Nigeria, Netherlands announce security plans; Somalia reports foiled bombing attempt

By William Branigin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 30, 2009; 3:56 PM

Nigeria and the Netherlands announced plans Wednesday to equip their international airports with full-body scanners to prevent terrorists from sneaking hidden explosives aboard airliners, as Somalia reported that it foiled a bombing attempt last month similar to one allegedly directed against a Northwest Airlines jet approaching Detroit on Christmas Day.

In Yemen, where investigators suspect the alleged plot to bomb the Northwest plane originated, security forces stormed an al-Qaeda hideout Wednesday in the western part of the country and engaged in a shootout with militants, Yemeni officials said. The government said in a statement that at least one suspected al-Qaeda member was arrested in the fighting in Hudaydah province on Yemen's Red Sea coast and that security forces would keep attacking the group, known as al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, "until it is totally eliminated."

One of the suspected al-Qaeda militants was injured in the fighting, and Yemeni forces were pursuing several who fled, the Associated Press reported.

A young Nigerian who spent time in Yemen, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, is accused of concealing bomb components, including the explosive PETN, in his underwear and smuggling the components aboard Northwest Airlines Flight 253 at Amsterdam's Schiphol Airport before trying to detonate the deadly mixture as the aircraft, carrying nearly 300 passengers and crew, was nearing Detroit. The device caused a small fire, and passengers subdued Abdulmutallab, who is now in federal custody. He began his trip in Lagos, Nigeria's largest city and commercial hub, where he took a KLM flight to Amsterdam.

In response to the incident, Dutch Interior Minister Guusje ter Horst announced Wednesday that Schiphol would begin using full-body scanners within three weeks to check passengers flying to the United States. She said the decision to use the devices was reached after consultations with U.S. authorities. Such scanners, which have drawn opposition from some rights groups because of privacy concerns, could have enabled authorities to detect the hidden explosives allegedly carried by Abdulmutallab, ter Horst said.

"It is not exaggerating to say the world has escaped a disaster," she told a news conference.

In a preliminary report, the Dutch government called the plan to bomb the airliner "fairly professional," but ter Horst said the execution was "amateurish," AP reported. Abdulmutallab allegedly assembled the device, including 80 grams of PETN, in an aircraft toilet and attempted to detonate it with a syringe of chemicals.

Following the Dutch announcement, Nigeria said it would equip its international airports in Lagos and the capital, Abuja, with full-body scanners next year. Harold Demuren, chief of the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority, told reporters that the process of acquiring the scanners is underway.

"These are new machines," he said, according to Reuters news agency. "Not many airports in the world are operating them right now, but Nigeria is determined . . . to acquire them" because of the threat from concealed explosives that cannot be spotted by conventional metal detectors.

In a statement issued in New York, Somalia's mission to the United Nations said the alleged bombing attempt on the Northwest Airlines jet "was exactly similar" to an effort by a young Somali man to board a plane in the capital, Mogadishu, in November "with the same chemicals, syringe and liquid." The Somali man, whose name has not been disclosed, "was arrested at the airport," the statement said. It indicated that the operation was coordinated with authorities in Yemen, which lies across the Gulf of Aden from Somalia.

According to AP, the Somali was arrested Nov. 13 by African Union peacekeeping troops before the Daallo Airlines flight's scheduled departure en route to Dubai, with stops in Hargeisa, a city in northern Somalia, and Djibouti.

"We don't know whether he's linked with al-Qaeda or other foreign organizations, but his actions were the acts of a terrorist," a Somali police spokesman, Abdulahi Hassan Barise, said of the suspect, AP reported. "We caught him red-handed."

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