Video: How did bomber get on plane?

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    >>> up.

    >>> we want to begin this morning with a sweeping review of airline security after a man tried to blow up a detroit-bound plane. after he managed to sneak explosives on to that flight. nbc's justice correspondent, pete williams , is at the department of homeland security , pete, good morning.

    >> reporter: as much as airline security has been tightened since 9/11, the latest attempt to bring explosives to try to bomb a plane bound for the u.s. demonstrates that determined terrorists are constantly looking for gaps to exploit. the obama administration is reviewing how a nigerian student, umar farouk abdulmutallab, got a explosives in his underwear on a christmas day flight.

    >> what we are looking at is literally how he got on the plane to make sure that security procedures were followed. and if they were follow, whether they need to be changed.

    >> the material made popping noises and caught fire, even burning a spot on the plane's inside wall. but it did not explode. widely-used walk-through screening devices cannot detect explosives. machines that use puffs of air can. but both are expensive and are deployed at only a few airports.

    >> while we've had many improvements in airport security , explosive detection is still a challenge. in this instance, the individual was able to hide the explosives in a way that evaded detection by standard procedures .

    >> the nigerian was also among a million names in a u.s. terrorism database after his father warned that the son was becoming radicalized. but the information was considered too vague to put him on the smaller, no-fly list. also being looked at, why it did not trigger greater concern that he apparently paid cash for his ticket and did not check any luggage, behavior that's often a red flag . over the weekend, police in london searched this highs-priced apartment where umar farouk abdulmutallab, who is 23, lived as a college student . he was a child of privilege, who attended private schools, but eventually went on his own to yemen. federal agents say he has told american authorities that radical extremists there prepared him for the airline bombing mission, a claim the u.s. has so far been unable to corroborate. and among new security measures, is this -- the government is now asking airlines on flights coming into the u.s., to stop showing those in-flight progress maps and individual tv screens seats, so that passengers will not be able to tell exactly where they are. meredith?

    >> pete williams , thank you very much. there was a second

updated 12/29/2009 7:17:52 AM ET 2009-12-29T12:17:52

The explosive device used by the would-be Detroit bomber contained a widely available — and easily detected — chemical explosive that has a long history of terrorist use, according to government officials and explosive experts.

The chemical — PETN — is small, powerful and appealing to terrorists. The Saudi government said it was used in an assassination attempt on the country's counterterrorism operations chief in August.

It was also a component of the explosive that Richard Reid, the convicted "shoe bomber," used in his 2001 attempt to down an airliner.

PETN was widely used in the plastic explosives terrorists used to blow up airplanes in the 1970s and 1980s.

Investigators say Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab hid an explosive device on his body when he traveled from Amsterdam to Detroit on Northwest Flight 253. They say PETN was hidden in a condom or condom-like bag just below his torso.

Abdulmutallab also had a syringe filled with liquid. One law enforcement official said the second part of the explosive concoction used in the Christmas Day incident is still being tested but appears to be a glycol-based liquid explosive. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the investigation.

PETN is the primary ingredient in detonating cords used for industrial explosions and can be collected by scraping the insides of the wire, said James Crippin, a Colorado explosives expert. It's also used in military devices and found in blasting caps. It's the high explosive of choice because it is stable and safe to handle, but it requires a primary explosive to detonate it, he said.

Crippin and law enforcement officials said modern airport screening machines could have detected the chemical. Airport "puffer" machines — the devices that blow air onto a passenger to collect and analyze residues — would probably have detected the powder, as would bomb-sniffing dogs or a hands-on search using a swab.

However, most passengers in airports only go through magnetometers, which detect metal rather than explosives.

Hidden in Abdulmutallab's clothing, the explosive might have also been detected by the full-body imaging scanners now making their way into airports.

But Abdulmutallab did not go through full-body imaging machines in Nigeria or Amsterdam, said U.S. Rep. Peter King, the top Republican on the Homeland Security Committee. King has been briefed on the investigation.

Both airports have body scanners. The Amsterdam airport has had a long reputation for good security, King said, while Nigeria's airports have been more of a concern.

The U.S. provided full-body scanners to all four international airports in Nigeria, according to the State Department. The scanners were installed in March, May and June of 2008.

Abdulmutallab was on a broad U.S. terrorist watch list but he was not designated for special screening measures or placed on a no-fly list because of a dearth of specific information about his activities, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said Sunday. She said he was properly screened before getting on the aircraft in Amsterdam. Abdulmutallab has claimed to law enforcement officials that he received training and instructions from al-Qaida operatives in Yemen.

The Saudi Arabia assassination attempt was carried out by a Saudi who was on the country's list of 85 most wanted terrorists. The bomber was believed to have traveled to Yemen to connect with the al-Qaida franchise there. The bomber died in the explosion and is believed to have attached the explosives to his groin or inserted them inside himself.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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