Video: Airline scare could be a false alarm

  1. Transcript of: Airline scare could be a false alarm

    BRIAN WILLIAMS, anchor: We told you last night about the arrest of two men who arrived in Amsterdam among -- on a flight from Chicago , men the authorities suspected might have been conducting some sort of dry run for a terrorist attack on an airplane. Well, tonight officials here at home have backed way off of that. They now say it looks like nothing more than a series of odd coincidences. Our report from our justice correspondent Pete Williams .

    PETE WILLIAMS reporting: Amateur video shows police arresting two men in Amsterdam , arriving from Chicago . Dutch security officials, stung by missing the would-be Christmas Day bomber when he passed through Amsterdam , were taking no chances this time.

    Mr. THEO D'ANJOU (Dutch Prosecutor): The men are held in custody on suspicion of a conspiracy to a terrorist criminal act.

    P. WILLIAMS: US officials say it all began Sunday at the Birmingham , Alabama , airport with a legal permanent resident, Ahmed Mohamed Nasser al Soofi , on his way to visit relatives in Yemen . In his checked bags, screeners found cell phones and watches taped together and a phone taped to a bottle of Pepto-Bismol . It looked suspicious, but no explosives were found and he was cleared for travel. Al Soofi booked flights from Birmingham to Chicago , then to Washington-Dulles and on to Amsterdam . But when he got to Chicago , investigators say, he missed the Dulles flight, so the airline put him on a direct flight to Amsterdam while his suitcase flew on to Dulles . It was intercepted when security officials realized al Soofi was no longer flying with it. The second man arrested in Amsterdam had nothing suspicious found in his bag and was mistakenly thought to be flying with al Soofi . Tonight US officials say they think the items were taped together to be given to separate relatives. They view this false alarm as proof that the system is working. Pete Williams , NBC News , at the Department of Homeland Security .

NBC, msnbc.com and news services
updated 8/31/2010 4:08:55 PM ET 2010-08-31T20:08:55

U.S. officials on Tuesday were trying to determine whether odd contents inside a suitcase were part of a plot to test airline security or just a strange way of packing for an overseas flight, NBC News said.

One puzzling question about the two men detained Monday in Amsterdam after a flight from Chicago is how one of them, Ahmed Mohammed Nasser al Soofi of Detroit, was separated from his suitcase on the way there, according to NBC News.

Al Soofi booked a flight from Birmingham, Ala., that was to take him to Chicago, then to Washington-Dulles, then to Amsterdam, and from there eventually to Yemen, where he has relatives. But when he got to Chicago, he switched to a direct flight to Amsterdam. He bypassed Dulles, but his suitcase did not and followed the original route.

A law enforcement official told NBC News that al Soofi missed his flight to Dulles, partly because of a gate change in Chicago, and was re-booked by United on the direct flight to Amsterdam. But United was unable to change the routing on his bag.

The second man detained in Amsterdam, Hezzam Abdullah Thabi al Murisi, also missed his flight to Dulles and he also was rebooked directly to Amsterdam. They ended up sitting next to each other on the flight overseas, which law enforcement officials now believe was a coincidence.  

On international flights, passengers and their luggage must be headed toward the same destination, according to U.S. policy.

Dutch prosecutors said Tuesday that the men were being held "on suspicion of a conspiracy to a terrorist criminal act" and that it would be a few days before a decision was made on whether they would be charged.

But a U.S. government official said Tuesday that the FBI investigation of the detained men is finding that it is unlikely they were on a test run for a future terror attack.

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The U.S. official who downplayed their role in a terrorist conspiracy said the two men did not know each other and were not traveling together. It may have been a matter of seating, the official said.

U.S. investigators were pursuing leads in Detroit, Birmingham and Memphis, Tenn., according to officials speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss the investigation.

The arrests come at a time of heightened alert just days before the ninth anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.

'Bulky clothing' and suspicions
On Sunday, authorities found the suspicious items — a cell phone taped to a Pepto-Bismol bottle, multiple cell phones and watches taped together, and a knife and box cutter — in one of the men's checked luggage in Virginia. The man and his luggage were on separate flights, which raised concerns.

None of the items found on the men or in their luggage violated U.S. security rules. But the items and the men's changing travel itinerary raised concerns that there may have been a deliberate test of the U.S. aviation security system to determine what would raise red flags.

Neither man was on any U.S. terror watch list.

Airport screeners in Birmingham first stopped al Soofi and sent him to additional screening because of his "bulky clothing."

He told Transportation Security Administration officials he was carrying a lot of cash. Screeners found $7,000 on him, but he was not breaking any law by carrying that much money.

A check of his luggage turned up cell phones bound together with blue tape and attached to a Pepto-Bismol bottle. A box cutter and a knife were also found.

Transportation Security Administration screeners determined that the items did not pose a threat. No explosives were found.

One official told NBC News that travelers heading overseas often tape things together in their luggage for fear that items will be damaged in transit.

Alabama's director of homeland security, Jim Walker, said al Soofi had been living in Tuscaloosa, Ala., and working at a convenience store for about the last three months. He said al Soofi had done nothing in Alabama that brought him to the attention of authorities there.

Homeland Security spokeswoman Amy Kudwa said once officials found the items in the luggage Sunday night, they notified the Dutch authorities.

Security at Amsterdam's main airport has been boosted this year, after Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, a Nigerian student, flew from Schiphol airport to Detroit on Christmas Day with explosives in his underwear. Abdulmutallab allegedly tried to detonate the explosives over the United States before being grabbed by passengers and crew.

After the Abdulmutallab security lapse, Schiphol ordered 60 new full body scanners to screen passengers flying to the United States. Those who do not pass through the scanners are patted down.

This report from NBC News' Pete Williams includes reporting from The Associated Press, NBC station WMAQ and msnbc.com staff.

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