The suspect suffered third-degree burns and was taken into custody. The passengers, two of whom suffered minor injuries, disembarked safely from the Delta Air Lines plane, which had departed from Amsterdam.
We believe this was an attempted act of terrorism, a White House official told Reuters on condition of anonymity.
President Barack Obama is on vacation in Hawaii and was monitoring the situation.
Representative Peter King, who sits on the House of Representatives Homeland Security Committee, said the explosive device was fairly sophisticated, and the suspect was Abdul Mudallad, a 23-year-old Nigerian.
When it did go off, he himself was seriously injured. He has third degree burns. ... It appears to be different from what we've encountered before, King told Fox News.
Speaking to CNN, King, a New York Republican, said Mudallad did appear in a database as far as having a terrorist connection.
My understanding is ... that he does have al Qaeda connections, certainly extremist terrorist connections, and his name popped up pretty quickly in a search of intelligence data bases, King said.
Mudallad was not on a no-fly list but his name was in a database indicating a significant terrorist connection, King said.
The aircraft was moved to a remote area at Detroit's airport where all baggage was being rescreened, said the Transportation Security Administration.
He was severely burned. His entire leg was burned. They required a fire extinguisher as well as water to put it out, passenger Melinda Dennis told NBC News.
You could smell the smoke when we landed. You could smell the scent of something being burned when we landed.
Another passenger, Richelle Keepman, said the incident was terrifying.
I thought -- I think we all thought we weren't going to land, we weren't going to make it, Keepman told NBC.
Citing unnamed U.S. officials, the Wall Street Journal said Mudallad had told investigators al Qaeda operatives in Yemen had given him the device and instructions on how to detonate it.
But NBC, citing anti-terrorism officials, said Mudallad claims to have been acting on his own.
The aircraft, Northwest Airlines flight 253, was an Airbus 330 carrying 278 passengers. Delta Air Lines has taken over Northwest.
King said the suspect started his journey in Nigeria.
How sophisticated he was, I don't know, King said. But again, it was a fairly sophisticated device. I would say we dropped the ball on this one.
Passengers may notice additional screening measures put into place to ensure the safety of the traveling public on domestic and international flights, the Department of Homeland Security said a statement.
King said there was an investigation into whether the incident may have been part of a larger plot. There is a world-wide alert to make sure this is not part of a larger overall scheme, he said.
The attempt appeared similar to one eight years ago when a British-born man, Richard Reid, tried but failed to blow up a transatlantic jumbo jet by lighting explosives stuffed into his shoes. Reid, a follower of al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, is serving a life sentence in a U.S. prison.
It also is the latest in a string of terrorism-related plots in the United States over the past few months, including one in which an Afghan-born man was arrested in September on charges he planned to set off bombs in the United States.
U.S. officials have repeatedly warned about terrorism attacks from overseas and have grown increasingly worried about the potential for home-grown plots.