Skip to main content

Obama orders review of flight screenings

Click to play
Airport security review ordered
  • President Obama calls for review on how chemicals got on plane
  • Suspect had shoulder bag, went through normal check-in process in Nigeria
  • Farouk Abdulmutallab, 23, had his passport and U.S. visa scanned
  • His bag went through X-ray screening machine, and he was checked at gate

(CNN) -- President Obama has ordered a review of security screening processes after Friday's botched terror attack on a U.S. airliner, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said Sunday.

Appearing on the ABC program "This Week" and the NBC program "Meet the Press," Gibbs said Obama is receiving regular briefings by his national security staff on the incident in which a suspect allegedly tried to detonate an explosive device on a Northwest Airlines flight from Amsterdam, The Netherlands, making its final approach to Detroit, Michigan.

The suspect, 23-year-old Nigerian Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, was on a broad watch list of 550,000 names since last month, Gibbs said.

That list does not automatically bring tighter screening of individuals, Gibbs said, and Obama has ordered a review of the procedures for determining which people on the list undergo more stringent checking.

Obama also called for "a review to ... figure out why an individual with the chemical explosive he had on him could get on a plane in Amsterdam and fly into the United States," Gibbs said on NBC.

"The president is very confident that this government is taking the steps that are necessary to take our fight to those who seek to do us harm," Gibbs said on the ABC program.

Authorities on Sunday focused their investigation on how a lone traveler smuggled explosives aboard the Northwest Airlines flight and who might have helped him.

Abdulmutallab, who had a multiple entry visa to the United States, was charged Saturday in a federal criminal complaint.

Q&A: Why did security checks fail to spot explosives

People on the flight described a chaotic scene that began with a popping sound followed by flames erupting at Abdulmutallab's seat. Jasper Schuringa, a Dutch passenger on the flight from Amsterdam, leaped across the aisle to grab the suspect, who according to authorities suffered burns on his legs.

Schuringa told CNN he saw that Abdulmutallab was holding a burning object between his legs.

"I pulled the object from him and tried to extinguish the fire with my hands and threw it away," Schuringa said. He said he heard fire extinguishers as he pulled Abdulmutallab out of his seat and dragged him to the front of the plane.

In Nigeria, Abdulmutallab checked no baggage on his trip that originated in Lagos on a KLM flight to Amsterdam, where he changed planes to the Northwest flight, according to Harold Demuren, director-general of Nigeria's Civil Aviation Authority.

The suspect had a shoulder bag and went through the normal check-in process with his passport and U.S. visa scanned, Demuren said Sunday. The multiple-entry U.S. visa was issued in London, England, in June 2008 with an expiration date of June 2010, Demuren said.

Abdulmutallab then passed through a walk-through metal detector and put his shoulder bag through an X-ray screening machine, Demuren said. He also said the suspect underwent secondary screening at the boarding gate for the KLM flight, according to officials of the Dutch airline.

The father of the suspect recently contacted the U.S. Embassy in Nigeria with concerns his son was planning something, a senior U.S. administration official said Saturday.

The father -- identified by a family source as Umaru Abdulmutallab -- contacted the embassy "a few weeks ago" saying his son, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, had "become radicalized," the senior administration official, who is familiar with the case, told CNN.

A family source told CNN that the elder Abdulmutallab -- who recently retired as chairman of First Bank PLC, one of Nigeria's premier banks -- had contacted the embassy in Nigeria's capital, Abuja, and various other security agencies earlier than the timeline provided by the administration official. The family source said Abdulmutallab went to those agencies about three months ago after receiving a text message from his son.

The source, who lives at the family home in Kaduna in northern Nigeria, said the son informed his family in the text message that he was leaving school in Dubai to move to Yemen. He implied that he was leaving "for the course of Islam."

The family member said Abdulmutallab "had no family consent or support," adding he "absconded to Yemen."

Abdulmutallab's information about his son was forwarded to the National Counter-Terrorism Center, and Abdulmutallab was added to a general watch list, a senior administration official said. But the official said "the info on him was not deemed specific enough to pull his visa or put him on a no-fly list."

In addition, the official said there was "no derogatory information that would have prevented him from getting a visa" back in June 2008.

A law enforcement official familiar with the investigation into Abdulmutallab said investigators are still trying to trace his past travels.

"Investigators are looking into any al Qaeda connections and whether he had help and training from Yemen," the law enforcement official said.

A preliminary FBI analysis found that the device on the plane contained PETN, also known as Pentaerythritol Tetranitrate, a highly explosive chemical compound. In addition, FBI agents recovered what appear to be remnants of a syringe near Abdulmutallab's seat, believed to have been part of the device.

The family source said Abdulmutallab received a college degree at the University College London, where spokesman Dave Weston said a man named Umar Farouk Abdul Mutallab was enrolled in the mechanical engineering department between September 2005 and June 2008.

When Abdulmutallab returned to Nigeria from London, he told his family he wanted to get a second college degree in Cairo, Egypt, or Saudi Arabia, the family source said. The family refused because they were worried that he may have developed ties to some dubious people. He went to Dubai instead, the source said, where he sent a text message saying he had gone to Yemen to start a new life and that it would be difficult for anyone to reach him because he had thrown away his SIM card.

Abdulmutallab's father notified the U.S. Embassy with information on his son, saying the family feared he went to Yemen to participate in "some kind of jihad."

A federal security bulletin obtained by CNN said Abdulmutallab claimed the explosive device used Friday "was acquired in Yemen along with instructions as to when it should be used."

Yemeni authorities have yet to receive official information on the terror attempt, according to a Yemeni official who asked not to be named because he is not authorized to speak to the media. But, the source said the country's government will take immediate action once the attempted bombing suspect's alleged link to the country is officially identified.

Earlier Saturday, the Netherlands' national coordinator for counterterrorism told CNN that Abdulmutallab had gone through "normal security procedures" in Amsterdam before boarding the flight and those were "well-performed."

The initial impression is that the suspect was acting alone and did not have any formal connections to organized terrorist groups, a U.S. administration official said.

Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Mississippi, who chairs the House Committee on Homeland Security, said the attempted act of terrorism would be the focus of an oversight hearing next month. Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-West Virginia, also said his Senate Commerce Committee would hold a hearing on the incident.

In Nigeria, the government said Saturday that it "received with dismay the news of attempted terrorist attack on a U.S. airline" and has ordered its security agencies to investigate the incident.

Officials from the Nigerian Embassy in Washington have flown to Michigan "to gain Consular access" to Abdulmutallab, the embassy said in a statement Saturday. The embassy said it plans to cooperate with U.S. authorities.

An official with the Transportation Security Administration told CNN there will be increased security measures taken on international flights to the United States. The official advised travelers to allow for extra time before the flight. There will be no change in the number of carry-on bags allowed.

CNN's Elise Labott, Jeanne Meserve, Carol Cratty, Richard Quest and Nic Robertson contributed to this report.