Federal officials have issued an alert to the nation’s airports, asking them to look for possible terrorists, practicing to carry explosive components onto aircraft. According to authorities, the warning was based on the seizure of unusual items at four airports since last September. The unclassified alert was disseminated last Friday by the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), to federal air marshals, TSA security personnel and other law enforcement agencies.
According to the AP, the seizures at airports in San Diego, Milwaukee, Houston and Baltimore, included:
“..wires, switches, pipes or tubes, cell phone components and dense clay-like substances,” including block cheese, the bulletin said. “The unusual nature and increase in number of these improvised items raise concern.”
Security officers were urged to keep an eye out for “ordinary items that look like improvised explosive device components.”
The bulletin said the a joint FBI-Homeland Security Department assessment found that terrorists have conducted probes, dry runs and dress rehearsals in advance of previous attacks. Available on-line at a number of websites (including MSNBC), the warning lists four past examples of practice runs and probes.
More surprising is the omission of other, suspicious incidents from the TSA advisory. At the top of that list is Northwest Airlines Flight 327, which attracted national attention after its journey from Detroit to Los Angeles on June 29, 2004. Annie Jacobsen, a writer for Women’sWallStreet.com was a passenger on the aircraft, along with her family. During the flight, Ms. Jacobsen noticed very suspicious behavior among the 13 Middle Eastern men who were among the passengers. Her detailed account of the flight can be found here. A brief sample of what she witnessed:
“…once we were in the air and the seatbelt sign was turned off, the unusual activity began. The man in the yellow T-shirt got out of his seat and went to the lavatory at the front of coach — taking his full McDonald’s bag with him. When he came out of the lavatory he still had the McDonald’s bag, but it was now almost empty. He walked down the aisle to the back of the plane, still holding the bag. When he passed two of the men sitting mid-cabin, he gave a thumbs-up sign. When he returned to his seat, he no longer had the McDonald’s bag.
Then another man from the group stood up and took something from his carry-on in the overhead bin. It was about a foot long and was rolled in cloth. He headed toward the back of the cabin with the object. Five minutes later, several more of the Middle Eastern men began using the forward lavatory consecutively. In the back, several of the men stood up and used the back lavatory consecutively as well.
For the next hour, the men congregated in groups of two and three at the back of the plane for varying periods of time. Meanwhile, in the first class cabin, just a foot or so from the cockpit door, the man with the dark suit – still wearing sunglasses – was also standing. Not one of the flight crew members suggested that any of these men take their seats.
While the Middle Eastern men were briefly detained after landing in LAX, Ms. Jacobsen and her husband made the courageous decision to talk with authorities–and the media–about what they saw. Quite literally, they became the first “John and Jane Doe,” long before the flying imams took to the skies.
For their efforts, Ms. Jacobson and her spouse were ridiculed, even branded as racists. But her blog, theaviationnation.com, has become an invaluable reference on possible terrorist probes of airline security, highlighting incidents that are often ignored by the MSM. For example, have you ever heard of Fadhel al-Maliki?
On March 6, 2007 Fadhel al-Maliki, a 35-year old Iraqi national, attempted to board an early morning, cross-country, US Airways flight out of Los Angeles International Airport. Hidden in his rectum was a device containing electrical wires, chewing gum and a rock. An airport screener noticed that al-Maliki was acting suspiciously. “He was nervous and sweating,” I was told by the FBI.
Al-Maliki was asked to step aside and answer a few questions. Also according to my interview with the FBI, only after some heavy questioning about his odd behavior, and after being repeatedly asked by federal agents why he was sweating, did the former security guard admit to the untoward items hidden inside his lower body cavity. “They are for therapeutic reasons…to relieve stress,” al-Maliki said. He claimed the rock was from another planet. The bomb squad was called in.
Larry Fetters, security director for the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) at the airport, told reporters that al-Maliki “was secreting these items in a body cavity and that was a great concern because there were also some electric wires associated with that body cavity.” Then Fetter stated, “there never was a threat.”
People around the country began to have a prurient, scatological field day with the circumstances under which al-Maliki had been caught. Newspaper headlines like “Bum Threat Triggers Alert” helped the jokes roll along as did chuckles from law enforcement officials; the first FBI agent I spoke with laughed during our interview.What al-Maliki had done in trying to board an airplane with a “device” concealed up his bum — no matter how suspicious (and/or perverted) it is — was not a crime. Then again Mohammad Atta was not a terrorist on September 10. But why was al-Maliki still being detained by Homeland Security as the hah-hah articles were going to print? It’s all so funny — until the next plane disappears off the radar screen, I suppose.
Given week’s TSA warning, Mr. Maliki’s activities may not be as funny as first thought. But, as you might have guessed, the Maliki incident is also missing from the government bulletin. As Ms. Jacobsen reminds us, federal authorities have known about terrorist dry runs since 1994, and they issued another bulletin on the subject in late 2006. Yet, much of this information never reaches the public, at least in the proper context. After all, it is the height of the summer vacation season (no reason to incite a public among travelers), and some the major air carriers have just returned to profitability.
But another 9-11 could the death knell for the U.S. airline industry, and you’d think the feds would want everyone to be vigilant–passengers included. Greater public awareness of these recent probes and dry-runs could actually discourage that activity, and even prevent a possible hijacking. Terrorists prefer a permissive environment, and almost six years after 9-11, they believe the time may be right for another attack. Many Americans have grown complacent, and the legal repercussions of the flying imams make some passengers reluctant to speak out. And TSA’s reluctance to disclose possible terrorist “dry runs” to the flying public is only making matters worse