Northwest Airlines Flight 253

NORTHWEST AIRLINES FLIGHT 253…. By early evening, there were quite a few reports about a man setting off a firecracker on a plane en route to Detroit. As it turns out, there was quite a bit more to it than that.

A Nigerian man tried to ignite an explosive device aboard a trans-Atlantic Northwest Airlines flight as the plane prepared to land in Detroit on Friday, in an incident the United States believes was “an attempted act of terrorism,” according to a White House official who declined to be identified.

The device, described by officials as a mixture of powder and liquid, failed to fully detonate. Passengers on the plane described a series of pops that sounded like firecrackers.

Federal officials said the man wanted to bring the plane down.

Details are, not surprisingly, still pretty sketchy. The suspected terrorist has been identified as Abdul Farouk Abdulmutallab, a 23-year-old Nigerian who apparently studies engineering at University College London. He proceeded with his plan towards the end of the flight, aboard an Airbus A330 wide-body jet flying into Detroit from Amsterdam, after originating in Nigeria.

Rep. Pete King (R-N.Y.), the ranking Republican on the House Homeland Security Committee, has spent quite a bit of time getting hysterical in the media about what transpired, but by all accounts, Abdulmutallab was not exactly a terrorist mastermind. Abdulmutallab, whose claimed ties to Al Qaeda have not been substantiated and may have been “aspirational,” had a powder taped to his leg, which he mixed with chemicals held in a syringe. He may have intended to bring down the plane, but by more than one account, his materials were “more incendiary than explosive,” and it’s not clear if it had the capacity to do serious damage.

Of the 278 passengers and 11 crew members on board Northwest Airlines Flight 253, the only injury seems to have been to Abdulmutallab himself, who apparently suffered severe burns when he inadvertently set himself on fire.

The other passengers on the flight, according to several accounts, acted quickly and effectively to subdue the would-be terrorist.

We’ll no doubt have a better sense of what transpired in the coming days, but at this point, plenty of key questions have gone unanswered. How did Abdulmutallab, whose name appears to be included in the government’s records of terrorism suspects, get his materials on board? How dangerous were the materials? What, if any, ties did he have to larger terrorist networks?

While we wait for these additional details, it appears federal officials are taking the matter very seriously. President Obama was briefed on developments throughout the day, and John O. Brennan, the White House counterterrorism chief, convened an interagency meeting late yesterday to review the incident and discuss possible new precautions.

If you’re traveling this weekend, it’s unclear whether you’ll face additional security measures, beyond the usual, though existing efforts will be “tightened” after the Detroit incident.