Dateline   |  January 11, 2010

The Passenger in Seat 19A: A Dateline investigation

Dateline investigates the main suspect in the thwarted Christmas terrorist attack, and reviews why so many warning signs went ignored. Watch the full hour here.

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This content comes from Closed Captioning that was broadcast along with this program.

>>> "dateline," i'm ann curry . it was a plan to set off a bomb on christmas day that instead set off worldwide alarm. tonight, we have new details about what happened on northwest flight 253 and about the accused terrorist at the center of it all who investigators say carried explosives aboard in his underwear a "dateline" investigation takes us around the world to learn more about who this alleged bomber is and how the battle against terrorism has changed. here's chris hansen .

>> a man makes his way through airport security . he is an al qaeda -trained terrorist, bent on destruction, determined to take his own life, along with the lives of hundreds of innocents. there were warnings he was coming. information was passed on to the government. but no one put it all together. brave passengers intervened on board an airplane to try to stop a terrorist attack . but all that didn't happen two weeks ago, that was eight years ago and resulted in the catastrophes of 9/11. since then, billions have been spent creating new security agencies and new technologies, yet it almost happened again.

>> terror scare, an emergency on a detroit-bound jet with hundreds of board. what happened when one of the passengers allegedly tried to blow up the plane?

>> so what happened? some think the intelligence community dropped the ball, big time .

>> that was major failure, a very significant failure, and it should not have happened to the extent it did eight years after september 11th .

>> some worry that terrorists may have gained the upper hand.

>> the terrorists are smart them know where security is good. they know where security is lax. and of course, they seek the weakest link .

>> reporter: even the president admits, we should have seen it coming.

>> the u.s. government had the information scattered throughout the system to potentially uncover this plot and disrupt the attack.

>> reporter: two weeks ago, most travelers believed the systems put in police to combat terrorism since 9/11 would let them enjoy the blessings of christmas . take charlie keepman and his wife, scottie, from wisconsin, who made a life-changing decision to adopt two young children from africa.

>> we decided that there was really a calling that we wanted to have children again.

>> reporter: on christmas day, charlie, scottie and their daughter, ricky, were returning home with a young brother and sister they had just adopted from an ethiopian orphanage. as their party of five setted into the back of the plane, northwest 253 from amsterdam to detroit, scotty told her older daughter she was nervous about the flight.

>> it doesn't feel right. i can't explain it. it was just overcrowded. it was christmas day. there was something about it that just, to me, was the perfect set up for something to happen.

>> reporter: the keepmans all noticed and were somewhat surprised by what they considered unusually lax security at the amsterdam airport .

>> we didn't take our shoes off, which i thought was a little bit odd, 'cause i'm useded to doing that now and also, my mom had a water not her bag that she had completely forgotten about, but we didn't realize she had it until we had got onto the plane and realize it had went right through.

>> coming from amsterdam. that is where i work right now.

>> reporter: in the front of the plane, melinda dennis did not have any travel anxieties. she had been working for two years as a project manager for an aluminum company and excited to be coming home for the holidays to see her fiance in arizona.

>> completely uneventful, just like normal. we had no issues going through security, no problems, went very smoothly. there wasn't anybody acting abnormally.

>> reporter: so, if she had crossed paths with this man, a 23-year-old baby-faced nigerian, she wouldn't have given him a second look. he was in the middle of the plane in seat 19a, by a window. but the young nigerian had been noticed briefly by a fellow passengers, real estate developer alan godda from the congo but now a u.s. citizen . you had seen him before clearing the last check point? he was talking on his phone or text?

>> he was texting.

>> did he stand out? look agitate order in vows?

>> nothing.

>> not perspiring?

>> no. calm, regular passenger in the plane.

>> reporter: after they boarded, ganda wasn't aware that that same man was sitting two miles across from him. able shortened his business trip to get home to his wife and three children in suburban washington, d.c. he was told he purchased the last coach seat on northwest flight 253. now, you were trying to get back for christmas to be with your family?

>> yes.

>> and he was scheduled to get there just in time?

>> yes.

>> reporter: now in the air, the keepmans, two floe the back of the planes, were enjoying themselves, the young kids were enthusiastic and excited about everything, but not airline food .

>> excited when the food came but not excited when they got t.

>> reporter: melinda dennis was enjoying her breakfast and, blueberry pancakes and reading richard branson 's book, and easy smooth air. relaxing flight?

>> yeah.

>> yes.

>> how was the flight?

>> peaceful.

>> reporter: none of the passengers noticed late in the flight that nigerian man in 19a go to the bathroom for an unusually long time. when he finally returned to his seat, it was with evil intentions and a blanket on his lap. when did you first realize something was wrong?

>> shortly after they announced that we were preparing for landing, people started yelling.

>> then the screams started. and then you feel the blood drain . and you realize something was going on, so i knew this was very serious.

>> reporter: behind it all that quiet man who had seemed so calm. who was that passenger in seat 19a? tonight, we will put him under a microscope. and by doing so we will uncover how the terrorists are changing the game to try to outfox authorities. how and where they are training, how they are finding ways to sneak across-borders, and who they are choosing to carry out their deadly deeds.

>>> coming up, tracing the path