A Spirit Airlines flight Tuesday was halted just before takeoff, and four passengers were removed by authorities at BWI Thurgood Marshall Airport in Baltimore after a passenger raised concerns about terrorism, according to state transportation police.
After a lengthy interview by state and federal law enforcement officials, the three men and a woman removed from the plane were cleared of any wrongdoing. But the incident highlighted the heightened alert in the region since Islamic State terrorist threatened to bring a Paris-style attack to Washington.
WUSA reported Tuesday that at least a half-dozen schools along the East Coast have canceled planned student trips to Washington, citing heightened security fears. The cancellations come despite assurances from federal officials that no credible terrorist threat to the region has emerged.
D.C. Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier told MSNBC Tuesday there was “obviously a very heightened security posture” in light of the attacks, but said her force could not focus solely on a repeat of a spectacular 9/11-style attack on some of the city’s signature landmarks.
“We have to cover everything,” she said. “We can’t focus solely on trying to stop the last attack.”
But the tensions were evident in incidents such as what took place at BWI.
Spirit Flight No. 969 bound for Chicago returned to the gate as it was taxiing to take off around 6:30 a.m. after a passenger alerted the crew about suspicious activity involving a male passenger watching a news report about the Paris attack on his smartphone, said Maryland Transportation Authority Police 1st Sgt. Jonathan Green. He would not say what about the man’s action convinced the captain to call police.
After the four individuals were removed, all of the passengers were led off the plane and all of the luggage was placed on the tarmac and inspected by bomb-sniffing dogs.
No explosives were found and after several hours passengers were allowed back on the plane. The plane took off at about 9:30 a.m.
WJLA-TV reporter Suzanne Kennedy, who was on the plane at the time, tweeted that the four people removed from the plane appeared to be in their early 30s and of Middle Eastern descent. Sgt. Green declined to confirm the ethnicity of the passengers.
The four passengers included a married couple and a male relative with whom they were traveling. Another man sitting next to them but not related to or traveling with the other three was also escorted off the plane and questioned, the sergeant said.
The attack on Paris by teams of gunmen and suicide bombers that killed 129 people and wounded 352 has spread fear to Washington and beyond. The Islamic State, also known by the acronym ISIS and ISIL, posted a web video on Monday that threatened an attack on U.S. cities, including Washington.
“We say to the states that take part in the crusader campaign that, by God, you will have a day, God willing, like France’s and by God, as we struck France in the center of its abode in Paris, then we swear that we will strike America at its center in Washington,” said an ISIS militant in the video.
Sgt. Green commended the passenger who spoke out about his concern, despite the fact that it turned out to be a false alarm.
“We’re looking at this as a see-something/say-something situation,” he said, referring to the Department of Homeland Security campaign to encourage citizen vigilance. “Although it didn’t turn into a major situation, it is still an example of speaking up when something doesn’t seem right.”
Spirit Airlines said the captain reacted out of an “abundance of caution.”
“While the aircraft was taxiing to the runway, a passenger alerted a flight attendant of a passenger engaged in suspicious activity on board. The flight attendant notified the captain, and out of an abundance of caution, the plane returned to the gate,” Spirit Airlines spokesman Stephen Schuler said in a statement.
Precautions are being taken across the metropolitan area. At the Capitol, Capitol Police have increased their presence and visibility and additional police are patrolling the Metro subway system.
D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, the city’s non-voting representative in Congress, announced that she would be briefed by the FBI about increased security measures but said residents should remain calm.
“I urge District residents to continue going about their daily lives, despite the new threats from ISIL,” Ms. Norton said. “ISIL shall have accomplished its mission of spreading terror if an entire city shrinks from its daily activities without a credible indication of a threat.”