- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 27, 2004

Almost all of the Syrian musicians who were questioned by law-enforcement officials after exhibiting suspicious behavior aboard a Northwest Airlines flight were traveling on expired visas.

The 14 men in the band were questioned by several agencies that make up the Joint Terrorism Task Force after the pilot aboard Flight 327 from Detroit to Los Angeles on June 29 radioed for law-enforcement assistance.

A spokesman for the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) confirmed that 13 of the 14 musicians entered the country May 30 and the visas expired June 10, but the men were not detained. The 14th musician is a U.S. resident and citizen.

The backup band was hired to play with Nour Mehana, widely referred to as Syria’s Wayne Newton, and were flying on one-way tickets with a return trip on JetBlue.

“The bottom line is there should have been an ICE agent called in to participate in the questioning, but there wasn’t,” spokesman Dean Boyd said. “We believe if an ICE agent were there, they could have detected the visas had expired.”

The Washington Times reported last week that flight crews and air marshals say terrorists are testing airline security and conducting probes, and cited several incidents including the one involving the musicians that set off alarms with security officials.

Since the report, several other pilots and marshals have come forward and confirmed that groups of men are conducting what looks like dry runs for a terrorist attack.

“We are being constantly surveilled and probed” by terrorists, one air marshal said.

A spokesman for Homeland Security disputed reports from crews and marshals and said they had “no intelligence that terrorists are conducing test flights on airlines.”

“We are aware of suspicious incidents around the country and all sectors of the economy, each of these incidents are being examined,” spokesman Brian Roehrkasse said.

The musicians, whose in-flight antics caused alarm among the flight crew and drew the suspicion of air marshals, had P3 entertainment visas and performed at a number of different venues across the country. They departed the United States on dates between July 10 and July 15.

“Everything that we and other agencies have found indicates, and we are very confident in saying, these individuals were not terrorists by any means,” Mr. Boyd said.

The legality of the band and travel dates has not eased the concerns of air marshals, pilots and some plane passengers, who saw their behavior.

Before September 11, the hijackers were “just flight students,” said one U.S. air marshal. “Everything boils down to creativity and resources. And the more creative you are, the less resources you need.”

None of the 19 hijackers who carried out September 11 attacks were on terrorism watch lists and all had legally entered the country on tourist or student visas. Three overstayed their one-year visas.

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