Terrorists may repeat operational tests to desensitize, distract, or adapt plans for specific environments. Linking repetitious probing incidents or associated items possibly could alert authorities to future terrorist plots, tactics, and personalities. (“TSA bulletin”)
Or don’t link them. Whatever.
Dearborn Underground has learned that last January’s disruptive behavior by five Saudi males on Northwest Flight 243 from Amsterdam to Detroit (“Unruly Saudis Disrupt Plane Before Being Released Without Charges By U.S. Customs”) included sitting in scattered locations around the cabin, refusing flight attendant requests to sit down, suspiciously frequent trips to the lavatory, and putting blankets over their heads – the same way Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab hid under a blanket to arm his bomb on the very same flight from Amsterdam hardly more than two weeks before.
One of the Saudis unbuckled himself after the cabin and passengers were secured and only three minutes remained before wheels down, stood up, and charged the lavatory – before rushing back to his seat -- all for no apparent reason. The flight’s Captain was so concerned he overruled air marshals’ wishes and requested emergency assistance on the ground: there was a serious disagreement between the air marshals on board and Flight 243’s Captain about whether or not the Saudis were a “credible threat.”
We also know that within the last few minutes before Flight 243 landed at Metro, (and about an hour and a half before all five were released scot free), F-16s were being scrambled in Toledo.
We’ve now got some information we didn’t have then, thanks to a helpful friend who passed along to DU documents he obtained through the Freedom of Information Act. This story vanished from the news last January within hours of the event, leaving too many questions unanswered. These documents answer some of them. They also raise many more.
And I’d remind readers that back in January we, and others, considered this event a dry run meant to support a future terror operation. If you’re interested in why we think this way, you can read these previous posts:
Space Monkeys, or, How Shahzad II Will Blow Up Broadway
'I'd Like an Aisle Seat. And Could You Hold the Cheese?'
Now we’ve learned that the four Saudi passengers, all related and with the same last name, (and then a fifth, kinship unknown), displayed a pattern of behavior sufficiently suspicious to experienced flight crew that several flight attendants, and the pilot in charge, notified the onboard Federal Air Marshals (FAMs: there were four FAMs on board), while the pilot alerted authorities on the ground. The four were all students at the University of Akron, booked through Detroit to Canton, Ohio. They and the fifth Saudi, also a student at U. of Akron, were part of a larger group of 35 Saudi students pre-screened in Saudi Arabia for entry into the U.S. Only these five were aboard Flight #243. (There is an active Muslim Students Association at U. of Akron).
The government documents are replete with mentions of the behavior of these four as “suspicious.” The strange behavior began shortly into the flight, about 7:15 am. Eventually, there came a period of a few hours when the Saudis slept or watched videos. By then FAM had them under constant surveillance. As the plane approached Detroit, their suspicious behavior resumed and lasted till landing. The following is taken directly from documents produced by the TSA:
One of the TSA reports describes four passengers “exhibiting suspicious behavior during the flight. All four passengers were scattered throughout the aircraft, moving around the cabin to talk to one another and making frequent trips to the lavatory. The passengers were not compliant when a Flight Attendant requested that they take their seats while the fasten seatbelt sign was illuminated.”
A shift call log, documenting calls over hours from Flight #245, noted at 0849 reports of “suspicious activity” and that 4 Saudi males “won’t sit down.”
Flight attendants brought their concerns to the flight deck early, while just passing Scotland. They sensed these guys weren’t right. The four were all traveling together, but they had selected seats all over the cabin. And the Saudis were insisting to know when the plane would be landing. When one FA gave an estimate of about four and three-quarter hours, the passenger demanded to know EXACTLY when the plane would be landing. Another FA account noted that “an approximate time would not do” for these guys.
Then there were the blankets. When an FA asked one passenger why he needed to know the exact time the plane would be landing, he “became angry” and went to talk to one of the other Saudi passengers. After that, according to her statement, he returned to his seat “and got under a blanket - twice I asked him to get out from under the blanket then  asked him a third time . . .”
A FAM reported “two ME males later identified as [REDACTED] . . . had blankets pulled completely over their heads and appeared to be fidgetting (sic) underneath the blanket. FA [told the two ME males] to remove the blankets and explained that due to recent events, that was no longer allowed.”
Operation Blanket continued. A different crew member reported being told by a colleague about suspicious behavior, and that one of the passengers, had “had a blanket over his head & was refusing to remove it.” Another FA told TSA she felt concern about two of the men who “kept getting up,” and about their other odd behavior and their “questions about ‘landing times’” and “hiding under blanket.”
FA [REDACTED] observed pax [REDACTED] going to the bathroom with a heavy leather jacket, he told her he was cold but returned to his seat without going to the toilet.The air marshal’s Activity Report also states that “At 1240, approximately twenty minutes from landing, according to FA [REDACTED] got out of his seat and retrieved his coat out of the overhead and returned to his seat. He then proceeded to place it over his lap and the lap of [REDACTED] and both individuals put their hands under the coat.”
Pax at [REDACTED] I observed doing something under their jacket just prior to landing. I stopped and continued to look a few moments. Later they folded the jacket and it lay across both of them but this time their hands were visible. FA [REDACTED] removed all coats and blankets from pax and replaced them in the overhead.
Earlier, some FAs passed it off as “college kids acting ‘goofy.’” Then one of them recounts how her mind was changed as the flight was making its final approach to Detroit and the cabin was supposed to be secured for landing:
“one passenger 42D or 32H got up to go to the bathroom. Passengers [in adjacent other seats] had a coat across their laps and were fiddling with something under their (sic) coat.“
At this time we considered this to be a credible threat and landing the airplane quickly with everyones (sic) help became a higher priority. Preparing for a bomb blast was a higher priority.”
According to one flight deck officer’s statement, based upon what the FAs were reporting to them as early as “[l]eaving the Scottish coast” the cockpit crew “prepared for a descent for a possible bomb explosion over the water & had diversion airport at all times.”
As Flight 243 made its way to Detroit, the captain and the lead air marshal disagreed about how serious the threat was. The FAM reported speaking to the captain* “for approximately an hour and convincing him” that the Saudis weren’t a threat to the aircraft and that the captain “agreed not to have authorities meet the aircraft,” and to “call off security at DTW”. (*The documents redact the identities of both of these persons, but other details and the context allow an inference about who they are.) The government documents shed no light on why the air marshal felt calling off security at Metro should be the top priority.
And then, at some point near Detroit and after the “double ding,” (that is, the pilot’s signal to the cabin crew that all should be secured for landing and the seatbelt sign comes on), Saudi Passenger Number Five, who until then no one associated with the other four, decided it was time to play his part.
He leapt up and ran to the lavatory. Two of the accounts agree that Passenger Five “ran.”
“(The lead FAM did say one of the passengers had jumped up and gone to the bathroom at the double ding).”
Another FA stated that “about 2-3 minutes before landing passenger in [REDACTED] got up ran to the bathroom. I went to get him out but was already back in seat.”
Another report states that “Just after 2 bell one pax ran to the toilet but returned to his seat in no time.”
Just how quick is “no time”? Here's how the FAM reports it:
Approximately three minutes from landing, [REDACTED], seated in [REDACTED] got out of his seat and went into the lav located by door #3 FA [REDACTED] then [REDACTED]. At this time, FA [REDACTED] and I proceeded down the aisle to get [REDACTED] out of the lav. When we entered the mid cabin, the [REDACTED] exited the lav and returned to his seat. We then continued past the [REDACTED] and could clearly see that he had nothing in his hands. We were at an altitude of about 500 feet so we returned to our seats for landing.
Maybe I’m making too much of that rest room sprint. Nature’s call and whatnot. But the same stunt convinced the Captain he had a “credible threat and declared an emergency and assistance upon landing.” He told TSA later that a passenger standing up during descent certainly qualified as a potential emergency. Also note that neither the FAMs nor the flight attendants had time enough to intercept Five, either on his way to the lav, or before making it back to his seat. Note that, I say, because you can bet Passenger Five did.
Meanwhile, at “1300 hours, fighters were placed on battle stations at Toledo.” They did not take off.
The FAM Team Leader reported how, when he learned of the Captain’s request for assistance on the ground, it came as “a shock to the FAM team. During the last meeting I had with the Captain, it was agreed that we did not need any law enforcement to meet the aircraft and now we had several agencies waiting to meet us.”
Several agencies waiting? That’s terrible! But, wait, why is that terrible? And was the FAM referring to his (or her) meeting with the pilot that took an hour over the Atlantic? If there is no law enforcement to meet the aircraft, then aren’t the five suspicious passengers likely to deplane and get on their way without being questioned about their behavior?
When Flight 243 did land, Homeland Security ordered it to a remote “pad” temporarily, far from the terminal, trailed by a parade of emergency vehicles. After determining there was no threat inside the airplane, NWA #243 from Amsterdam -- the flight made famous by Abdulmutallab 19 days before -- was allowed to taxi to the gate, where Wayne County Airport Police, more federal air marshals, ICE, TSA, and Customs and Border Protection were all at the gate to meet them. Conspicuously absent from the scene was America’s first-rank counterterrorism agency: the FBI.
All the law enforcement manpower was for naught. Customs and Border Protection interviewed all five passengers briefly and then released them. The reports suggest no one ever linked up Passenger Five with the other four. Five declared he had no idea why he was being questioned. He said he was just going to the bathroom. At 500 feet. The statements of the other four all professed that nothing unusual happened on the flight. They had no idea why they were being questioned.
Neither did CBP. There’s no sign that anyone from Homeland Security had the slightest inkling that “[l]inking repetitious probing incidents or associated items possibly could alert authorities to future terrorist plots, tactics, and personalities,” as the forgotten TSA Bulletin strongly urged.
Notably, nearly identical behaviors were documented on the dry run on Northwest flight #327 from Detroit to LA in 2004: during that incident, in which 13 Syrian “musicians” terrified passengers over a period of several hours, and when, among other things, “One man rushed to the front of the plane appearing to head for the cockpit. At the last moment he veered into the first class lavatory, remaining in it for about 20 minutes.” Also, “Several men congregated in the aisles, changed seats, and arose when the seat belt sign was turned on in preparation for landing.” (Inspector General’s report).
Even if we place the most harmless spin on all this, it still makes little sense. Let’s say the Saudi students were just “being goofy.” (Aren’t we all familiar with college-age irony? Who can forget all those yippies who showed up at anti-war demonstrations in OD army jackets?) Mix that irony with some Koranic contempt for the Dar al Harb where they’re forced to attend school, and assume awareness of the recent notorious incident of the Muslim brother’s underwear attack on this very same flight, and maybe a little “goofy” student pranking of a Kuffir flight crew seemed funny.
Was it harmless? Dangerous? How could I know? Anyway, who cares what I think? I wasn’t there. But the Captain was there, and he called it an emergency, and most, if not all of his flight attendants thought there was something seriously wrong, too. F-16s were on battle stations. Someone logging all this in real time at some command center described the Saudis’ inexplicable behavior, and penned the word, “Why?”
Whether the verdict is “goofy” or “not goofy,” the fact that what might have been just a prank in a college cafeteria could be something deadly on a transatlantic flight, meant there was a hot, but brief, national security response to all this, including fighter planes warming up.
And then, just like that, it was all over. The Saudi students and the CBP tossed the old Nerfball around for a few minutes, and then CBP wished them luck, making sure every “goofy” kid got his own complimentary “Know Before You Go” pamphlet -- and a comment card! The five Saudi students rebooked and flew back to college; there, one supposes, to regale their friends in one of Akron’s hookah bars with tales of their under-blanket hijinks. ICE declined to even interview three of the four students. DU has been unable to confirm if any of the remaining passengers on NWA #243 received comment cards.
Did the Constitution really forbid CBP from asking disruptive foreign passengers if they belong to the MSA? Or if they attended a mosque in Akron? and which one? Or is it that they just didn’t think of it? If any of these guys did report what they’d learned about airline security to contacts in the Muslim Brotherhood, we’ll never know. Because we never wanted to know.
I’d say the closest thing to poetry in the 9/11 Commission Report was that one damning phrase, “failure of imagination.” It was the TSA’s utter failure in 2004 to treat Flight 237 as an episode deserving of note that led eventually to the IG’s report criticizing them.
Besides imagination,what else is missing in all these cases are national security protocols that both enable and require detention and interrogation of passengers involved in suspicious acts such as these. It’s not good enough that air marshals will do nothing -- or can do nothing -- unless they witness an actual crime. So let’s make these things a crime. Such protocols might actually alert our counterintelligence community “to future terrorist plots, tactics, and personalities,” as that forgotten TSA Bulletin recommends.
Secondarily, anti-stunt protocols would discourage future volunteers. Right now it’s the biggest joke in the Middle East that a Muslim male can get away with almost anything on an American airliner, so long as he doesn’t get caught with a box-cutter.