Saturday, July 24, 2004

Terror and the fear of swarthy men

Telegraph | News: Was an al-Qaeda plot unfolding on Northwest Airlines flight 327?
By James Langton 7/25/04
As Annie Jacobsen boarded Northwest Airlines flight 327 from Detroit to Los Angeles, she was starting to feel sick with nerves.

... she was worrying about six Middle Eastern men waiting to board their flight, two of whom were carrying musical instrument cases, while the third was wearing an orthopaedic shoe. None was checked as he boarded the aeroplane.

... By the time the aircraft reached cruising altitude and the seatbelt lights had been switched off, one of the men, wearing a yellow T-shirt and carrying a bulging McDonald's bag, had already disappeared into the lavatory next to first class. When he reappeared, the bag was empty.

... Another man stood up. From an overhead locker, he removed a foot-long object wrapped in cloth, then walked to the back of the plane. Five others from the Middle Eastern party then began using the forward lavatory consecutively. Several others made for the rear bathroom.

... Before he could finish, the flight attendant pulled him aside. "In a quiet voice, she explained that they were all concerned about what was going on," Mrs Jacobsen says. "The captain was aware. The flight attendants were passing notes to each other. She said there were people on board 'higher up than you and me watching the men'

... With the "fasten seatbelts" lights on and the cabin crew strapped in their seats for landing, seven of the men stood up and made for the front and back lavatories. As they waited, speaking in Arabic, one pulled out his mobile telephone. None of the flight crew, Mrs Jacobsen was alarmed to note, intervened to stop the telephone call or to make the men sit down.

... Moments later, the last man came out of the bathroom. As he passed the man in the yellow T-shirt, Mrs Jacobsen saw him draw his finger across his throat and mouth the word "no".

... As the passengers walked into the terminal, Mrs Jacobsen saw men in dark suits gathering. Los Angeles Police Department agents rushed past them. Several other men from the aircraft, believed to be air marshals, pulled the group of 14 Arab men to one side.

... However, she did get a swift telephone call from the Federal Air Marshal Services. Under questioning, a spokesman revealed, the 14 men had said they were musicians travelling to a concert at a Californian desert casino. None showed up on the FBI's most wanted list and since their story checked out they were allowed to go. The band, the spokesman said, "gave their little performance in the casino ...

... Gary Boettcher, a member of the board of directors of the Allied Pilots Association, wrote to Mrs Jacobsen, saying that he and many fellow captains had witnessed similar practice runs. "I am a captain with a major airline," he said. "I was very involved with the Arming Pilots effort. Your reprint of this airborne event is not a singular nor isolated experience. The terrorists are probing us all the time."

Another pilot, Mark Bogosian, with American Airlines, said: "The incident you wrote about, and incidents like it, occur more than you like to think. It is a 'dirty little secret' that all of us, as crew members, have known about for quite some time."

... But what no one knew - not the frightened passengers or the apparently untroubled Syrian band - was that June 29 was far from an ordinary day. Only hours earlier, the Department of Homeland Security had issued an urgent alert at half a dozen airports for a group of six Pakistani men believed to be training for a terrorist attack in the US. Two of those airports were Detroit and Los Angeles.

... Two days after Mrs Jacobsen's trip, the US Transport and Security Administration ordered pilots to stop passengers from congregating around aircraft toilets and told flight crew to check bathrooms every two hours for suspicious packages. Six days after that, customs officers at Minneapolis arrested a Syrian who was carrying a suicide note and DVDs containing what has been described as "anti-American material".

This is an incoherent article. It took some study to determine that the flight in question took place on 6/27/04. A few comments:

1. I fly a lot, almost weekly. I'm rarely searched. I don't think I look either innocent nor suspicious, so I suspect my search rate is about average. The Bush administration downsized the security force last year; they don't have the staff to search many people.

2. I'd be saddened and surprised if there really were a rule that no more than two men of ethnic arab appearance could be searched per flight. If that were so, a team would simply require that two decoys act so as to draw a search -- thereby ensuring others would not be searched.

3. Every time someone of a "suspicious" ethnicity and gender is searched, some blond white woman should be searched too. It's the only way to make the bitterness of what is effectively ethnic profiling even barely tolerable. Share the pain.

4. If this journalist thinks throwing out trash in the men's room is suspicious, she doesn't fly enough. Who wants to sit around with trash in one's cramped seat? In first class I'd hand it to an attendant, but in cargo class attendants can be hard to find.

5. It would be interesting to interview a few pilots and learn if this "probing" theory is plausible or paranoid.

I'd guess if there was anything going on, it was a group of Syrian musicians who were playing cruel games with the minds of anxious passengers. Not polite and not wise, but not illegal. Even, given the glares they doubtless receive, almost understandable ...

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