- The Washington Times - Friday, April 9, 2010

A Qatari diplomat was on his way to an official visit with an imprisoned al-Qaeda sleeper agent when he touched off a bomb scare by slipping into an airline bathroom for a smoke, officials said Thursday as the diplomat prepared to leave the U.S.

The diplomat, Mohammed Al-Madadi, was going to meet Ali Al-Marri in prison, according to a State Department official and another person close to the matter. Al-Marri, a citizen of Qatar, is serving eight years in prison after pleading guilty last year to conspiring to support terrorism.

Al-Marri was arrested after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, accused of being a sleeper agent researching poisonous gases and plotting a cyber-attack.

Consular officials frequently visit foreigners held in the U.S. to make sure they are being treated well.

The purpose of his visit raises further questions about Mr. Al-Madadi’s behavior, such as why someone familiar with terrorism cases would apparently flout airline security rules. Law enforcement officials said Mr. Al-Madadi later joked that he had been trying to light his shoe, an apparent reference to the 2001 so-called “shoe bomber,” Richard Reid.

The people who discussed the case did so on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the matter.

No explosives were found on the plane, and authorities said they don’t think Mr. Al-Madadi was trying to hurt anyone during Wednesday’s scare. He has diplomatic immunity from U.S. prosecution and will not be criminally charged, authorities said.

The State Department official said Qatar had not yet informed the administration how it will handle the case, but has assured the U.S. that Mr. Al-Madadi will leave the country.

“We fully expect this will be resolved very quickly,” State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley told reporters.

Mr. Crowley said the U.S. government is satisfied that the Qatari government is taking the matter seriously.

Wednesday’s scare came three months after the attempted terrorist attack on Christmas when a Nigerian man is said to have tried to blow up a Detroit-bound airliner. Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab went to the bathroom just before he purportedly tried to ignite a bomb in his seat. Since then, law enforcement, flight crews and passengers have been on high alert for suspicious activity on airplanes. That scare exposed major holes in the country’s national security and prompted immediate changes in terrorist-screening policies.

Some air travelers at Denver International Airport on Thursday were amazed that Mr. Al-Madadi would not be charged with anything.

“I think it’s wrong. I’d get busted. I don’t think that [immunity] should be a factor,” said one of them, Hank DePetro, a retired psychologist from Greeley, Colo.

Under international protocol - the 1961 Vienna Conventions on Diplomatic Relations - diplomats in foreign countries enjoy broad immunity from prosecution. That immunity can only be waived by a diplomat’s home government, something that is rarely requested and even more rarely granted.

But even without charges being pressed against him and without such a waiver, the U.S. could have moved to declare Mr. Al-Madadi “persona non grata” and expel him from the country. However, officials said they would not pursue this, given the close nature of U.S.-Qatari ties and the importance the country plays in the Middle East.

Qatar, about the size of Connecticut and Rhode Island combined and with a population of about 1.4 million people, is an oil-rich Middle East nation and key U.S. ally. It is situated on the Arabian Peninsula, surrounded on three sides by the Persian Gulf and to the south by Saudi Arabia. The country hosts the forward headquarters of the U.S. Central Command, which runs the wars in both Afghanistan and Iraq, and is a major supporter of operations deemed critical to both campaigns.

Qatar’s ambassador to the United States, Ali Bin Fahad Al-Hajri, cautioned against a rush to judgment.

“This diplomat was traveling to Denver on official embassy business on my instructions, and he was certainly not engaged in any threatening activity,” he said. “The facts will reveal that this was a mistake.”

Mr. Al-Madadi is the embassy’s third secretary, a relatively junior position, although diplomatic assignments in Washington are considered plum posts in most countries’ diplomatic corps.

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