FBI agent opens up about 2009 Christmas Day 'Underwear Bomber' over Metro Detroit

Timothy Waters speaks for first time about attempted terror attack on airplane

DETROIT – The Metro Detroit FBI agent who was instrumental in the interrogation of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, known as the "Underwear Bomber," spoke publicly for the first time to the Local 4 Defenders.

The case known as the Christmas Day underwear bombing happened Dec. 25, 2009. There were 300 people on board Flight 253 above Metro Detroit when Abdulmutallab, 23, tried to ignite a liquid bomb.

FBI agent Timothy Waters shared his story to show people what it's like to work inside the Joint Terrorism Task Force and to encourage people to report suspicious activity that could lead to foiled terror plots.

As Metro Detroit residents were opening Christmas presents, agents with the Joint Terrorism Task Force started receiving urgent phone calls from Detroit Metro Airport.

Agents learned a man had tried to blow up a plane full of people with a bomb hidden in his underwear. Abdulmutallab sneaked explosives onto the flight from Amsterdam to Detroit and tried to light them as the plane descended.

The FBI's pagers and phones started ringing, and Waters got one of the first calls.

"I was the SWAT supervisor for the squad that responded," Waters said. "I interviewed Abdulmutallab at the hospital that day."

It didn't matter that Waters was enjoying Christmas morning with his family.

"I had some young kids at the time, and we were done opening presidents and we were getting ready to sit down and eat breakfast," Waters said.

But Waters was among the members of the Joint Terrorism Task Force called to the airport.

"That's our job," Waters said. "The local police officer, he is out patrolling Christmas Day. That's our job. That is what we get paid to do."

At first, reports said the commotion might have been caused by firecrackers.

"Obviously, when a crisis like that happens, there is a lot of misinformation out there initially," Waters said.

But soon the world learned the incident was much more serious.

"A guy has tried to detonate a device on a plane," Waters said. "He is claiming that al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula directed him to do it, and that is where it started."

The first concern for FBI agents was whether there were bombers on other planes.

"Our fear was there were multiple planes in the air with multiple suicide bombers on those planes, so myself and another agent raced out to where he was being treated at U of M (University of Michigan) hospital, where we conducted interviews of him, trying to know what he knew and how he had been tasked and, really, if there were others," Waters said.

Fortunately, there weren't any other attacks. The next steps were to find out how Abdulmutallab got a bomb onto the plane and make sure it couldn't happen again.

"The whole thing, the nonmetallic device, it was really one of the first times we had seen it, and the fact that he was able to get it through airport security was obviously a great concern," Waters said.

Today, the Joint Terrorism Task Force has grown to nearly 100 members from multiple Metro Detroit law enforcement agencies.

"We are out here," Waters said. "We are working. We are going to do everything we can to keep the people safe. We are all working together toward that same goal."

There are more threats now than at any time in history, and Waters said holidays are like any other day in the war on terror.

"I can guarantee you that on Christmas Day, on New Year's, it doesn't matter," Waters said. "We are working because that is where the threat is constant for ISIS. The idea of a successful attack during the holidays is a very symbolic victory for them."

Abdulmutallab is serving a life sentence in prison. Federal officials said they have more terror threats now than at any other time in the history of the country, and that the public's willingness to speak up and call in suspicious activity is the key to saving lives.

JTTF works to stop Metro Detroit residents radicalized by terrorists

The Joint Terrorism Task Force in Metro Detroit has swelled to nearly 100 agents in part because more residents are becoming radicalized by terror organizations.

The FBI confirmed dangerous sympathizers who pose a threat are currently being investigated, and in most cases, officials said tip calls from the public lead to foiled potential plots.

Local 4 Defenders went behind the scenes for a rare look at the Joint Terrorism Task Force's efforts to prevent attacks in Metro Detroit.

The FBI's top mission is to prevent terror attacks, and while there's news about attacks throughout the country, the vast majority of terror plots are foiled before anyone is hurt, thanks to hundreds of Joint Terrorism Task Force members.

In a rare interview, Waters, the head of Detroit's Joint Terrorism Task Force, said ISIS is everywhere for sympathizers with access to a computer or smart phone.

"It continues to change on a daily basis, and really, it is almost being driven by technology," Waters said. "The ability of jihadists, their ability to communicate and to communicate through encrypted means throughout the world.

"A few clicks and you can be looking at jihadist propaganda, and with a few more clicks you can be talking to an ISIS fighter on the ground in Syria, and that is what it is today."

Waters said someone in Southfield is as likely as someone in Somalia to become a terrorist. A plot is as likely to be planned in Ypsilanti as in Yemen. The message from ISIS is to do anything to create chaos, death and fear.

"ISIS provides all sorts of tools and ideas for them to use to carry out an attack with little or no training whatsoever," Waters said.

There are so many people sampling the message that the federal government can't keep up. At the front lines, the Joint Terrorism Task Force, which at one time in Michigan contained around a dozen agents, has now swelled to nearly 100 law enforcement officials in Metro Detroit. It includes regular police from almost every Metro Detroit community.

"When they come on, we are an open book as long as you have the clearance and the need to know, which these agencies do because we are all in this together," Waters said. "They know what I know."

Waters grew up in New Jersey, and he said the 9/11 terror attacks are personal to him.

"I had friends killed in the World Trade Center," Waters said. "I had kids I played football with, went to high school with."

It has drawn him to fight terror at every turn, he said. Tips come in all the time, and every single one is taken as a life-or-death emergency.

"We are going to take it exceptionally seriously," Waters said. "We are going to run it into the ground, and we are going to do what we need to do to keep people safe."

One local tip from the public involved Sebastian Gregerson of Detroit. Someone who knew him was concerned because he was talking about moving his family to ISIS-controlled territory. While most tips turn out to be nothing, Gregerson was an exception.

An undercover agent found out he was stockpiling a serious arsenal of weapons. He was purchasing grenades and launchers.

"Hundreds and hundreds of rounds of ammunition and road spikes to disable vehicles," Waters said. "Multiple different types of knives, and this is right around the time that ISIS is putting out all those videos of beheadings. His knives are very similar in nature to those."

His social media was full of praise for terror attacks in Paris, France, and Orlando, Florida. Federal officials were worried about him launching his own attack in Metro Detroit. They had agents following him 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

"When you have ISIS calling on people to conduct attacks in the United States, and you see individuals clearly believe in what that messaging is and is acting on that to procure equipment," Waters said.

It's not easy to charge someone as a terrorist. You need to differentiate between free speech and criminal terror activity, and you don't want to wait until after an attack.

"At some point along the way, risk vs. public safety, public safety risk vs. neutralizing the subject," Waters said.

Federal officials couldn't risk it another day. They took Gregerson down. A search of his home turned up weapons the Task Force said were a buildup for war, not a collection by a gun enthusiast.

Gregerson wasn't charged with any terror crime, but he was sent to prison on illegal gun charges for several months. For now, the Joint Terrorism Task Force knows exactly where he is and that he can't hurt anyone.

"It is exceptionally rewarding," Waters said. "I can't tell you how rewarding it is."

The Joint Terrorism Task Force said the public is the key to success in stopping terror plots before they're acted on. Anyone who is suspicious should call police. There will be an investigation, and if it leads to nothing, it's no big deal. But police said it could save lives.

Head of JTTF details arrest of man accused of plotting to shoot up Detroit church

The head of Detroit's Joint Terrorism Task Force spoke to the Local 4 Defenders about a Dearborn resident who was arrested on gun charges related to suspicions he plotted to shoot up a Detroit church in 2015.

Khalil Abu Rayyan, 22, was convicted on gun charges and sent to federal prison. The Defenders got an inside look at the investigation.

The FBI confirmed the number of terror threats in the United States has exploded. Not a week goes by in which the members of the Joint Terrorism Task Force aren't looking into a new case involving a person in the U.S. becoming radicalized.

Greater Grace church is home to thousands of worshipers who gather each week in song and prayer. It's one of Michigan's largest megachurches, and in 2015 it was the target of a terror plot, investigators said.

Joint Terrorism Task Force Agent Timothy Waters was alerted by a phone tip.

"Another concerned citizen who saw some postings online that were concerning let us know," Waters said.

The tip call was about Dearborn resident Rayyan, who the caller said was all over social media praising the violent actions of the Islamic State group.

"He was looking at some really horrific stuff, in terms of beheadings and killings, and even more concerning, he was making comments on it, approving how they were doing things," Waters said.

It was enough for the Joint Terrorism Task Force to dig deeper. The nearly 100-member team in Metro Detroit is made up of federal agents and local police officers. The look into Rayyan's case created an instant alert.

"He was making statements about wanting to go into a church to kill people, to include women and children," Waters said. "He talked about running people over with his car. He talked about skinning people alive."

FBI agents learned the church he was talking about was Greater Grace, in Detroit. Rayyan had been practicing loading and reloading weapons. Officials decided to alert the Rev. Charles Ellis about the threat.

"It wasn't a pipe dream," Ellis said. "It was something in his heart he intended to do."

Detroit Police Chief James Craig was also notified.

"There is this balance of not creating panic," Craig said. "That's not what we want to do."

Before 9/11, federal officials would have handled everything themselves. Today, they know the key to success is sharing information, resources and expertise.

"We have learned some painful lessons during 9/11," Waters said. "You have to share information. You have to be more open. The more people that know about what the threat is and are educated on the threat and can adequately report on the threat, the better off you are."

While the church and police quietly beefed up security, the Joint Terrorism Task Force watched Rayyan's every move.

"If you got anywhere near that church, he was going to be taken into custody," Waters said. "We were watching. We were taking steps we needed to take, but at the same time, we were trying to build as strong a case against him as we could, because of the threat he represented."

Officials had enough evidence to charge him with serious gun violations but not enough to hit him with terrorism charges. The decision was made to take him down.

"We all collectively came to the decision we just couldn't leave him out here anymore, because there was the potential that he would have acted," Waters said.

Rayyan was convicted on gun charges and sentenced to five years in prison. The Joint Terrorism Task Force said the top mission was accomplished: Nobody was hurt.

"We did the public a good service that day when we took him off the street," Waters said.

Waters said people are being radicalized in just weeks, usually through encrypted computer communications that are hard to track. There are more threats in Michigan and the rest of the U.S. than there have been at any other time in history.

The Joint Terrorism Task Force is skilled at stopping attacks, but it can't do so alone.

"We are seeing more and more attacks in the United States today," Waters said. "The public needs to be aware that the threat is out there and it is as high as it ever has been, and we need their help."

The FBI wants anyone with concerns to call in a tip, no matter how insignificant the information might seem, because lives are saved when citizens speak up.