats to stop this terror suspect.

CNN's Fredricka Whitfield exclusively interviewed him this afternoon.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

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

And so, you know, I was trying to search his body for, you know, any explosives and then I took some kind of object that was already melting and smoking out of him and 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 seat.

So with my hands and everything, you can see it is burned, I put out the fire and then other passengers help me as well. And of course, I was screaming for water, water plus we really have to (INAUDIBLE) - fire on a plane is not that good, of course.

(END VIDEOTAPE)