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Dec 26th, 2009

Fellow Travelers Help Foil Attack Aboard Jetliner

Passenger: Once subdued, alleged attacker was ‘calm’ (NBC Today, Dec. 26, 2009 — Melinda Dennis, a first class passenger aboard Flight 253, joins NBC’s Amy Robach to discuss the scene on the jetliner when the man was placed in a seat across the aisle from her. (03:16)

NBC,, and news services
December 26, 2009

ROMULUS, Mich. — An attempted terrorist attack on a Christmas Day flight began with a pop and a puff of smoke — sending passengers scrambling to subdue a Nigerian man who claimed to be acting on orders from al-Qaida to blow up the airliner, officials and travelers said.

British officials on Saturday were searching the last known address of the suspect, who was thought to be an engineering student at University College London, one of the United Kingdom’s leading universities, according to Sky News. …

Travelers said they smelled smoke, saw a glow, and heard what sounded like firecrackers.

“It sounded like a firecracker in a pillowcase,” said Peter Smith, a passenger from the Netherlands. “First there was a pop, and then (there) was smoke.”

Smith said one passenger, sitting opposite the man, climbed over passengers, went across the aisle and tried to restrain the man, who officials say was trying to ignite an explosive device. The heroic passenger appeared to have been burned.

Afterward, the suspect was taken to a front-row seat with his pants cut off and his legs burned. Multiple law enforcement officials also said the man appeared badly burned on his legs, indicating the explosive was strapped there. The components were apparently mixed in-flight and included a powdery substance, multiple law enforcement and counterterrorism officials said.

Attempted act of terrorism

The White House said it believed it was an attempted act of terrorism and stricter security measures were quickly imposed on airline travel. Dutch anti-terrorism authorities said the U.S. has asked all airlines to take extra precautions on flights worldwide that are bound for the United States. …

Intelligence and anti-terrorism officials in Yemen said they were investigating claims by the suspect that he picked up the explosive device and instructions on how to use it in that country. …

One law enforcement official … said Mutallab’s name had surfaced earlier on at least one U.S. intelligence database, but he was not on a watch list or a no-fly list. …

Nigeria’s information minister, Dora Akunyili, condemned the attempted bombing. She said the government has opened its own investigation into the suspect and will work with U.S. authorities. …

London’s Metropolitan Police also was working with U.S. officials, a spokeswoman said, and searches were being conducted in that city. …

University College London issued a statement saying a student named Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab studied mechanical engineering there between September 2005 and June 2008. But the college said it wasn’t certain the student was the same person who was on the plane. …


Alain Ghonda was also aboard Flight 253. He told that he was seated in the same row as the suspect, sitting several seats to his left.

“I heard the explosion … at that point we thought it was outside the plane so people lifted the window blinds to look out,” Ghonda told “It wasn’t a big explosion, it sounded like a firecracker, but it smelled like a gun had just gone off.

“I looked and saw that smoke was coming out of him and he was trying to brush something off his pants … and suddenly I saw a big flame come out of him,” Ghonda said. “A Dutch guy jumped over the seats and grabbed the guy on fire.”

Federal officials said there would be heightened security for both domestic and international flights at airports across the country, but the intensified levels would likely be “layered,” differing from location to location depending on alerts, security concerns and other factors.

Passengers can expect to see heightened screening, more bomb-sniffing dog and officer units and behavioral-detection specialists at some airports, but there will also be unspecified less visible precautions as well, officials said.

The FBI and the Homeland Security Department issued an intelligence note on Nov. 20 about the threat picture for the holiday season, which was obtained by The Associated Press. At the time, officials said they had no specific information about attack plans by al-Qaida or other terrorist groups. …

Obama monitoring security from Hawaii (NBC Nightly News, Dec. 25, 2009) — CNBC’s Carl Quintanilla speaks with NBC’s Chuck Todd. (02:04)

President Barack Obama was notified of the incident and discussed it with security officials, the White House said. Officials said he is monitoring the situation and receiving regular updates from his vacation spot in Hawaii.


Airline Terror Suspect Tied to Yemen al-Qaida?

By Robert Windrem
Senior investigative producer
December 26, 2009
Senior investigative producer

U.S. agencies are looking into whether al-Qaida extremists in Yemen directed Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab and provided him with the explosives used in the failed bombing of Northwest Flight 253, senior administration officials told NBC News on Saturday.

They are also examining a possible link to an attempted assassination of a Saudi government official last August that used the same explosive, PETN, or pentaerythritol tetranitrate. In both incidents, the explosive device was in or attached to the suspect’s underwear.

The New York Times quoted unidentified officials as saying Abdulmutallab had obtained the explosive materials from a bomb expert in Yemen associated with al-Qaida. Abdulmutallab had visited Yemen in the past few months, say officials. Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula is a Yemen-based offshoot of al-Qaida.

Abdulmutallab’s increasingly radical leanings and anti-western rhetoric caused his family to alert the U.S. Embassy in the Nigerian capital of Abuja of their concerns. He was added to a terrorism watch list in November, say officials, but not to the no-fly list. The larger watch list — the Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment, or TIDE — contains more than 500,000 names, while the no-fly list has some 4,000 names.

Military action

Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula has been increasingly active in the past year. It is headquartered in Hadramout, the vast desert region shared with Saudi Arabia, but operates in other parts of the peninsula as well. U.S. and Yemeni forces have stepped up military activities in the region in recent weeks. …

Image: Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab
Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab is shown in an undated photograph released to Reuters on Saturday.

Of particular interest to U.S. officials, beyond Abdulmutallab’s travels to Yemen, is a thwarted attack on the head of Saudi Arabias counterterrorism effort and an October article on the use of small amounts of explosives, authored by the Yemen al-Qaida group’s leader.

In the former incident, a suicide bomber hid PETN in his underwear, detonating it when greeting Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, head of Saudi counterterrorism, last Aug. 28.

The man, who had claimed he was turning himself in, died in the attack. Bin Nayef, a U.S. ally, suffered burns to his hands. Cultural taboos prevented a search in that part of the terrorist’s body.

Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula claimed responsibility for the attack. Officials told WNBC that the explosives in the Christmas Day attack also were attached to Abdulmutallab’s underwear.

‘War is a Trick’

That was followed by an article published two months later in Sada al-Malahim, the group’s online magazine. In the article, “War is a Trick,” the group’s leader, Abu Basir al-Wuhayshi, advised would-be al-Qaida members to use small amounts of explosives to kill “apostates” and Western nationals, including on passenger aircraft and in airports.

Did terror suspect fall through cracks? (NBC Nightly News, Dec. 26, 2009) — NBC’s Amy Robach speaks with NBC’s Chuck Todd. (01:14)

According to a translation proved by NBC counterterrorism analyst Evan Kohlmann, al-Wuhayshi wrote:

“You do not need to sacrifice huge efforts, or large amounts of money, to make 10 grams of explosives, or more or less … make it [the material] in the shape of a grenade to throw, or [an explosive] to time, or ignite it from a distance, or a martyrdom belt … and bomb with it any tyrant, or intelligence forces den, or a prince, or a minister, or a crusader wherever you find them, and also in airports in the western crusade countries that participated in the war against Muslims; or on their planes, or in their residential complexes or their subways.”

Al-Wuhayshi pointed to the attempted assassination of bin Nayef as an example of how to carry out such attacks.

U.S. and Yemeni forces have carried out two joint attacks on al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula within the past week, killing more than 60 suspects and larger numbers of civilians. Among those targeted in the second attack, only three days ago, was al-Wuhayshi.


12/28/2009 Update

Qaeda Wing Claims Responsibility for Attack on U.S. Plane

Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab is seen in this undated handout, distributed by IntelCenter on December 28, 2009, and attributed to Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. Abdulmutallab, who was traveling with a valid U.S. visa although he was on a broad U.S. list of possible security threats, was overpowered by passengers and crew on the Northwest Airlines flight 253 from Amsterdam to Detroit on December 25 after setting alight an explosive device attached to his body. (Photo credit: IntelCenter — Handout / Reuters)

December 28, 2009

DUBAI — A regional wing of al Qaeda said it was behind the failed Christmas Day bombing of a U.S. passenger plane, which was meant to avenge U.S. attacks on the group in Yemen, according to a web statement posted on Monday [see Note].

The group said it had provided the Nigerian suspect with a “technically advanced device” but that it had failed to detonate because of a technical fault.

“The martyrdom-seeking brother Umar reached his target … but a technical fault occurred leading to a lack of complete explosion,” al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula said in the statement posted on Islamist websites.

The group identified the suspect as Umar Farouk al-Nigiri (the Nigerian), and published a montage of him smiling with a passenger plane in the background.

Nigerian Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, 23, is charged with attempting to blow up a Delta Airlines plane as it approached Detroit on a flight from Amsterdam with almost 300 people on board.

“We call on all Muslims … to throw out all unbelievers from the Arabian Peninsula by killing crusaders who work in embassies or elsewhere … (in) a total war on all crusaders in the Peninsula of (Prophet) Mohammad,” it said.

On Sunday, the group said in an Internet statement it would take revenge over raids against it this month, which it said were carried out by U.S. jets and killed about 50 men, women and children.

The United States and Saudi Arabia fear al Qaeda will exploit instability in Yemen to stage attacks in the kingdom, the world’s largest oil exporter, and beyond.

Note: The first missile strikes occurred on Dec. 17, making it highly unlikely that the Dec. 25 terror plot could have been planned and executed as a direct retaliation.


1/24/2010 Update

Bin Laden Purportedly Lauds Detroit Bomb Plot

On tape, terror chief claims responsibility for attempt


Bin Laden purportedly claims bomb plot (NBC Nightly News, Jan. 24, 2010) — NBC’s Jim Miklaszewski discusses an audio tape, purportedly from Osama bin Laden, in which the al-Qaida claims responsibility for the attempted bombing of a Detroit-bound airliner. (01:35)

January 24, 2010

CAIRO — Osama bin Laden claimed responsibility for the failed attempt to bomb a Detroit-bound airliner on Christmas in a new audio message released Sunday threatening more attacks on the United States.

The United States said there was no indication to suggest that bin Laden or any of his top lieutenants had anything to do with the attempted attack and that the claim may have been motivated by the wish of the terror network’s leaders to appear in control of al-Qaida’s offshoots.

“They offer strategic guidance and rely on their affiliates to carry out that strategic guidance,” State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said in an interview.

“He (bin Laden) is trying to continue to appear relevant,” he said.

The Nigerian Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab told federal agents shortly afterward that he had been trained and given the explosives by al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, an al-Qaida-inspired offshoot in bin Laden’s ancestral homeland of Yemen.

In the minute-long recording released to al-Jazeera Arabic news channel, bin Laden addressed President Barack Obama saying the recent attempt was meant to send a message similar to that of the Sept. 11 attacks.

“The message delivered to you through the plane of the heroic warrior Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab was a confirmation of the previous messages sent by the heroes of the Sept. 11,” he said. “America will never dream of security unless we will have it in reality in Palestine,” he added.

“God willing, our raids on you will continue as long as your support for the Israelis continues.”

U.S.-based IntelCenter, which monitors militant messages, said bin Laden used specific language he has used before in advance of attacks, a possible indicator of an upcoming action within the next 12 months.

The phrase “Peace be upon those who follow guidance” appears at the beginning and end of messages released in advance of attacks to warn al-Qaida’s enemies that they need to change their ways or they will be attacked, IntelCenter said in a statement. The language, used in the latest message as well, allows al-Qaida to blame the actual attack on those who refuse to change their ways, which in the group’s view forces a response. …

Bin Laden’s message came four weeks after the Yemen-based group made its own claim of responsibility for the bomb plot with a different justification – linking it to Yemeni military attacks on al-Qaida targets with the help of U.S. intelligence.

But a senior U.S. intelligence official in Washington said al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula is linked to the central al-Qaida that bin Laden heads and recent intelligence indicates there are ongoing contacts between al-Qaida in Yemen and in Pakistan.

He added, however, that there was “no evidence whatsoever” that bin Laden had any involvement in the Christmas Day plot or even knew about it in advance. …

The message appeared to be an attempt by bin Laden to stay relevant, said Rohan Gunaratna, author of “Inside Al Qaeda: Global Network of Terror.” …

Of all the various offshoots and branches of al-Qaida around the world, Gunaratna said the group in Yemen is one of the closest to bin Laden since it is made up of bodyguards and associates of the organization’s top ideologues. Yemen is bin Laden’s ancestral homeland. …

Two of the group’s top members were former detainees released in November 2007 from the U.S. military prison Guantanamo Bay. …

In the past year, bin Laden’s messages have concentrated heavily on the situation of the Palestinians in attempt to rally support from Muslims around the world.

Some analysts say bin Laden is focusing on the close U.S.-Israeli relationship because he is worried about Obama’s popularity across the Middle East with his promises to withdraw from Iraq and because his father was a Muslim from the African nation of Kenya. …

The last public message from bin Laden appears to have been on Sept. 26 [2009], when he demanded that European countries pull their troops out of Afghanistan. The order came in an audiotape that also warned of “retaliation” against nations that are allied with the United States in fighting the war.


1/25/2010 Update

U.S. investigates bin Laden ties to jet bomb bid (NBC, Jan. 25, 2010) – U.S. intelligence analysts are investigating how much, if anything, Osama bin Laden knew about the plot to blow up a Detroit-bound airliner on Christmas Day, following this weekends release of an audiotape from the al-Qaida leader claiming responsibility. … Sources told NBC News that an audiotape released Sunday claiming responsibility for the actions of so-called “underwear bomber” Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, was made by bin Laden. … But whether bin Laden himself was informed remains uncertain.  At one point the U.S. believed that any attacks on the United States or United Kingdom required specific approval of bin Laden or his Egyptian deputy, Ayman al Zawarhiri.  Lately, the thinking is that bin Laden has little if any operational control, acting more as an inspirational figure. … Full report


6/17/2015 Update

Nasser al-Wuhayshi: US drone strike kills Al Qaeda leader in Yemen (Christian Science Monitor, June 16, 2015) — The killing of Nasser al-Wuhayshi is described as the most significant setback to Al Qaeda since the death of Osama Bin Laden in 2011. But counterterrorism officials warn that the group’s threat remains potent. … Full report


Topical reports on this site

Obama Opens Third War Front (Dec. 28, 2009)

Yemen Link in Airline Terror Plot (Dec. 26, 2009)

Christmas Terrorism Alert (Dec. 25, 2009)

Obama Fires Missiles into Yemen (Dec. 19, 2009)

Where is Osama Bin Laden? (Dec. 10, 2009)

Chuck Hagel on National Defense (Sept. 3, 2009)

Obama War Strategy Setback (Aug. 29, 2009)

Iraq: Terrorist Training Ground (Sept. 18, 2008)

Image: Smoke outside the U.S. embassy in San'a, Yemen
Foreign fighters return home from Iraq to launch new attacks against U.S. targets. Smoke billows from the U.S. Embassy complex in Sana, Yemen, after a deadly car bombing on Wednesday, Sept. 17, 2008. (Photo credit: Yemen News Agency)


FROM THE ARCHIVES: One Year Ago — December 26, 2008

Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff
Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff (Photo credit: Matt Dunham / AP)

New Terrorism Forecast for U.S.

One-year retrospective: One year ago today, I reported a new Homeland Security Threat Assessment for the years 2008-2013, which projects that the terrorism threat to the United States over the next five years will be driven by instability in the Middle East and Africa, persistent challenges to border security, and increasing Internet savvy — with chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear [CBRN] attacks considered the most dangerous threats to U.S. national security.

16 Responses to “Yemen Link in Airline Terror Plot”
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    […] Nigerian Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab’s attempt to blow up a U.S. jetliner bound for Detroit on Christmas day. […]

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  13. Immelman for Congress » Blog Archive » Obama Fires Missiles into Yemen Says:

    […] Al-Qaida’s affiliate in Yemen is believed by the C.I.A. to pose the greatest immediate threat to the United States, more so than even Qaeda’s senior leadership believed to be hiding in Pakistan. The Yemen group has been linked to the attempt to blow up a transatlantic jetliner on Christmas Day 2009 and last year’s plot to blow up cargo planes with bombs hidden inside printer cartridges.leadership believed to be hiding in Pakistan. The Yemen group has been linked to the attempt to blow up a transatlantic jetliner on Christmas Day 2009 and last year’s plot to blow up cargo planes with bombs hidden inside printer cartridges. […]

  14. Immelman for Congress » Blog Archive » American-Born Terrorist Anwar al-Awlaki Killed in Yemen Says:

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    […] In 2011, a high-profile U.S. drone strike killed U.S.-born Anwar al-Awlaki, who had been linked to the planning and execution of several attacks targeting U.S. and Western interests, including the attempt to down a Detroit-bound airliner in 2009 and the plot to bomb cargo planes in 2010. […]

  16. The Immelman Turn » Blog Archive » Ramadan Terror Plot Foiled? Zawahiri Wanted “Something Big” Says:

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