Friday, December 25, 2009




It is too early to assess definitively the failed attempt by a person of Nigerian origin to create an explosion on board a North-west Airlines flight (Airbus 330 with 278 passengers) from Amsterdam to Detroit as it was about to land in Detroit on Christmas Day on December 25,2009.

2.The attack seems to have failed due to the mal-functioning of what was intended by the suspect to be an explosive mixture and the prompt intervention of fellow-passengers, who managed to overpower the suspect after he had unsuccessfully tried to cause a detonation. While official sources in the US have characterised the incident as an attempted terrorist attack, the US Attorney-General has not yet done so.

3. A tentative assessment on the basis of available details would indicate that this could be an attempt by Al Qaeda to cause an explosion on board an aircraft by concealing a powder in the groin of a passenger posing as a diabetic patient and injecting a chemical trigger carried without being detected by the security inside an insulin injection tube.

4. Two serious breaches of security have come to notice: Failure to detect a person with a previous suspicious background as a terrorist despite the fact that his name figured in databases of terrorist suspects and failure to detect the concealment of a suspicious-looking powder in the groin of the suspect. The attempted use of medicines such as insulin for concealing chemical triggers, if corroborated, shows the continuing evolution of the modus operandi tried/used by the terrorists to escape detection.

5.The available details of the incident from open sources are given below:

(a). Identity of the suspect: A senior law enforcement source speaking to CBS News has identified the suspect as Nigerian national Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, 23. ABC News named the suspect as Abdul Farouk Abdulmutallab, 23, who was said to be an engineering student at the University College of London.

(b). His background: US media reported that the passenger told investigators he was affiliated with Al Qaeda. CNN and other broadcast channels said the man told investigators he had acquired the explosive device in Yemen, along with instructions as to when it should be used. Peter King, a Republican Party member of the House of Representatives Homeland Security Committee, told Fox News that the suspect "definitely has terror connections". "My understanding is ... that he does have Al-Qaeda connections, certainly extremist terrorist connections, and his name popped up pretty quickly" in a search of intelligence databases. The CBS News reported that the suspect was on a U.S. government watch list of people with suspected terrorist ties. It said that a senior administration official declined to elaborate on how a man on a U.S. terrorist watch list was able to board the airline

( c ): Where did he get into the flight. At Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport. According to “The Sun”,the man, who flew from Nigeria to Amsterdam and then Detroit, was taken into custody at the Detroit airport.

(d). What kind of explosive or incendiary device he carried and how did he conceal it?: According to the Associated Press, one of the U.S. intelligence officials said the explosive device was a mix of powder and liquid. It failed when the passenger tried to detonate it. It added that a law enforcement source said the explosives may have been strapped to the man's body but investigators weren't immediately certain, partly because of the struggle with other passengers. According to the Agence France Presse, the explosive, which was apparently carried onto the flight from its originating airport in Amsterdam, was originally believed to be a small firecracker, but a US official said the device was "more complicated than gunpowder firecracker" and caught fire as the man tried to set it off. According to a report on the ABC television network, the suspect told the authorities he had had explosive powder taped to his leg and used a syringe of chemicals to mix with the powder that was to cause explosion. Another US intelligence official quoted by AP said an explosive device had been used consisting of a "mix of powder and liquid". The CBS reported that the explosive material was apparently taped to the man's leg and lit the lower part of his body. He was immediately subdued and restrained and was later transported to a hospital unit. He reportedly told US investigators that he picked up the explosive material in Yemen and was instructed to set it off on board an airplane. Those claims could not immediately be verified. One law enforcement source said the man claimed to have been instructed by Al Qaeda to detonate the plane over U.S. soil. A high-ranking law enforcement official told CBS News that the suspect apparently used a syringe to inject a chemical into a powder located near his groin, a technique not seen in previous attempted attacks. It's possible, the source said, that this incident was a test of whether the materials could pass screening and how effective they might be at causing damage. (26-12-09)

( The writer is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, New Delhi, and, presently, Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai. E-mail: )