WASHINGTON - -In what was described as an act of terrorism, a Nigerian passenger attempted to ignite an incendiary device Friday aboard a Northwest Airlines flight from Amsterdam to Detroit as the plane began its approach for landing, federal officials said. The plane landed safely shortly before noon.
The suspected would-be bomber suffered burns as the result of his attempt, and two of the other 277 passengers reported minor injuries, authorities said. FBI agents were investigating the incident, which a White House official said was thought to be an attempted act of terrorism.
"He was trying to ignite some kind of incendiary device," said a federal anti-terrorism official, who requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of the case. "He lit himself on fire, and he's suffered some burns."
The official did not reveal the nature of the explosive device and said it was too early to say how potent or sophisticated it was. The passenger has been identified as a Nigerian who caught the flight in Amsterdam, the anti-terrorism official said.
The Northwest flight, on an Airbus 330, was operated by Delta Airlines and had Delta markings. The two companies merged in April 2008.
President Barack Obama was briefed on the Christmas Day incident during his vacation in Hawaii and was receiving regular updates.
A White House statement said the president conferred with John Brennan, his homeland security and counterterrorism adviser, and with Denis McDonough, acting chief of staff of the National Security Council, and had instructed that "all appropriate measures be taken to increase security for air travel."
The Department of Homeland Security said passengers might see additional screening measures on domestic and international flights because of the incident and urged travelers to report any suspicious activity or behavior to law enforcement officials.
"We encourage those with future travel plans to stay in touch with their airline and to visit www.tsa.gov for updates," the department said.
Syed Jafri, a U.S. citizen who had flown from the United Arab Emirates, said the incident occurred during the plane's descent, according to the Associated Press. Jafri said he was seated three rows behind the other passenger and said he saw a glow and noticed the smell of smoke. Then "a young man behind me jumped on him."
"Next thing you know, there was a lot of panic," Jafri said.
J.P. Karas, 55, of Wyandotte, Mich., said he was driving on a road near the airport and saw a Delta jet at the end of the runway, surrounded by police cars, an ambulance, a bus and television trucks.
"I don't ever recall seeing a plane on that runway ever before, and I pass by there frequently," he said.
The FBI's Detroit office is investigating the incident.
"More information will be available when it is appropriate," said Sandra Berchtold, an FBI spokeswoman in Detroit.
A statement from the U.S. Transportation Security Administration confirmed that "an incident" had occurred aboard Northwest Flight 253 and that the plane had landed safely in Detroit at 11:53 a.m.
"All passengers have deplaned and, out of an abundance of caution, the plane was moved to a remote area where the plane and all baggage are currently being rescreened," the statement said. "A passenger is in custody, and passengers are currently being interviewed."
A spokeswoman for the University of Michigan Health System Ann Arbor, Tracy Justice, confirmed that the hospital had received a patient from the flight. She did not know the passenger's condition or sex.
The FBI is expected to focus on whether the Nigerian acted alone or had training from al-Qaida or another network. There also will be great interest in the nature and destructive capacity of the explosive device and on how it got past airport screening.
Nigerians have not figured in many cases involving al-Qaida, but the rise of violent Islamic extremism in that country, and in sub-Saharan Africa overall, concerns Western anti-terrorism officials.
The timing and description of the incident recall the attempted attack on a Paris-to-Miami flight eight years ago by "shoe-bomber" Richard Reid, a British al-Qaida operative who was convicted in U.S. federal court of trying to blow up the American Airlines flight.
Soon after takeoff on Dec. 22, 2001, Reid tried to ignite explosives that had been packed into his high-top gym shoes in an attempt to blow a hole in the plane and bring it down. An alert flight attendant and passenger subdued Reid and foiled the attack, which spread fear across the world during the Christmas holidays just three months after the Sept. 11 attacks.
Reid was one of several bombers whom al-Qaida trained in its Afghan camps to commit attacks with concealed explosives aboard planes.
In August 2006, British police working with U.S. and Pakistani intelligence broke up a plot in which al-Qaida trained Britons in Pakistan to assemble sophisticated, liquid-based bombs that would have been smuggled aboard planes in energy drinks and other containers.
The investigation revealed that the technology in that plot was developed in Pakistan by Abu Ubaida al Masri, al-Qaida's operations chief at the time. It would have involved teams of two or three attackers smuggling aboard the explosives and separate ignition devices to blow up seven planes bound for North America.