Aftermath of the Northwest Airlines Flight 253 attack

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On December 25, 2009, 23-year-old Nigerian Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab made an attempt to detonate an explosive substance on Northwest Airlines Flight 253. The international flight originated in Amsterdam Airport Schiphol in Amsterdam, Netherlands and made an emergency landing at Detroit Metropolitan Wayne County Airport in Detroit, Michigan, United States. All 290 people aboard the flight, including Abdulmutallab, survived, though he and several others sustained injuries, most of them minor. After being released from a local hospital, Abdulmutallab was indicted by a federal grand jury on six criminal counts. As a result of the attack, travelers faced increased security and other effects, while the U.S. government saw a backlash to its handling of national security and the incident.

Criminal charges[edit]

A red brick sign in the foreground says "FCI MILAN". In the back, a solitary green tree is visible atop a grassy mound, with a tower to its right.
Prison grounds at Federal Correctional Institution, Milan, where Abdulmutallab was incarcerated

On December 26, a criminal complaint was filed against Abdulmutallab in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan, charging him with two counts: placing a destructive device in, and attempting to destroy, a U.S. civil aircraft.[1] The U.S. Attorney's Office assigned to the case federal prosecutors Jonathan Tukel (chief of the counter-terrorism unit) and Eric Straus (former chief of the same unit).[2] Abdulmutallab was arraigned and officially charged by U.S. District Court Judge Paul D. Borman later the same day at the University of Michigan Hospital.[3]

On January 6, 2010, a federal grand jury indicted Abdulmutallab on six criminal counts including attempted use of a weapon of mass destruction and attempted murder. "Not guilty" pleas were entered on the behalf of Abdulmutallab at the hearing.[4] The charges carried a maximum sentence of life imprisonment plus 90 years.[5] He faced his first court hearing, a detention hearing, on January 8, 2010.[6] A former federal prosecutor told the Detroit News that "there's no chance of getting this guy bond in a million years".[7]

When asked about his decision to prosecute Abdulmutallab in federal court rather than have him detained under the law of war, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder defended his position, saying that it was "fully consistent with the long-established and publicly known policies and practices of the Department of Justice, the FBI, and the United States Government as a whole," and that he was confident that Abdulmutallab would be successfully prosecuted under the federal criminal law. Holder had originally been asked by U.S. Senator Mitch McConnell, as well as several others, about his choice on January 26, 2010. The response was sent in a February 3 letter to McConnell and the others.[8]


Effect on travel[edit]

The U.S. government did not raise the Homeland Security Advisory System terrorist threat level, orange at the time (high risk of terrorist attacks), following the attack.[9][10] However, the Department of Homeland Security said that additional security measures would be in place for the remainder of the Christmas travel period.[11] The TSA detailed several of the measures, including a restriction on movement and access to personal items during the last hour of flight for planes entering U.S. airspace. The TSA also said that there would be more officers and security dogs at airports.[12]

On December 28 Transport Canada announced that for several days it would not allow passengers flying to the U.S. from Canada a carry-on bag, with some exceptions.[13] British Airways said that passengers flying to the U.S. would only be permitted one carry-on item.[14] Other European countries increased baggage screening, pat-down searches, and random searches for passengers traveling to the U.S. A spokesperson for the Dutch airport used by the attacker said that heightened security would be in place for "an indefinite period".[15] However, in spite of the extra measures said to have been put in place to prevent a follow-up attack, Stuart Clarke, a photoreporter from the British newspaper Daily Express claimed to have smuggled a syringe containing fluid, and which could have contained a liquid bomb detonator onto another plane. On January 3, 2010, Clarke said he boarded a jet from Schiphol Airport bound for Heathrow Airport just five days after the Christmas Day terror attack, and that the airport appeared to have imposed no additional security, such as precautionary pat-downs which could easily have discovered the syringe which he claimed he kept in his jacket pocket throughout.[16]

On December 27, a Lufthansa flight headed for Detroit was diverted to Iceland when it was discovered to be carrying a bag from a passenger who was not on the plane.[17] In addition, a passenger on a Baltimore-to-New York flight was detained when a firecracker was discovered in the seat he had used.[18]

U.S. political fallout[edit]

Beginning on the day of the incident, Obama was kept informed via secure conference calls and follow-up briefings.[19] White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs and Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano said several times on Sunday talk shows that "the system had worked", a statement that engendered some controversy.[20][21] The next day they retracted the statement, saying that the system had in fact "failed miserably."[21] According to Napolitano, her initial statement had referred to the rapid response to the attack that included alerts sent to the 128 other aircraft in U.S. airspace at the time, and new security requirements for the final hour of every flight, rather than the security failures that allowed the attack to happen.[22] Napolitano had originally stated on This Week that "once this incident occurred, everything went according to clockwork" and that "once the incident occurred, the system worked".[23]

The day after the attack, the U.S. House Homeland Security Committee and Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee both announced that they would hold hearings in January 2010 to investigate how the device passed through security, and whether further restrictions should be placed on air travel; the Senate hearings began on January 21.[24][25][26]

Four days after the attack, Obama said publicly that Abdulmutallab's ability to board the aircraft was the result of a systemic failure that included an inadequate sharing of information among U.S. and foreign government agencies. He called the situation "totally unacceptable."[27] He ordered that a report be delivered detailing how some government agencies had failed to share or highlight potentially relevant information about the suspect before he allegedly tried to blow up the airliner.[28] Two days later Obama received the briefing, which included statements that information about the suspect had failed to cross agency lines, and that the failures to communicate within the U.S. government had led to the threat posed by Abdulmutallab not being known by certain agencies until the attack. Obama said he would meet with security officials and specifically question why Abdulmutallab was not placed on the U.S. no-fly list, despite the government having received warnings about his potential al-Qaeda links.[29]


  1. ^ US District Court, Eastern District of Michigan. US v. Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, Criminal Complaint [PDF]. The New York Times. December 26, 2009 [Retrieved December 26, 2009].
  2. ^ Detroit flight terrorism suspect arraigned in hospital; December 26, 2009 [Retrieved December 26, 2009].[permanent dead link]
  3. ^ Williams, Corey. Judge tells man he's charged with blowing up plane. December 26, 2009 [Retrieved December 26, 2009]. Associated Press.
  4. ^ Ben Schmitt, David Ashenfelter, and Joe Swickard. Bomb suspect faces accusers; terrorism case may take months. January 9, 2010.[dead link]
  5. ^ Schmitt, Ben. Abdulmutallab faces life in prison for Flight 253 plot. Detroit Free Press. January 7, 2010.
  6. ^ Christmas Plane Bomb Suspect Indicted by U.S. Grand Jury. January 6, 2010. Fox News.
  7. ^ Egan, Paul. Passenger videos may aid case against Flight 253 terrorist suspect. The Detroit News. December 31, 2009.[permanent dead link]
  8. ^ Holder, Jr., Eric H.. Washington, D.C.: Office of the Attorney General. The Honorable Mitch McConnell; February 3, 2010 [archived March 14, 2012; Retrieved March 15, 2010].
  9. ^ ABC News. Man Attempts to Set Off Explosives on Detroit-Bound Airplane; December 25, 2009 [Retrieved December 25, 2009].
  10. ^ Officials: Possible terror attack on Northwest jet. December 25, 2009 [Retrieved December 25, 2009]. MSNBC.
  11. ^ Passenger Ignites Explosive on Delta Flight, Al Qaeda Connection Reported. December 25, 2009 [Retrieved December 25, 2009]. Fox News Channel.
  12. ^ Passengers' Quick Action Halted Attack. The New York Times. December 26, 2009 [Retrieved December 26, 2009].
  13. ^ "Canada limits carry-on baggage on flights into U.S.", CNN, December 29, 2009. Retrieved December 29, 2009.
  14. ^ Restrictions Rise After Terrorism Attempt. The New York Times. December 26, 2009 [Retrieved December 26, 2009].
  15. ^ Baker, Luke. Reuters. Europe tightens security after foiled U.S. attack; December 26, 2009 [Retrieved December 26, 2009].
  16. ^ Jarvis, David. "Plane crazy: we carry a syringe on jet at terror airport", January 3, 2010, The Daily Express. Retrieved March 1, 2010.
  17. ^ "False alarm diverts Lufthansa flight to Iceland", Times of India, December 27, 2009. Retrieved March 1, 2010.
  18. ^ "FBI: Man Flew Into NYC From BWI With Firecracker", CBS News, December 29, 2009. Retrieved March 2, 2010.
  19. ^ O'Connor, Anahad. Terror Attempt Seen as Man Tries to Ignite Device on Jet. The New York Times. December 25, 2009.
  20. ^ Swickard, Joe. Reports: NWA passenger was trying to blow up flight into Detroit. Detroit Free Press. December 25, 2009 [Retrieved December 25, 2009].
  21. ^ a b Analysis: Many Question "System Worked" Comment. The New York Times. December 29, 2009 [Retrieved December 30, 2009]. Associated Press.[dead link]
  22. ^ I'm the first of many, warns airline 'bomber' Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab. The Times. December 29, 2009 [Retrieved December 29, 2009].
  23. ^ ABC News Internet Ventures. 'This Week' Transcript: Napolitano, Gibbs, McConnell; December 27, 2009 [Retrieved March 14, 2010].
  24. ^ Fox News Channel. Congress to Probe Attempted Airline Attack, Consider Added Security Precautions; December 26, 2009 [Retrieved December 26, 2009].
  25. ^ Airports intensify security measures worldwide in wake of failed bomb attack aboard U.S.-bound jetliner. The Washington Post. December 26, 2009 [Retrieved December 26, 2009].
  26. ^ DeYoung, Karen, "Bombing reports start trickling in to Obama", The Washington Post, January 1, 2010, accessed January 2, 2010
  27. ^ US President Obama notes "system failure" over jet bomb. BBC. December 29, 2009 [Retrieved December 29, 2009].
  28. ^ Karen DeYoung. Obama to get report on intelligence failures in Abdulmutallab case. The Washington Post. December 31, 2009 [Retrieved January 10, 2010].
  29. ^ Obama briefed on plane bomb security lapses. BBC. December 31, 2009 [Retrieved December 31, 2009].