- The Washington Times - Monday, November 22, 2004

Federal officials yesterday deported a Moroccan man on the no-fly list who was taken into custody Saturday after his Washington-bound flight was diverted for security reasons.

The passenger carried an expired Portuguese passport, a revoked U.S. work visa, and was aboard Air France Flight 026 to Washington Dulles International Airport — the same flight grounded four times because of a terrorist threat in February.

Neither his name nor that of his flying companion, who left the country voluntarily, were released. Homeland Security officials did not name them when asked.

CNN identified the passengers as Ahmed Lhacti, 47, and Mohammad Oukassou, 76. The network did not say which man was on the threat list and which man left voluntarily.

Homeland Security officials would not say why the passenger was originally placed on the no-fly list, which contains the names of known and suspected terrorists and people with links to terrorist organizations.

The flight from Paris was diverted to Bangor, Maine, by the Transportation Security Administration “out of an abundance of caution,” spokeswoman Yolanda Clark said.

“It was a swift and decisive action to divert the flight,” Miss Clark said.

U.S. Customs and Border Patrol officials boarded the plane and removed the two passengers, and discovered the man on the terrorist watch list was also flying on an expired passport, said Barry Morrissey, CBP spokesman.

Asked whether the passengers cooperated with the law-enforcement officials, Mr. Morrissey said, “From what I understand, yes, I’ve heard nothing to the contrary.”

It was the third incident since June in which suspected terrorists slipped through the cracks of the no-fly list, and federal officials say Air France could be fined for not checking the list or the passenger’s travel papers.

Air France did not return a call for comment.

“Clearly, it’s a breakdown, an error, when a passenger on the list is allowed to board the plane,” a Homeland Security official said.

Homeland Security chief Tom Ridge told NBC’s “Today” show yesterday that the government’s no-fly list is “very effective, but it’s not perfect.”

“There are many people that are denied access to those planes because the domestic airline reviews the list and denies them entry to the plane,” Mr. Ridge said.

“But we also get the list, the manifest, 15 minutes after the plane’s in flight. That’s how we discovered that in this instance the individual who should have been denied admission was on the plane. That’s why we landed the plane and sent him back,” he said.

Mr. Ridge said there is an ongoing “diplomatic engagement” with the European Union to get the list of passengers one hour before flight time.

“It’s trying to convince them it’s in our mutual best interest to get it done. We’ve made a lot of progress with the European Union, and I suspect we can make more in the future,” Mr. Ridge said.

On Sept. 21, a United Airlines flight from London’s Heathrow airport to Dulles was diverted to the Bangor airport when the name of passenger Yusuf Islam showed up on the no-fly list. Mr. Islam, also known as former pop star Cat Stevens, was said to have donated money to terrorist groups. The airline later said the name was not on their no-fly list.

On June 13, a United Airlines flight left Heathrow with two men aboard who were on the no-fly list, according to an Oct. 18 report in womenswallstreet.com.

The error was not discovered until the men’s suspicious behavior — taking pictures of the plane’s interior, walking around the plane carrying a hand-held mirror to watch movement behind him — prompted the airline captain to request a second background check.

The captain asked for law enforcement to meet the plane when it landed at Dulles, but the airline did not report the incident and the plane instead was met by one airline official and the men disappeared into the crowd.

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