On December 25, 2009, 23-year-old Nigerian Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab made an attempt to detonate an explosive substance on Northwest Airlines Flight 253. The international flight originated in Amsterdam Airport Schiphol in Amsterdam, Netherlands and made an emergency landing at Detroit Metropolitan Wayne County Airport in Detroit, Michigan, United States. All 290 people aboard the flight, including the attacker, survived, though he and several others sustained injuries, most of them minor. After being released from a local hospital, Abdulmutallab was indicted by a federal grand jury on six criminal counts. In the aftermath of the attack, various countries and agencies updated security protocols and opened investigations into the incident.
The U.S. investigation into the incident is being managed by the Detroit Joint Terrorism Task Force, which is led by the FBI and includes U.S. Customs and Border Protection, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the Federal Air Marshal Service, and other law enforcement agencies. Among other questions, they were attempting to answer the following: what training did Abdulmutallab receive, who else (if anyone) was in the training program, are others preparing to launch similar attacks, was the attack part of a larger (possibly worldwide) plot, was it a test run, who assisted him, who gave him the chemicals, who sewed the explosives in his underwear, who further radicalized him, who sent him on his way, and how was he able to smuggle the explosives past airport security.
President Barack Obama was notified of the incident by an aide while on a vacation in Kailua, Hawaii, and spoke with officials from the Department of Homeland Security. He instructed that all appropriate measures be taken in response to the incident. While the White House called the attack an act of terrorism, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder has not declared the incident an official terrorist act.
Representative Hoekstra said that Detroit may not have been singled out for the attack, but the focus may have simply been to attack a destination with many international travelers. The attack occurred over the city because the plane had not flown over U.S. land prior to that time. In addition, it was suggested that it is possible that the attack was a test to see if such materials could pass through screening, and how much damage the blast would cause. The U.S. is examining what information it had before the attack, why its National Counterterrorism Center did not put together the warning from Abdulmutallab's father and intercepts by the National Security Agency (NSA) of conversations among Yemeni al-Qaida leaders about a "Nigerian" to be used for an attack (months before the attack took place), and why the suspect's U.S. visa was not revoked after his father's warning. Abdulmutallab's name had come to the attention of intelligence officials many months before that, but no "derogatory information" was recorded about him. A Congressional official said that Abdulmutallab's name appeared in U.S. reports reflecting that he had connections to both al-Qaeda and Yemen.
One U.S. intelligence officer said on December 30: "Abdulmutallab's father didn't say his son was a terrorist" when he visited the U.S. Embassy in Nigeria, "let alone planning an attack. Not at all. I'm not aware of some magic piece of intelligence that suddenly would have flagged this guy—whose name nobody even had until November—as a killer en route to America, let alone something that anybody withheld." Representative Hoekstra questioned, however, why the apparent links were not put together before the attack took place, saying: "You would think if you did a Google search on these different threads, it would bring these things together quickly. There are organizations that deal with massive amounts of data in real time every day. Talk to MasterCard."
On January 7, 2010, James L. Jones, the National Security Advisor, said Americans would feel "a certain shock" when a report detailing the intelligence failures that could have prevented the Christmas Day attack were released that day. He said that President Obama would be "legitimately and correctly alarmed that things that were available, bits of information that were available, patterns of behavior that were available, were not acted on."
The U.S. also increased the installation and use of full-body scanners in many of its major airports as a result of the attack. The scanners are designed to be able to detect bombs under clothing, and 11 airports, including O'Hare International Airport in Chicago, began to receive the machines in March 2010. The TSA said that it had plans to have 1,000 of the machines in airports by the end of 2011. Before, the U.S. had only 40 scanners across 19 airports. The government also said that it planned to buy 300 additional scanners in 2010 and another 500 in the following fiscal year, starting October 2010. It costs around an estimated $530 million to purchase the 500 machines and hire over 5,300 workers to operate them. However, the U.S. government has stated that being scanned is voluntary and that passengers who object to the process could choose to undergo a pat-down search or be searched with hand-held detectors.
Gordon Brown, Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, said that the UK would take "whatever action was necessary". The day after the attack, British police searched a family-owned flat where Abdulmutallab had lived while in London.
A spokesperson of the Dutch Royal Marechaussee said that Abdulmutallab did not go through passport control at Schiphol (as he was in transit, Schiphol processes large numbers of passengers who are en route to North America from Africa). The Dutch counter-terrorism agency NCTb said that it had started a probe into where the suspect originated. A preliminary investigation, however, found no security lapses, and despite being listed as having a potential terrorism connection, the suspect had a valid U.S. visa. Dutch officials also said that they will now use 3D full body scanning X-ray technology on flights departing to the U.S. Body scanners are being implemented despite concerns from privacy advocates. Dutch officials said that security must take priority over the privacy of the individuals being scanned. The developer of the technology said the scanned imagery does not compromise individuals' privacy, as the imagery resolution is too low to display the body in anatomical detail; but that it would certainly detect non-metallic objects under clothing, such as powdered explosives.
Members of the Second Chamber (Lower House) of the Dutch parliament demanded an explanation from Minister of Justice Hirsch Ballin, asking how the suspect managed to smuggle explosives on board, despite Schiphol's reportedly strict security measures.
The incident raised concern regarding security procedures at Nigeria's major international airports in Lagos and Abuja, where tests for explosive materials are not conducted on carry-on baggage and shoes, and where bags are allowed to pass quickly through X-ray scanners. In response to strong international criticism, Nigerian civil aviation officer Harold Demuran announced that Nigeria will also set up full-body scanning X-ray machines in Nigerian airports.
In response to the incident and to comply with new US regulations, the Canadian Government will install full body scanners at major airports. This technology is used in secondary screening of passengers. The first 44 scanners were planned and have been installed at airports in Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton, Winnipeg, Toronto, Ottawa, Montreal, and Halifax.
Delta Air Lines, which owned Northwest until all operations were merged into Delta on January 31, 2010, said its Detroit group did not handle security for the flight. It released a statement calling the incident a "disturbance," and saying that Delta was "cooperating fully with authorities".
According to an internal communication to employees, Delta's CEO Richard Anderson was upset that another terrorist incident such as this could occur, especially after the September 11 security reinforcements put in place around the globe: "Having this occur again is disappointing to all of us... You can be certain we will make our points very clearly in Washington."
In January 2010, ICTS International, a security firm that provides security services to Schiphol airport, and G4S (Group 4 Securicor Aviation Security B.V.), another security firm, traded blame over the security oversight, as did authorities at Schiphol Airport, the Federal Aviation Authority, and U.S. intelligence officials. According to Haaretz, the failure was two-fold: An intelligence failure, as Obama stated, in the poor handling of information that arrived at the State Department and probably also the CIA from both the father of the would-be bomber and the British security service; and a failure within the security system, including that of ICTS. Abdulmutallab's "age, name, illogical travel route, high-priced ticket purchased at the last minute, his boarding without luggage (only a carry-on), and many other signs should have been sufficient to alert the security officers and warrant further examination of the suspect. However, the security supervisor allowed him to get on the flight."
On May 7, 2012, American officials claimed that they had thwarted another Al Qaeda plot that would have targeted a civilian passenger plane not unlike Northwest Airlines Flight 253. American officials stated that the attack would have involved a more sophisticated bomb, also planted in undergarments, and would have been deployed near the anniversary of the killing of Osama Bin Laden. Officials did not state whether any persons had been arrested or charged in their operation, but told the New York Times that they had been monitoring this threat for some time and that other, similar plots might exist.