A man tried to board a commercial airliner in Mogadishu last month carrying powdered chemicals, liquid and a syringe that could have caused an explosion in a case bearing chilling similarities to the terrorist plot to blow up a Detroit-bound airliner, officials told The Associated Press on Wednesday.
The Somali man — whose name has not yet been released — was arrested by African Union peacekeeping troops before the Nov. 13 Daallo Airlines flight took off. It had been scheduled to travel from Mogadishu to the northern Somali city of Hargeisa, then to Djibouti and Dubai. A Somali police spokesman, Abdulahi Hassan Barise, said the suspect is in Somali custody.
"We don't know whether he's linked with al-Qaida or other foreign organizations, but his actions were the acts of a terrorist. We caught him red-handed," said Barise.
A Nairobi-based diplomat said the incident in Somalia is similar to the attempted attack on the Detroit-bound airliner on Christmas Day in that the Somali man had a syringe, a bag of powdered chemicals and liquid — tools similar to those used in the Detroit attack. The diplomat spoke on condition he not be identified because he isn't authorized to release the information.
Barigye Bahoku, the spokesman for the African Union military force in Mogadishu, said the chemicals from the Somali suspect could have caused an explosion that would have caused air decompression inside the plane. However, Bahoku said he doesn't believe an explosion would have brought the plane down.
A second international official familiar with the incident, also speaking on condition of anonymity because he isn't authorized to discuss the case, confirmed that the substances carried by the Somali passenger could have been used as an explosive device.
In the Detroit case, alleged attacker Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab hid explosive PETN in a condom or condom-like bag just below his torso when he traveled from Amsterdam to Detroit. Like the captured Somali, Abdulmutallab also had a syringe filled with liquid. The substances seized from the Somali passenger are being tested.
The November incident garnered little attention before the Dec. 25 attack aboard a flight on final approach to Detroit. U.S. officials have now learned of the Somali case and are hastening to investigate any possible links between it and the Detroit attack, though no officials would speak on the record about the probe.
U.S. investigators said Abdulmutallab told them he received training and instructions from al-Qaida operatives in Yemen — which lies across the Gulf of Aden from Somalia. Similarly, large swaths of Somalia are controlled by an insurgent group, al-Shabab, which has ties to al-Qaida.
Western officials say many of the hundreds of foreign jihadi fighters in Somalia come in small boats across the Gulf of Aden from Yemen. The officials also say that examination of equipment used in some Somali suicide attacks leads them to believe it was originally assembled in Yemen.
Law enforcement officials believe the suspect in the Detroit incident tried to ignite a two-part concoction of the high explosive PETN and possibly a glycol-based liquid explosive, setting off popping, smoke and some fire but no deadly detonation. Abdulmutallab, a Nigerian national, is charged with trying to destroy an aircraft.
A Somali security official involved in the capture of the suspect in Mogadishu said he had a 2.2-pound package of chemical powder and a container of liquid chemicals. The security official said the suspect was the last passenger to try to board.
Once security officials detected the powder chemicals and syringe, the suspect tried to bribe the security team that detained him, the Somali security official said. The security official said the suspect had a white shampoo bottle with a black acid-like substance in it. He also had a clear plastic bag with a light green chalky substance and a syringe containing a green liquid. The security official spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorized to release the information.
The powdered material had the strong scent of ammonia, Bahoku said, and samples have been sent to London for testing.
The Somali security officials said the Daallo Airlines flight was scheduled to go from Mogadishu to Hargeisa, to Djibouti and then to Dubai.
A spokeswoman for Daallo Airlines said that company officials weren't aware of the incident and would have to seek more information before commenting. Daallo Airlines is based in Dubai and has offices in Djibouti and France.