Security tightened sharply after suicide bombing bid on US plane

Airports and airlines implement even tighter security measures after attempts to ignite a bomb on a plane over Detroit.

Police officers search a passenger car arriving at Los Angeles International Airport at a security checkpoint on December 26.
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Airports and airlines around the world were implementing even tighter security measures on all US-bound flights yesterday after a Nigerian man attempted to ignite a suicide bomb on a plane landing in Detroit. AP reported last night that some airlines were telling passengers that new government security regulations now prohibit them from leaving their seats beginning an hour before landing. Air Canada said in a statement that new rules imposed by the Transportation Security Administration limit on-board activities by passengers and crew in US airspace. The US Department for Homeland Security requested stricter screening of passengers and baggage after the failed bombing by Abdul Farouk Abdulmutallab, a 23-year-old Nigerian.

Mr Abdulmutallab was charged yesterday in a federal criminal complaint with the wilful attempt to destroy an aircraft and with placing a destructive device on the aircraft. According to an affidavit filed in support of the criminal complaint, Mr Abdulmutallab had a device attached to his body which a preliminary FBI analysis found contained PETN, also known as pentaerythritol, a high explosive. "In addition, FBI agents recovered what appear to be the remnants of the syringe from the vicinity of Abdulmutallab's seat, believed to have been part of the device." Despite his injuries, which included thrid-degree burns, Mr Abdulmutallab was scheduled to be in court later in the day. University College London told Bloomberg News Service yesterday that a student it identified as Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab was enrolled in a mechanical engineering programme at the institution between September 2005 and June 2008. But a university spokesman said in a recorded telephone message it had no record of an Abdul Farouk Abdulmutallab and "no evidence" that Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab is the person said to be the bomber. Nigeria's This Day newspaper reported that Mr Abdulmutallab relocated to Egypt and then Dubai after studying at the college, and while in the United Arab Emirates told his family that he was severing all contact with them, according to AFP.

Mr Abdulmutallab, who claimed to have received bomb-making instructions from al Qa'eda in Yemen, was believed to have flown from Lagos to Amsterdam on a KLM flight and then boarded Northwest Airlines Flight 253 for Detroit on Christmas Day. Security checks failed to detect that he had a mix of explosive powders strapped to one leg. As the Airbus 330 came in to land at Detroit, he attempted to ignite the device with a syringe. News agencies said a prominent Nigerian banker was meeting with security officials because he feared his son may have been the man charged with trying to bomb the Detroit flight. Alhaji Umaru Mutallab, a former bank official, has travelled from his home in Nigeria's Muslim-dominated north to meet officials in Abuja, the capital. The elder Mutallab was quoted as saying his son was a student in London. He said his son left London to travel, though he did not know where to. Mr Mutallab said: "I believe he might have been to Yemen, but we are investigating to determine that."

Mr Abdulmutallab was under guard yesterday at a Detroit hospital. None of the other 278 passengers and 11 crew on the plane was hurt after he only succeeded, in setting fire to his leg before being overpowered by fellow passengers. Flight attendants used a fire extinguisher to douse the flames.. Peter King, a member of the US House of Representatives' homeland security committee, revealed that Mr Abdulmutallab was on the Terror Watch List Database because of his suspected connections to Islamist extremists.

He was not, however, on the international no-fly list because his terrorist connections were not deemed to be "aviation linked" and he successfully obtained a visa to visit the US earlier this year. Police in London confirmed yesterday afternoon that they were working with US government agencies and conducting searches of Mr Abdulmutallab's basement flat in central London and at other addresses in the capital.

The US president, Barack Obama ,was informed of the attempted bombing during his family holiday in Hawaii. He immediately held discussions with his senior security advisers and ordered a clampdown at airports. However, there have long been concerns about the efficacy of security measures at Nigeria's two main airports. Goodluck Ebele Jonathan, the vice-president of Nigeria, yesterday ordered the country's security agencies to conduct a "full investigation of the incident".

Officials at Schipol Airport in Amsterdam refused to comment yesterday on what checks had been carried out there on passengers from Nigeria in transit to the US. However, the Dutch National Coordinator for Counter-terrorism said in a statement that additional security measures for flights to the United States were being put in place. In Britain, the airports operator BAA said the department of transport had issued a notice to all British airport operators to tighten security.

"Passengers travelling to the United States should expect their airline to carry out additional security checks prior to boarding," BAA said, adding that passengers should leave more time to check in. Jacques Barrot, vice-president of the European Commission in charge of justice, freedom and security, said the EU executive was in contact with all relevant authorities to make sure rules and procedures were being followed in Europe.

Ahmed Al Hadabbi, the senior vice president of airports operations at Abu Dhabi Airports Company, issued a statement yesterday saying it maintains a high level of security in the airport at all times. "Following the incident in America, ADAC is liaising closely with the TFA with regards to appropriate security recommendations." A spokesperson from Dubai airport said security was their "number one priority".

Meanwhile, Yemeni officials were trying to verify Mr Abdulmutallab's claims that he received training and the bomb components on a visit to an al Qa'eda camp in the country. "We are still verifying and checking the credibility of this information," said a government official, who requested not to be identified. "The name of the Nigerian man is not on the Yemeni and US list of the wanted suspected terrorists," he said.

Hundreds of foreigners arrive in Yemen each year to study Islamic theology at various madrasas and universities, mainly Al Eman university, based in the capital, Sana'a. It is run by Sheikh Abdulmajeed al Zindani, who is accused by the US of funding terrorism and his university of promoting extremism. Sally Leivesley, an expert on terrorism and public protection, told the BBC yesterday that the attempted bombing "looked as though it's a first attempt of a new way to use the body to conceal explosives".

In December 2001, Richard Reid, a British convert to Islam, attempted to blow up a Paris-Miami flight with 197 people on board using explosives hidden in his shoes. In 2006, British police foiled a plot by a group of young Muslims to blow up more than a half-dozen airliners over the Atlantic using homemade bombs concealed as soft drinks. The discovery of the plot led to worldwide restrictions on the amount and type of liquids that passengers could take on planes.

Passengers on the Northwest flight yesterday relived their terrifying ordeal. Stephanie van Herk, from the Netherlands, who was sitting in the row in front of the would-be bomber, said that she heard a loud bang as the plane lowered its landing gear. At first she thought it might have blown a tyre, but then she saw flame leap from the lap of a man in the row behind her in the window seat, 19A. "It [the flame] was higher than the seat," said Miss van Herk, 22. "Then everyone started screaming. Flight attendants shouted: 'What are you doing? What are you doing?'

"They called for water, and the man began pulling down his burning pants." Syed Jafry, a US citizen returning from the UAE, was seated three rows behind Mr Abdulmutallab when he saw a fiery glow and smelled smoke before a young man, believed to be Dutch, jumped on the attacker.

* The National