WASHINGTON - An attempted terrorist attack on a Christmas Day was reportedly stopped by a heroic Dutch citizen, Jasper Schuringa, who subdued a Nigerian who claimed to be acting on orders from al-Qaida to blow up the airliner, officials and travelers said.
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Travelers said they smelled smoke, saw a glow, and heard what sounded like firecrackers.
Passenger Syed Jafry, a U.S. citizen who had flown from the United Arab Emirates and was one of the 278 passengers onboard Northwest Airlines Flight 253, said the incident occurred during the plane’s descent. Jafry said he was seated three rows behind the passenger, saw a glow and then smelled smoke.
It was another passenger, who Jafry described as being in his
20s or early 30s and having a medium, stocky build - who has been identified by multiple sources as Schuringa - who quickly jumped toward the man who had started the fire.
“He did a good job with his power, tackled him and put him under arrest,” Jafry said Saturday.
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.
"I took him [the suspect] in a choke to the first class and all the people were like, ‘What’s going on?!," said Schuringa.
The components were apparently mixed in-flight and included a powdery substance, multiple law enforcement and counterterrorism officials said.
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.
The incident was reminiscent of Richard Reid, who tried to destroy a trans-Atlantic flight in 2001 with explosives hidden in his shoes, but was subdued by other passengers.
One law enforcement official said the man claimed to have been instructed by al-Qaida to detonate the plane over U.S. soil, but other law enforcement officials cautioned that such claims could not be verified immediately, and said the man may have been acting independently — inspired but not specifically trained or ordered by terror groups.
All the officials spoke on condition of anonymity because the investigation was continuing.
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. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to speak to the media.
The man was being questioned Friday evening. An intelligence official said he was being held and treated in an Ann Arbor, Mich., hospital. The hospital said one passenger from the flight was taken to the University of Michigan Medical Center in Ann Arbor, but referred all inquiries to the FBI.
Melinda Dennis, who was seated in the front row of the plane, said the man involved was brought to the front row and seated near her. She said his legs appeared to be badly burned and his pants were cut off. She said he was taken off the plane handcuffed to a stretcher.
The suspect boarded in Nigeria and went through Amsterdam en route to Detroit, Rep. Peter King, the ranking GOP member of the House Homeland Security Committee, told CNN. A spokeswoman for police at the Schiphol airport in Amsterdam declined comment about the case or about security procedures at the airport for Flight 253.
Schiphol airport, one of Europe's busiest with a heavy load of transit passengers from Africa and Asia to North America, strictly enforces European security regulations including only allowing small amounts of liquid in hand luggage that must be placed inside clear plastic bags.
A spokesman for the Federal Airports Authority of Nigeria, Akin Olukunle, said all passengers and their luggage are screened before boarding international flights. He also said the airport in Lagos cleared a U.S. Transportation Security Administration audit in November.
"We had a pass mark," Olukunle said. "We actually are up to standards in all senses."
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.
"We state very clearly that as a nation we abhor all forms of violence," Akunyili said in a statement issued Saturday.
London's Metropolitan Police also was working with U.S. officials, a spokeswoman said, and searches were being conducted in that city. The spokeswoman would not provide additional details, including what connection the suspect had to London or what was being searched. She spoke on condition of anonymity in line with department policy.
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.
Delta Air Lines Inc., which acquired Northwest last year, said a passenger caused a disturbance, was subdued, and the crew requested that law enforcement officials meet the flight.
Passenger Syed Jafri, a U.S. citizen who had flown from the United Arab Emirates, said the incident occurred during the plane's descent. Jafri said he was seated three rows behind the passenger and said he saw a glow, and noticed a smoke smell. Then, he said, "a young man behind me jumped on him."
"Next thing you know, there was a lot of panic," he said.
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.
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.
Associated Press Writers Lara Jakes in Baghdad, Iraq, Jon Gambrell in Lagos, Nigeria, Arthur Max in Amsterdam, Jennifer Quinn in London, Ahmed al-Haj in Yemen, and Larry Margasak and Devlin Barrett in Washington contributed to this report.