In a story published today and getting lots of attention, Annie Jacobsen describes in Women's Wall Street her June 29 experience on Northwest Airlines flight #327 from Detroit to Los Angeles. To make a long story short, fourteen Syrian "musicians" acted strangely during the flight, coming and going to the toilet, signaling each other from various points on the plane, disobeying instructions, intimidating passengers. Jacobsen notes that, in accord with the maximum-of-two-Arabs rule, "even if Northwest Airlines searched two of the men on board my Northwest flight, they couldn't search the other 12 because they would have already filled a government-imposed quota,"
She also recounts how, shortly after her flight, she received a call from Dave Adams, head of public affairs for the Federal Air Marshal Services (FAM), who told her that
There were 14 Syrians on NWA flight #327. They were questioned at length by FAM, the FBI and the TSA upon landing in Los Angeles. The 14 Syrians had been hired as musicians to play at a casino in the desert. Adams said they were scrubbed. None had arrest records (in America, I presume), none showed up on the FBI's no fly list or the FBI's Most Wanted Terrorists List. The men checked out and they were let go. According to Adams, the 14 men traveled on Northwest Airlines flight #327 using one-way tickets. Two days later they were scheduled to fly back on jetBlue from Long Beach, California to New York—also using one-way tickets.
Annie Jacobsen of NW 327 fame.
I asked Adams why, based on the FBI's credible information that terrorists may try to assemble bombs on planes, the air marshals or the flight attendants didn't do anything about the bizarre behavior and frequent trips to the lavatory. Our FAM agents have to have an event to arrest somebody. Our agents aren't going to deploy until there is an actual event, Adams explained.
"Agents have to have an event to arrest somebody": in those nine words lies the civilized world's dilemma. (July 13, 2004)
April 27, 2005 update: Despite the Federal Air Marshal Service's initial snootiness about Jacobsen's account reflecting her "untrained civilian eyes," The Washington Times reports today that the inspector general of the Department of Homeland Security is investigating the incident as a possible dry run for a terrorist attack. The investigation, which began shortly after the incident, became public only in March 2005, when passengers faced hours of questioning. It also turns out that after the flight landed, only 2 of the 14 Syrians were questioned and officials somehow managed not to notice that their visas had expired.
May 27, 2007 update: Almost three years after the notorious Northwest Airlines flight #327 took place, some details of the investigation are coming out from Homeland Security's inspector general.. The only news released by the Washington Times fom the 51-page report is that Federal air marshals now concede it was a terrorist dry run; and
The names of the suspicious passengers were run through FBI databases, indicating the musical group's promoter had been involved in a similar incident in January 2004. No other derogatory information was received, and all 13 of the men were released.
May 29, 2007 update: Almost three years after the notorious Northwest Airlines flight #327 took place, the Homeland Security's inspector general has released a 51-page report on the incident. As summarized by by the Washington Times, it "backs eyewitness accounts of suspicious behavior by 13 Middle Eastern men … and reveals several missteps by government officials."
According to the Homeland Security report, the "suspicious passengers," 12 Syrians and their Lebanese-born promoter, were traveling on Flight 327 from Detroit to Los Angeles on expired visas. U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services extended the visas one week after the June 29, 2004, incident. The report also says that a background check in the FBI's National Crime Information Center database, which was performed June 18 as part of a visa-extension application, produced "positive hits" for past criminal records or suspicious behavior for eight of the 12 Syrians, who were traveling in the U.S. as a musical group. In addition, the band's promoter was listed in a separate FBI database on case investigations for acting suspiciously aboard a flight months earlier. He was detained a third time in September on a return trip to the U.S. from Istanbul, the details of which were redacted.
The inspector general criticized the Homeland Security officials for not reporting the incident to the Homeland Security Operations Center (HSOC), which serves as the nation's nerve center for information sharing and domestic incident management.
The report provides some interesting details: Flight 327 was
delayed for five minutes because one of the 13 suspicious passengers, who appeared not to understand English and walked with a limp, was seated in the emergency exit row. The flight attendant determined he was unable to operate the emergency procedures and delayed the flight while having him exchange seats. … On the flight, 13 Middle Eastern men behaved in a suspicious manner that aroused the attention and concern of the flight attendants, passengers, air marshals and pilots. [The men] walked in the aisle, appearing to count passengers [and] several men spent excessive time in the lavatories. … One man rushed to the front of the plane appearing to head for the cockpit. At the last moment, he veered into the first-class lavatory, remaining in it for about 20 minutes.
One man carried a McDonald's bag into the lavatory, and
another man, upon returning from the lavatory, reeked strongly of what smelled like toilet bowl chemicals. … Some men hand signaled each other. The passenger who entered the lavatory with the McDonald's bag made a thumbs-up signal to another man upon returning from the lavatory. Another man made a slashing motion across his throat, appearing to say 'No.'
As the flight descended into Los Angeles, the report said, "four of the suspicious individuals stood up and made their way to the back of the plane," where "the individuals used the rear lavatory, and one of the men was doing stretching exercises/knee bends by the exit door."
Comment: It looks like a complete vindication for Annie Jacobsen.
Dec. 3, 2009 update: Douglas J. Hagmann of the Northeast Intelligence Network reports on a comparable incident on November 17 on AirTran 297 from Atlanta to Houston.
Oct. 11, 2013 update: Another possible dry run by terrorists, this time on a US Airways flight on Sep. 2 from Reagan National Airport in Washington to Orlando. Fox News reports:
a "Middle Eastern" man rose from his seat and sprinted toward the cockpit, before veering sharply to go into the forward restroom, according to [a memo prepared by the U.S. Airline Pilots Association]. While he was in there, sever other men moved about the cabin, changing seats and going into overhead bins, it says. US Airways and the Transportation Security Administration confirmed the incident. Four passengers aboard the flight were detained by local law enforcement authorities upon arrival in Orlando due to suspicious behavior during the flight, according to a statement by Michelle Mohr, a spokeswoman for US Airways. …
According to the memo, the pilot of a subsequent, return flight bearing the same flight number, 1880, ordered an inspection of the plane after eight women in burkas showed up at the boarding gate. The memo claims that "evidence of tampering was found," though it does not elaborate.