Steven Emerson in the Media
Alleged Terrorist Attack on Passenger Jet
ALEX WITT: Several new developments this morning after a man apparently tried to set off a device to blow up a U.S. passenger jet. Authorities say the Nigerian man attempted to ignite a mixture of powder and liquid about twenty minutes before the Delta northwest flight landed in Detroit. Witnesses aboard that plane say at least one passenger jumped on the man after others smelled smoke and heard what sounded like firecrackers. The suspect is taken into custody is being treated now in a hospital for burns to his thighs. Officials say he claims to be an agent for Al Qaeda. And there are some new developments from London on this investigation and for more on that angle let's go to MNBC's Tom Aspell who's live for us in our London bureau. Tom, a good morning to you. What can you tell us?
TOM ASPELL: Good morning, Alex. Well, the suspect is 23 year old Abdul Farouk Abdulmutalib. Now, he was registered as an engineering student at London University College from 2005 to 2008. His family had an apartment in Central London where today police have been searching for evidence. His father is reported to have been a successful banker. Now Abdulmutalib may have obtained a visa to the United States in order to attend a religious conference. As a student it would have been easy for him to avoid comprehensive checks from immigration authorities. He was not on the No-Fly List. British police are conducting inquires and searching to see if Abdulmutalib had friends or acquaintances here in London. There is a concern that the British capital may be a hub for homegrown or dormant terror groups. Also of concern is how he might have managed to get explosive materials past scanners in Amsterdam airport. Alex.
WITT: Alright, Tom Aspell, thank you very much for that update. We appreciate that and joining me now live for more on all of this is Terrorism Expert Steve Emerson. Steve, a good morning. Alright, we're having a little bit of issue with your audio there. Can you hear me Steve?
STEVEN EMERSON: Yeah, I can hear you fine.
WITT: Ok, good. We gotcha you now. Great. The White House calling this incident an attempted act of terrorism. No doubt that's the case now, right? I mean, do you think this is isolated, do you think this is group? How are you reading this?
EMERSON: Good question. Whether its organized Al Qaeda or whether its somebody who affiliated themselves with Al Qaeda, but it looks like its somebody who was recruited specifically to target the United States. Al Qaeda as you know, is a very adaptive organization. They're constantly testing the perimeters of U.S. security, Alex, and here they figured out a way to penetrate U.S. security and compromise our security standards by smuggling on explosives without any detection. That's going to change the way we monitor people going on airplanes from now on, I can assure you that this is going to require extensive surveillance much more than before.
WITT: In what regard, Steve, in the who gets on, I mean in terms of who the passengers are, this guy was not on a No-Fly list though on a list that reported him to be hooked up with terrorism officials.
EMERSON: Right he was on the TIDES list which is a database of people who are suspected of being connected to terrorist groups but not corroborated though and the U.S. just got this intelligence in the last month so the U.S. was in the process of trying to corroborate his ties and affliction to Al Qaeda. Now the question is, was he a full fledged member? Was he recruited? Where were the compromises in security, at the Nigerian airport? What about the airport in the Netherlands? What about the security in the United States here? I mean, are we going to have to change our procedures like we did after Richard Reed, the shoe bomber, who as you know, requires people to take off their shoes, slows up passengers going through metal detectors by as much as 50%. Now this is going to require even more patience at the airport lines.
WITT: Hey Steve, what would it have required for this guy to not be acting alone? Is this the kind of thing you think an individual could have pulled off?
EMERSON: No. This looks like to me, this is speculation, Alex, looks like he was recruited because he could meld-he had obviously a British passport, it seems as well as a Nigerian passport. He could get on in Nigeria which has very lax security. It has been cited by the FAA in the past for violating FAA standards. So he could get on, not be detected. Looks like he was a student-didn't have the technology himself. He obviously bumbled or fumbled the combustible mixtures. It looks like somebody else put him up to this and the question is, was it a group or was it just an individual?
WITT: Now what about the student part of this? Does a student visa kind of thing-does that make them more easily to get through the cracks? I mean as "I'm just a student." Weren't the Glasgow bombers, a couple of those guys were on student visas as well, right?
EMERSON: Right. Not the Glasgow bombers; one of the Glasgow bombers was a medical student. But there were students who were caught up in the other plot in 2006 to use liquids out of London in trying to blow up airplanes in London. Certainly a student visa would give him more accessibility to the United States and if in fact he was traveling on a student visa, and I do not have that information, and again that would have provided more of a compromise in terms of U.S. security.
WITT: How sophisticated a device was this? I mean we had a powdery substance put together with a liquid substance that would ignite. Is that commonplace?
EMERSON: No. Obviously not because he could get this onto the airplane without any detection. Number two, it caused second and third degree burns-pretty serious. There was a fire that was actually was ignited that was put out by fire extinguishers. So he came pretty close to actually detonating an explosive device-probably improvised explosive device that almost detonated upon landing at Detroit airport, so I would tell you that this is not something U.S. has any knowledge of ahead of time because they would have put security concerns in place to detect it and they obviously did not know about this. This is going to require a major revolutionary change now in airport screening same as it changed after 9/11 as well the Richard Reed shoe bombing.
WITT: You know, Steve, do you think this is the first time someone has tried to pull off something like this or do you think there are others who have gone before?
EMERSON: I think that they've done reconnaissance, I mean, if we know anything about Al Qaeda, one is that they are constantly adapting and testing U.S. security. Two, they do reconnaissance missions and surveillance ahead of time. They do fly bys to see if they can smuggle such explosives on board and I think here, its clear to me that somebody else must have gone on forward ahead of time and smuggled and test U.S. security and realized they could get away with putting liquid into a syringe as well as smuggling on powder, explosive powder.
WITT: Ok, Steve, that shows that they are very determined and yet they keep failing. Why?
EMERSON: Well that's a good question. There's luck and there's also U.S. intelligence here. U.S. intelligence had no role to play. It was just bad luck on his part, good luck on our part that it didn't detonate. In the same way the Richard Reed shoe bombing in 2001 didn't detonate. That's pretty close. This guy came pretty close to detonating the explosive. In fact, it was detonated. The only question is why didn't it go off in a much more major explosive way that would have caused a rupture of the fuselage. It would have caused the airplane to come tumbling down from the sky, Alex. No one knows at this point because they are still examining the device. Quantico, FBI has the device right now and forensic investigators are examining the explosive, the residue, the signature detail of the bomb itself and to determine how he got it onto a plane and what they can do to deter such events in the future.
WITT: Steve, if people are flying today should they be concerned?
EMERSON: Well they are going-I can assure you if they're flying internationally there is going to be a lot more patience required because the U.S. still does not have an answer to stopping this type of threat. It's a new threat. Obviously Al Qaeda figured out a way of undermining U.S. security and now the U.S. is going to have to find a way to reconfigure its protocol. So I think airline passengers are going to have a lot of patience in the next several weeks as the U.S. digests this.
WITT: Alright, Steve Emerson, as always great to talk with you. Thanks so much.
EMERSON: Sure. Thank you.
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