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.

The September 11 commission report criticized the CIA for not placing hijackers Khalid Almihdhar and Nawaf Alhazmi on the watch list prior to the attack even after the men were linked to the August 1998 bombing of two U.S. embassies in East Africa.

Similar activity was reported by flight attendants on American Airlines Flight 1732 from San Juan, Puerto Rico, on Feb. 15 to New York’s John F. Kennedy Airport. The six men involved worked for a cruise ship and were carrying musician’s cases with instruments.

“The best way to travel is in large groups, no one would give it a second look,” the marshal said.

However passengers and the flight crew aboard Flight 327 were closely watching the Syrian musicians.

According to passengers Annie and Kevin Jacobsen, the men sat throughout the plane pretending to be strangers, then stood nearly the entire flight in congregations of two and three and consecutively fielded in and out of bathrooms at intervals.

One took a McDonald’s bag into the lavatory, then passed it to another Syrian. The musicians also carried cameras and cellular phones to the bathroom.

When the pilot announced the landing and to fasten safety belts, seven of the men jumped up in unison and went to the bathroom. Upon returning to his seat, one man mouthed the word “no” as he ran his finger across his throat.

Syria is one of seven countries designated as state sponsors of terrorism by the State Department, but Damascus has cooperated with the United States in the fight against al Qaeda, according to the State Department report for 2003, issued April 29.

“They came from a country known to support terrorism and no one noticed their visas had expired?” one pilot asked.

Air marshals and pilots say terrorists are actively testing airline security and the behavior of the musicians mirrors a test run.

“Organized terrorists have been and are doing probes,” a second air marshal said. The Jacobsens’ account is credible “because it is eerily similar to previous incidents that have happened on planes.”

The Jacobsens have become the subject of ridicule on some blogs and criticized in one media report by an unnamed government source, but the Federal Air Marshals Association (FAMA) issued a statement Sunday backing the family.

FAMA also called on the government to release the recording of the pilot’s call to air traffic control for law-enforcement assistance.

The unnamed source suggested Mrs. Jacobsen was hysterical and was the reason that law-enforcement officials were called to the airport.

Pilots and marshals say the flight crew and onboard marshals were obviously concerned and the Joint Terrorism Task Force would not be deployed in routine cases of upset or unruly passengers.

“Dealing with upset plane passengers is not exactly new,” the pilot said.

The second air marshal said the Jacobsens did exactly what President Bush and Homeland Security chief Tom Ridge have asked U.S. citizens to do: Be vigilant and report suspicious behavior.

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