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U.S. scanners went unused at Nigeria airport

The U.S. gave Nigeria four full-body scanners for its international airports in 2008 to detect explosives and drugs, but none were used on the man suspected of trying to blow up a jetliner.
/ Source: The Associated Press

The U.S. gave Nigeria four full-body scanners for its international airports in 2008 to detect explosives and drugs, but none were used on the man suspected of trying to blow up a Detroit-bound flight, Nigerian officials said Thursday.

Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, tracked by cameras through the security check, only went through a metal detector and had his bag X-rayed when he arrived at Nigeria's busiest airport to start his journey, the officials said.

The Soter RS scanners deliver 3-D images that would have shown something hidden under clothing. But a spokesman for the anti-drug agency, which operates the Nigerian machines, told The Associated Press that the one at Lagos airport is used sporadically and only on potential narcotics smugglers.

After clearing security at Murtala Muhammed International Airport, Abdulmutallab flew to Amsterdam, boarded Northwest Airlines Flight 253, and allegedly lit an explosive device hidden in his underpants as the plane approached Detroit on Christmas Day.

Top officials didn't know of scanners
Even word of the scanners' presence in Nigeria's four main airports apparently hasn't reached top officials, including one responsible for airline safety.

Harold Demuren, the head of the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority, told reporters Wednesday that his government would buy 3-D full-body scanners for the airports, and insisted there were currently none there.

But on Thursday, Ofoyeju Mitchell of Nigeria's National Drug Law Enforcement Agency, told the AP that one of the machines sits in a room near the security checkpoint in Lagos' often chaotic international airport.

He said they aren't used on every passenger. Instead, drug agents select frequent flyers, travelers heading to and from drug shipment points, and people who seem deceptive or under stress. Nigeria is a major transit point for Afghan heroin and South American cocaine.

"The frequency of checks is determined by the risk level of our assessment ... (and) reasonable cause for suspicion," Mitchell said.

Such limited use is not what the U.S. State Department intended when it gave Nigeria the scanners.

According to an April 30 U.S. State Department report, the scanners were installed in March, May and June of 2008 "to detect explosives and drugs on passengers."

The U.S. Embassy in Nigeria would not comment on the use of the scanners.

Culture of graft and favoritism
Reuben Abati, a columnist at Nigeria's Guardian newspaper, highlighted a different risk factor — a culture of graft and favoritism that allows VIPs to bypass screening.

"Big men and their wives and children are often piloted through security," Abati wrote. "They could go straight to the tarmac to board the aircraft, depending on the scope of their influence. With the power of cash, anything can be taken onto an aircraft in Nigeria."

Abdulmutallab's father is a prominent banker. However, Demuren and the country's Information Minister have said Abdulmutallab did go through a metal detector and had his bag X-rayed, citing security camera footage which they refuse to release.

Sam Adurogboye, a spokesman for the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority, did not deny that some passengers have been allowed to breeze past security checkpoints.

"It is possible in the past that people may have gone above the law," he said. However, he insisted that new rules and their strict enforcement would prevent such practices from recurring.

Passengers can fly directly from this West African city to Europe and the United States. The most recent available statistics say some 2.1 million international travelers passed through the airport in 2006.

In new information released Thursday, Information Minister Dora Akunyili said Abdulmutallab flew into Lagos from Accra, Ghana, on Christmas Eve and "spent less than 30 minutes" in the airport before catching the flight to Amsterdam.

Nigerian officials had said earlier that his round-trip ticket was bought in Accra for $2,831 in cash on Dec. 16. Akunyili's statement did not say how he spent the rest of the week before flying to Lagos.

Amsterdam searches turned up nothing
Abdulmutallab raised no alarms as he boarded the flight to Amsterdam. He also underwent a second set of searches in Amsterdam's Schiphol Airport that turned up nothing.

Schiphol has 15 scanners, but the U.S. has discouraged their routine use on privacy grounds. Dutch authorities say Abdulmutallab raised no suspicions that would require a scan.

Demuren, the civil aviation chief, said scanners Nigeria will buy are "very new machines" used in few airports worldwide. "Nigeria is determined to acquire these," he said.

He referred further questions to the Federal Airport Authority of Nigeria, the agency that oversees airport construction and maintenance. An agency spokesman could not be reached for comment Thursday.

Since the attempted bombing, the police presence at the Lagos airport has noticeably increased, with officers cradling weathered assault rifles both inside and outside the terminal. Airline officials also are making a point of going through every bag presented at check-in.