Northwest Airlines Flight 253

+ Northwest Airlines Flight 253

Flight Details

Date: December 25, 2009
Type: Attempted bombing
Aircraft type: Airbus A330
POB: 290
Fatalities: 0
Flight origin: Amsterdam Airport Schiphol
Destination: Detroit Airport

What happened?

Christmas Eve December 24, 2009, a 23-year-old Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab planned to bomb a passenger jet aeroplane before it arrives in the US. The chemical plastic explosive was hidden in his underwear. He started the trip at Lagos airport, Nigeria, and the first destination was to Schipol Airport, Amsterdam, Netherlands. From Amsterdam Abdulmutallab would board northwest airline Airbus A330 to Detroit, USA. The plan was to plant the bomb on the flight just before the plane touches down at Detroit Airport.

At Lagos Airport, Abdulmutallab first faced the airport security checks accord to ICAO annex 17. This rule was developed over the years to prevent possible terrorist acts. However, Abdulmutallab was a very student-looking person. He did not generate any concerns to anybody, and did eventually manage to pass all the airport security checks including the metal detector scan with his explosive in his body, and a carried-on baggage scanning by an X-ray scanner. This shows that even the advanced airport security systems, terrorists still managed to pass them with their specially invented explosive device.

At Schipol Airport, Amsterdam, before boarding Northwest Airline flight 253 bound for the US, Abdulmutallab again faced the airport security screenings with additional of a face-to-face check with an US officer. The US officers are special trained to detect and eliminate threats from the passenger before boarding. Abdulmutallab, however, managed to convince the officer that he was not a threat. Finally he, again, succeeded boarding the final route.

About 20 minutes before Northwest flight 253 touched down at Detroit Metropolitan Wayne County Airport, United States, Abdulmutallab assembled and tried to ignite his explosive as planned. Fortunately the explosive was not complete ignited resulting in flames and popping noises. One of the passengers tackled and restrained him as others put out the fire. Abdulmutallab was then handcuffed while the pilot safely landed the plane.


What if the explosive was properly ignited?

If Abdulmutallab’s explosive device was complete ignited and his mission was successful, it could result in hundreds of deaths, equipments destroyed worth hundreds millions of dollars, immeasurable negative impacts on the economy and the public’s confidence in air transport, and finally a revenge and war could occur.

Abdulmutallab’s background

  • 23-year-old Nigerian. Ordinary looking, very student looking
  • Did not generate any concerns to anybody
  • well-educated, studied at University College London 2005-2008
  • While in the UK, he crossed the radar screen of the UK's domestic counter-intelligence and security agency for radical links. This information was not given to the US official. He left UK in 2008 to Yemen
  • His last talk to his father was "I've found a new religion, the real Islam", and ultimately, "You should just forget about me, I'm never coming back", "Please forgive me. I will no longer be in touch with you", and "Forgive me for any wrongdoing, I am no longer your child"
  • His father made a report to two CIA officers at the U.S. Embassy in Abuja, on November 19 regarding his son's "extreme religious views" His name was then added to the US ‘terrorist associated list' but somehow was not added to ‘no fly list’.

Main contribution factors

  • Few passengers at Schiphol airport had spotted Abdulmutallab as being nervous and shaking, but they did not inform this to any officers. The individuals thought it was “none of their business”.
  • systemic failure which included an inadequate sharing of information among U.S. And foreign government agencies about his radical links while he was in the UK and Yemen.
  • his father reports should have been sufficient enough to put his name under the no flying list. However his name was only put on the US terrorist associated list. This was a big mistake.
  • Government agencies' failure to highlight potentially relevant information about the suspect before he allegedly tried to blow up the airliner
  • Having not to revok Abdulmutallab's visa because federal authorities believed that it would have compromised a larger investigation

International responses

Many airports around the world have learnt a big lesson from this incident. A 3D body scanning and more thorough screening process has been installed and put in place at some of the world biggest airports. Such as :

  • Dutch officials will use 3D full-body scanning X-ray technology on flights departing to the U.S.
  • Nigerian civil aviation officer announced that they will also set up full-body scanning X-ray machines in Nigerian airports.
  • Canadian government also install 44 full body scanners at their major airports.
  • Other European countries increased baggage screening, pat-down searches, and random searches for passengers travelling to the U.S.

Moreover, sharing of information among U.S. and foreign government agencies on possible terrorist threats have to be more adequate. The terrorists will come back to aviation over and over again because it’s such a dramatic target. According to Cletus et al (2002, p.9) , "If airplanes and passengers, as well as property and people on the ground, are to be protected, potential perpetrators of aviation terrorism must be prevented from breaching security checkpoints and gaining access to ‘secure’ airport areas and to aircraft".

1. Rachel Sklar (2009). Terror on Northwest Flight 253: Bomb On Plane Linked to al-Qaeda . Mediaite News, December 25th.
2. Air Crash Investigation Season 7 (2010). Northwest Airlines Flight 253 National Geographic TV. March 3rd.
3. Cletus C. Coughlin, Jeffrey P. Cohen, & Sarosh R. Khan (2002). Aviation Security and Terrorism: A Review of the Economic Issues. The Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis.

Contributors to this page

Authors / Editors

Teerawit PulpinyoTeerawit Pulpinyo

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