MOGADISHU, Somalia - U.S. officials are investigating a Somalian man's alleged attempt to board a flight last month carrying chemicals, liquid, and a syringe in a case bearing chilling echoes of the plot to blow up a Detroit-bound jet on Christmas Day.
Terrorism analysts said the arrest in Mogadishu, the Somalian capital, could prove highly valuable for the Detroit investigation if the incidents turn out to be linked.
The Somali was arrested by African Union peacekeeping troops Nov. 13 before boarding the Daallo Airlines plane bound for the northern Somalian city of Hargeisa, then to Djibouti and Dubai.
"We don't know whether he's linked with al-Qaeda or other foreign organizations, but his actions were the acts of a terrorist. We caught him redhanded," said a Somalian police spokesman, Abdulahi Hassan Barise.
A Nairobi-based diplomat said the incident had similarities to the attempted attack on Northwest Airlines Flight 253, in that the Somali was said to have a syringe, liquid, and powdered chemicals - tools similar to those used by the Nigerian suspect, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, on the Detroit-bound plane. The diplomat spoke on condition he not be identified.
Barigye Bahoku, spokesman for the African Union military force in Mogadishu, said the materials could have caused an explosion that would have resulted in cabin decompression.
For the Amsterdam-to-Detroit flight, Abdulmutallab allegedly hid explosive PETN in a condom or condom-like bag below his torso. In the Somalian case, the powdered material smelled of ammonia, and samples were sent to London for testing, Bahoku said.
The case drew little attention before the Christmas incident, but yesterday U.S. officials began to investigate any possible links between them. None would speak on the record.
State Department spokesman Ian Kelly said U.S. investigators were working with Somalian authorities. He said linking the case to Friday's "would be speculative at this point."
Thomas Sanderson, a security analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the Somalian suspect was extremely valuable for U.S. investigators, who will compare his statements with Abdulmutallab's.
The suspect is in Somalian custody, said Barise, the police spokesman.
There is no certainty the two men were trained by the same group, Sanderson said, but he said he thought the similarities were "probably an indicator that more than just two people have been trained and prepared and ordered or convinced to carry out individual acts of terrorism."
U.S. investigators say Abdulmutallab told them he received training and instructions from al-Qaeda operatives in Yemen, which Western officials say is a jumping-off point for foreign fighters slipping into Somalia. Large swaths of Somalia are controlled by an al-Qaeda-linked insurgent group, al-Shabab.
Abdulmutallab is charged with trying to destroy an aircraft. If the Somalian suspect was planning anything similar, it wasn't known what his specific target might have been. Most passengers on Daallo's Mogadishu route are Somali. The carrier's Web site calls it the national airline of Somalia's neighbor Djibouti.
About 1,800 U.S. troops are stationed in Djibouti. Dubai would offer the greatest range of westbound flights along the route in question.
A Somalian security official involved in the Mogadishu arrest said the suspect had a 2.2-pound package of chemical powder and a container of liquid chemicals, and was the last passenger in line to try to board.
His name was not released, but the security official gave it as Abdi Hassan Abdi and said he was middle-aged. Stock said the name he got was Abdi Hassan Abdullah.
Once the chemicals and syringe were detected, the suspect tried to bribe the team that detained him, the security official said.