Scouting jetliners for new attacks

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Flight crews and air marshals say Middle Eastern men are staking out airports, probing security measures and conducting test runs aboard airplanes for a terrorist attack.

At least two midflight incidents have involved numerous men of Middle Eastern descent behaving in what one pilot called “stereotypical” behavior of an organized attempt to attack a plane.

“No doubt these are dry runs for a terrorist attack,” an air marshal said.

Pilots and air marshals who asked to remain anonymous told The Washington Times that surveillance by terrorists is rampant, using different probing methods.

“It’s happening, and it’s a sad state of affairs,” a pilot said.

A June 29 incident aboard Northwest Airlines Flight 327 from Detroit to Los Angeles is similar to a Feb. 15 incident on American Airlines Flight 1732 from San Juan, Puerto Rico, to New York’s John F. Kennedy Airport.

The Northwest flight involved 14 Syrian men and the American Airlines flight involved six men of Middle Eastern descent.

“I’ve never been in a situation where I have felt that afraid,” said Annie Jacobsen, a business and finance feature writer for the online magazine Women’s Wall Street who was aboard the Northwest flight.

The men were seated throughout the plane pretending to be strangers. Once airborne, they began congregating in groups of two or three, stood nearly the entire flight, and consecutively filed in and out of bathrooms at different intervals, raising concern among passengers and flight attendants, Mrs. Jacobsen said.

One man took a McDonald’s bag into the bathroom, then passed it off to another passenger upon returning to his seat. When the pilot announced the plane was cleared for landing and to fasten seat belts, seven men jumped up in unison and went to different bathrooms.

Her account was confirmed by David Adams, spokesman for the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Federal Air Marshal Service (FAMS), who said officers were on board and checked the bathrooms several times during the flight, but nothing was found.

“The FAMS never broke their cover, but monitored” the activity, Mr. Adams said. “Given the facts, they had no legal basis to take an enforcement action. But there was enough of a suspicious nature for the FAMS, passengers and crew to take notice.”

A January FBI memo says suicide terrorists are plotting to hijack trans-Atlantic planes by smuggling “ready-to-build” bomb kits past airport security, and later assembling the explosives in aircraft bathrooms.

On many overseas flights, airlines have issued rules prohibiting loitering near the lavatory.

“After seeing 14 Middle Eastern men board separately (six together and eight individually) and then act as a group, watching their unusual glances, observing their bizarre bathroom activities, watching them congregate in small groups, knowing that the flight attendants and the pilots were seriously concerned and now knowing that federal air marshals were on board, I was officially terrified,” Mrs. Jacobsen said.

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