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."
Barigye Bahoku, a spokesman for the African Union military force in Mogadishu, said the chemicals carried by the Somali could have caused an explosion that would have led to decompression inside the plane, but probably would not have brought the plane down, AP reported.
The news agency said U.S. officials now are investigating the Somali case to check for any possible links to the Detroit incident.
A Somali security official said the suspect in Mogadishu, the last passenger to try to board the aircraft, carried about 2.2 pounds of chemical powder and a container of liquid chemicals, AP said. Once security officials detected the powder chemicals and syringe, the suspect tried to bribe the security team that detained him, the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity. The official said the suspect had a white shampoo bottle with a black acidlike substance in it, as well as a clear plastic bag with a light green chalky substance and a syringe containing a green liquid, AP reported.
Bahoku said the powdered material smelled strongly of ammonia and that samples have been sent to London for testing, AP said.
The decisions to ramp up airport security in Nigeria and the Netherlands came a day after President Obama criticized U.S. government agencies for failing to share and piece together "bits of information" that might have averted the bombing attempt aboard Flight 253. Citing a "mix of human and systemic failures" that allowed the suspect to board the flight with concealed explosives, he ordered agencies to give him "preliminary findings" by Thursday on how air-travel screening and the U.S. terrorist watch-list system could be improved.
Among those disparate pieces of information, U.S. officials said, were an alert that Abdulmutallab's father gave the U.S. Embassy in Nigeria last month about his son's extremist views, intelligence suggesting a possible attack on the United States by al-Qaeda around Christmas, and references to an unidentified Nigerian in National Security Agency intercepts of communications involving a radical Muslim preacher in Yemen.
In Washington, Republicans pounced on Obama's response to the alleged bomb plot, renewing charges that Democrats are not aggressive enough in fighting terrorism.
According to House Minority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio), the plot "exposed a near-catastrophic failure at every level of our government." He blasted "the administration's treatment of this matter as a mere law enforcement issue," adding, "We're fighting a war on terror, and this was a terrorist act."
In a statement, Boehner went on to call the administration's response "consistent with its dangerous decision to close the terrorist prison at Guantanamo Bay," transfer some detainees to other countries and try others, including accused plotters of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, in U.S. civilian courts. He called on Obama to "halt terrorist transfers to other countries, including Yemen, and to reevaluate his decision to close the prison at Guantanamo."