U.S. officials announced Tuesday that two Yemenis arrested in Amsterdam after a flight from Chicago will not face charges in this country, but experts said the case exposed the strengths and weaknesses of U.S. aviation security.
Department of Homeland Security officials, who allowed the men to go on their way despite suspicious circumstances, concluded that the system worked. Bags containing strange items — including a cellphone taped to a bottle of Pepto-Bismol — were scrutinized, and the men were monitored as they continued their trip, officials said.
But counter-terrorism experts said U.S. authorities should have taken more time in searching and questioning the men, one of whom was in this country on an expired visa, a law enforcement source said. That in itself would be a crime.
Officials in the Netherlands arrested the men after receiving information from U.S. authorities after their United Airlines plane landed Monday at Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam.
“The men are held in custody on suspicion of a conspiracy to a terrorist criminal act,” Dutch authorities said in a statement regarding Ahmed Mohamed Nasser al Soofi, a permanent resident of the U.S. who has a Detroit address, and Hezam al Murisi, who was in the U.S. on a visa that had reportedly expired. Both were bound for Yemen.
A public prosecutor is expected to present a case to an Amsterdam judge by Thursday or Friday to determine whether Al Soofi and Al Murisi should continue to be held.
The men, both Yemeni citizens, did not appear to know each other, “but that’s part of the ongoing investigation,” a U.S. official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to comment publicly.
The bizarre incident began Sunday when bundles of wristwatches and cellphones stuffed inside Al Soofi’s suitcase — a combination that could be used to simulate a bomb in a dry run — were spotted by airport screeners working for the Transportation Security Administration in Birmingham, Ala.
But the items were deemed no threat to safety or security, officials said, and the bag and its owner were allowed to fly to Chicago.
Then a gate change at O’Hare International Airport resulted in Al Soofi and Al Murisi missing their connection to Dulles International Airport outside Washington and taking another flight, seated near each other on the plane, to Amsterdam, airline and Homeland Security officials said Tuesday.
The bag containing the bizarre combination of items didn’t follow Al Soofi. Instead, airline officials confirmed, it was loaded onto a plane bound for Dulles and then on to Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates, despite a federal requirement that the owners of all checked baggage on international flights must be on board.
The bag made it as far as Dulles, where it was removed when airline officials realized no passenger matched it.
Other potential red flags included $7,000 in cash that Al Soofi was carrying and a final destination that is a terrorist breeding ground. Top U.S. officials have repeatedly warned about Al Qaeda-linked militants in Yemen.
Some U.S. officials downplayed the idea that the peculiar case was a dry run for a terrorism plot. But one official said the case involved too many coincidences not to raise suspicions, noting that the Sept. 11 plotters had made several test runs of the flights they took on the day of the attacks. By early Tuesday evening, however, a U.S. official said: “The bottom line for us is they don’t have any charges here. We’ve told the Dutch that we don’t see anything derogatory on these individuals’ records or about their story, so we’re done with it at this point, the whole U.S. government.
“Should further information come to light, we obviously can take action then.”
Although U.S. officials insisted the incident is a good example of how the aviation security system is supposed to work, some experts said authorities should have screened Al Soofi more thoroughly, even though he and Al Murisi were not on the U.S. no-fly or terrorist watch lists.
The TSA has trained some of its elite screeners in psychology to serve as behavior detection officers. The purpose is to identify unusual behavior among passengers that could indicate an intention to cause harm to airliners and their passengers.
Neither Al Soofi nor Al Murisi were brought to the attention of behavior detection officers deployed at O’Hare, federal authorities said.
“If there are these behavior specialists, why didn’t they go into gear?” said Arnold Barnett, an expert on aviation safety and security at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “Even if it was innocent, if you look at the way the TSA and the airline reacted to it, there were inadvertent shortcomings.”
Billie Vincent, a former security chief at the Federal Aviation Administration, said: “It seems the TSA was just a few steps behind. If you are unsure about a person’s intent or their belongings, you can pull him aside and get law enforcement and the FBI involved.”