DETROIT - A Northwest Airlines passenger from Nigeria, who said that he was acting on al Qaeda's instructions, set off an explosive device yesterday in a failed terrorist attack on the plane as it was landing in Detroit, federal officials said.
Flight 253, with 278 passengers aboard, was 20 minutes from the airport when it sounded like a firecracker had exploded, witnesses said. One passenger jumped over others and tried to subdue the man. Shortly afterward, the suspect was taken to a front-row seat with his pants cut off and his legs burned.
The White House said that it believed that it was an attempted act of terrorism and that stricter security measures were quickly imposed on airline travel, but were not specified.
Law-enforcement officials identified the suspect as Umar Farouk Abdul Mutallab. Others had slightly different spellings.
One law-enforcement source said that the man claimed to have been instructed by al Qaeda to detonate the plane over U.S. soil.
"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."
At least one passenger acted heroically.
Smith said that the passenger, sitting opposite the man, climbed over passengers, went across the aisle and tried to restrain the man. The heroic passenger appeared to have been burned.
The incident was reminiscent of convicted shoe-bomber Richard Reid, who tried to destroy a trans-Atlantic flight in 2001 with explosives hidden in his shoes, but was subdued by other passengers. Reid is serving a life sentence.
Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., ranking GOP member of the House Homeland Security Committee, said that the flight began in Nigeria and went through Amsterdam en route to Detroit.
A statement from Delta, which acquired Northwest, said: "Upon approach to Detroit, a passenger caused a disturbance onboard Northwest Airlines Flight 253. The passenger was subdued immediately and the crew requested that law enforcement meet the flight upon arrival.
"The flight, operated by Northwest using an Airbus 330-300 aircraft with 278 passengers onboard, landed safely. The passenger was taken into custody and questioned by law enforcement authorities."
The FBI and the Homeland Security Department issued an intelligence note on Nov. 20 about the threat picture for the 2009 holiday season from Thanksgiving through Jan. 1. At the time, intelligence officials said that they had no specific information about attack plans by al Qaeda or other terrorist groups.
President Obama was notified of the incident and discussed it with security officials, the White House said. It said that he is monitoring the situation and receiving regular updates from his vacation spot in Hawaii.
There was nothing out of the ordinary about Flight 253 until it was on final approach to Detroit, said Federal Aviation Administration spokeswoman Elizabeth Isham Cory. That is when the pilot declared an emergency and landed without incident shortly thereafter, Cory said. The plane landed at 12:51 p.m. EST.
One U.S. intelligence official said that the explosive device was a mix of powder and liquid. It failed when the passenger tried to detonate it.
The passenger was being questioned yesterday evening. An intelligence source said that the Nigerian passenger was being held and treated in an Ann Arbor, Mich., hospital.
All the sources spoke on condition of anonymity because the investigation was continuing.
The official said that an official determination of a terrorist act would have to come from the attorney general. The official added that additional security measures were being taken without raising the airline threat level, but declined to describe them.
The White House was coordinating briefings for the president through the Homeland Security Department, the Transportation Security Administration and the FBI.
A law-enforcement source said that 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.
One passenger from the flight was taken to the University of Michigan Medical Center in Ann Arbor, hospital spokeswoman Tracy Justice said. She didn't know the person's condition, or whether the person was a man or woman. She referred all inquiries to the FBI.