This is breaking right now. A man on a flight from DC to Denver was tackled by air marshals as he attempted to light his shoes on fire.
More info to come…
More (9:42): I’m told the plane has just landed. All passengers are uninjured and the man is in custody.
Later (9:47): I’m a bit ahead of the news. Trying to get more info from DIA.
Another attempted shoebomber from within the United States raises questions about the usefulness of the TSA’s “take those shoes off” policy.
Later (9:56) Talked to media contact at DIA. They’re calling it a “security disturbance”. The plane was from Reagan to DIA. It was met upon arrival by the TSA, FBI, and airport PD. It will have no impact on airport operations. There are no flight holds at present.
Later (9:59): He’s got a diplomatic passport and is claiming diplomatic immunity.
The passport is from Qatar.
Later (10:07): NBC just picked up the story, but they have no details. I’m on hold with FBI.
Stay with us here at the HQ…
Later (10:13): The guy’s name is Mohammed al Modadi. He’s a vice-consul at the Qatari embassy.
Later (10:14): Alright, ABC News has the story, including more details on the guy.
Jebus, they scrambled fighter jets to escort the plane.
Later (10:25): It was United Flight 663.
Later (10:40): Alright I do have some more details. There were two air marshals on the flight. Together they stopped Al Modadi.
Thank God for the air marshals. Without them we would probably be covering a very different story right now.
Later (10:44): MSNBC is reporting that no explosives were found. The MSNBC folks are suggesting that this is some kind of misunderstanding…
Al Modadi was in the lavatory for a long time, raised suspicions of marshals. When he came out, they smelled smoke.
Update (11:10): FBI says there are no explosives in his shoes. Misunderstanding looks more likely.
Update (11:12): The word we’re all looking for is persona non grata.
Max Fisher at The Atlantic:
10:07 ABC News first reports the story as a failed terrorist attack with the headline, “Air Marshals Stop Alleged ‘Shoe Bomb’ Attempt On United Jet to Denver: Qatari Diplomat In Custody After Attempting to ‘Light Up’ His Shoes.”
10:12 NBC News also reports the story as a failed shoe bomb terrorist attack. They cite “sources close to the House Homeland Security Committee,” indicating that some government officials believed the incident to have been an attempted terrorist attack.
10:34 NBC News first reports that Modadi may have only been smoking and that officials are still searching for explosives. Television news stations, now giving the story blanket coverage as a terrorist incident, begin to report that the incident may have been a misunderstanding. Gradually, these reports overtake the earlier reports that it was a terrorist attack.
11:00 By now, all news accounts report the story as a misunderstanding, stating that no explosives have been found and that Modadi did not attempt an attack.
11:38 The entire plane has been swept for possible explosives and all baggage is cleared onto the tarmac for a second round of sweeping.
As of this writing, the story is still developing. While new facts could yet emerge, most reports now state fairly unequivocally that the incident was a misunderstanding resulting from Modadi’s smoking and the way he reacted when confronted by air marshals. Still, it’s worth considering what made the initial reports so scary. Any failed terrorist attack, especially one involving U.S. airplanes, is terrifying. But the incident on flight 663 was especially so because of Modadi’s status as a foreign diplomat based in Washington, D.C. Fortunately, Modadi’s only crimes appear to be impatience, addiction to cigarettes, and possibly a poor sense of humor. But had those initial reports been accurate, it would have set an alarming precedent in terrorist recruitment.
Terrorist groups usually recruit from the angry, poor, oppressed lower classes of war-stricken Muslim countries or from alienated Arab students adrift in unfriendly parts of Europe. But Qatar is an extremely wealthy state, and Modadi, as a diplomat, is an established middle class professional. Had he truly become a terrorist, and done so under the presumably watchful eyes of U.S. intelligence and law enforcement agencies, it would have meant that just about anyone could be recruited. So if the news commentators on your television, radio, or Twitter feed seemed especially distressed between 10:07 p.m. and 10:34 p.m. Eastern time, that’s why.
If there’s any “misunderstanding,” it’s not from the air marshals who took their jobs seriously, it’s from the arrogant jerk who thinks treating national security with sarcastic shoebomb jokes when questioned by our homeland security watchdogs has any place at all on a plane in flight over American skies.
Josh Marshall at Talking Points Memo:
I mean, are we really to believe that this guy took his having diplomatic immunity as free rein to crack a joke about need to light his shoe bomb? I’m curious whether under international law a diplomat can be expelled from a host country simply for being a raging c@#k.
Here’s a fun twist.
A Qatari diplomat who caused a bomb scare after sneaking a smoke in an airplane bathroom was traveling for a consular visit to see an imprisoned al-Qaida agent.
A State Department official and another person close to the matter say Mohammed Al-Madadi was going to meet Ali Al-Marri for an official visit. Consular officials frequently visit foreigners held in the United States to make sure they are being treated well.
Al-Marri’s a Qatari national who pled guilty last year to conspiring to provide material support to Al Qaeda. He admitted attending terrorist training camps from 1998 to 2001 and was told by Khaled Sheikh Mohammed to enter the United States by — ta da — September 10, 2001. If al-Madadi had been visiting him on his own time, the plane incident would suddenly look rather highly nuanced indeed, but since he was there on official embassy business, I’m not sure what to make of it. Could be that they really were just checking on how well one of their citizens is being treated in an American jail (al-Marri complained of abuse before), could be that the Qatari diplomatic team is up to things it shouldn’t be up to. Although if it’s the latter, would al-Madadi really have called attention to himself on the plane with that sort of joke? A courier is only useful if he’s not suspected of being a courier, right?
Assuming this really is all a fabulous co-ink-ee-dink, I think for once Josh Marshall has it precisely right: “I’m curious whether under international law a diplomat can be expelled from a host country simply for being a raging c@#k.” Answer: Affirmative. Sort of.
The envoy from Qatar who sparked a bomb scare aboard a Denver-bound plane will being sent home from the United States, a senior State Department official told CBS News.
Authorities say the diplomat, identified as Mohammad Al-Madadi, grabbed a surreptitious smoke in a jetliner’s bathroom and he made a joke when confronted by federal air marshals that he had been trying to light his shoes – an apparent reference to the 2001 so-called “shoe bomber” Richard Reid…
A senior State Department official said there would be “consequences, diplomatic and otherwise” if he had committed a crime.
Foreign diplomats have broad immunity from prosecution. The official said if the man’s identity as a Qatari diplomat was confirmed and if it was found that he may have committed a crime, U.S. authorities would have to decide whether to ask Qatar to waive his diplomatic immunity so he could be charged and tried. Qatar could decline, the official said, and the man would likely be expelled from the United States.
Diplomatic immunity is an age-old principle and one that by and large makes sense. It can be waived by the diplomat’s government but I doubt we’ll pursue that course in this case since no lives were threatened or lost. One suspects that he’ll be quietly recalled to Doha and directed to another line of work. Unless he’s part of the royal family, of course. I would expect that a check from the emir would be forthcoming to cover the costs of this little escapade, too.
PRESS REPORTS TODAY REGARDING AN INCIDENT ABOARD A COMMERCIAL FLIGHT FROM WASHINGTON, DC TO DENVER, CO INDICATE THAT A QATARI DIPLOMAT WAS DETAINED FOR SUSPICIOUS BEHAVIOR. WE RESPECT THE NECESSITY OF SPECIAL SECURITY PRECAUTIONS INVOLVING AIR TRAVEL, BUT THIS DIPLOMAT WAS TRAVELING TO DENVER ON OFFICIAL EMBASSY BUSINESS ON MY INSTRUCTIONS, AND HE WAS CERTAINLY NOT ENGAGED IN ANY THREATENING ACTIVITY. THE FACTS WILL REVEAL THAT THIS WAS A MISTAKE, AND WE URGE ALL CONCERNED PARTIES TO AVOID RECKLESS JUDGMENTS OR SPECULATION.
That doesn’t really sound like a “massive misunderstanding.” Sounds more like an irresponsible provocation by someone who apparently doesn’t understand what serious business this is for everyone who flies, including all law-abiding Muslims who don’t care to blow out of the sky and don’t enjoy being subjected to a high degree of official scrutiny any more than the rest of the flying public does.
At last check the cat’s got CAIR’s tongue. Too bad, because frivolous actions of the sort this Qatari diplomat is reported to have engaged in could be damaging to the good relations with Muslims and Muslim nations that our government and institutions have worked hard to maintain in difficult times, going back to George Bush’s remarks in the first days after 9/11. Fortunately, Americans have largely limited themselves to reasonable responses to real threats. Here’s Talking Points Memo with some weird remarks comparing this incident to “driving while black.” Not exactly. The Qatari diplomat wasn’t being targeted while minding his own business. He was being targeted while reportedly doing the equivalent of shouting fire in a crowded theater. Maybe more like playing with matches in a crowded theater. TPM’s generally clue-challenged Josh Marshall, however, notes the desireability of making this undiplomatic diplomat unwelcome in the United States, if a failure by Qatari authorities to recall him should make that necessary.