A Yemen native who disrupted a San Francisco-bound flight was portrayed by prosecutors Tuesday as a dangerous and erratic passenger who tried to barge into the cockpit twice, did not carry any luggage and yelled "God is great" in Arabic.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Elise Becker said Rageh Al-Murisi, 28, was carrying several valid and expired forms of identification from New York and California, $47 in cash and two postdated checks totaling $13,000 in his wallet. She said he made one check out to himself, but did not specify where the other was from. She also said he didn't tell his relatives in California that he was traveling there.
Al-Murisi faces one count of interfering with flight crew members and attendants as pilots on American Airlines Flight 1561 were preparing to land in San Francisco on Sunday, one week after the death of Osama bin Laden at the hands of the U.S. military that has raised fears of a possible retaliation.
"He attempted to enter the cockpit right before a critical part of the flight," Becker said in prosecution arguments to withhold bail for Al-Murisi.
In the court affidavit filed Monday, air marshal Paul Howard said after being told the cockpit door wasn't the restroom, Al-Murisi made eye contact with a crew member, lowered his shoulder and rammed the door. The crew member told Howard he then got between Al-Murisi and the door, but Al-Murisi kept yelling and pushing forward in an attempt to open it, according to the affidavit.
Court documents say Al-Murisi repeatedly yelled "Allahu Akbar," or Arabic for "God is great," and tried twice to open the cockpit door before being subdued by a crew member and several passengers, including a retired Secret Service agent and a former police officer. The flight landed safely at San Francisco International Airport, but not without frightening passengers who became alarmed as he yelled unintelligibly and tried to rush the cockpit.
Becker said that the same Arabic phrase was uttered by the hijackers of Flight 93 as they took over the plane that eventually went down in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, on Sept. 11, 2001, and by a Nigerian man who allegedly tried to detonate explosives in his underwear on a Detroit-bound flight on Christmas 2009.
Judge James Larson denied bail for Al-Murisi, but planned to revisit the issue on Friday.
Authorities have said Al-Murisi has no clear or known ties to terrorism and investigators have not established a possible motive. Yemen, a nation at the southern tip of the Arabian peninsula, has been a focus of U.S. officials because one of the most active branches of al-Qaida operates in the remote part of the country.
His lawyer, Assistant Federal Public Defender Elizabeth Falk, said he was not a public danger.
His cousin, Ahmed Almoraissi, described the passenger as a "normal guy" who taught math in Yemen.
"He has no intention of hurting nobody," he said. "I don't know what happened on the plane. It doesn't make sense."
Officials say he had been living in a San Francisco suburb until moving recently to join his brother in New York. He was unable to find work in Vallejo, a town of 100,000 across the bay from San Francisco hit hard by the real estate bust, said another cousin of Al-Murisi.
Rageh Almoraissi said his cousin did not show an interest in politics and was not intensely religious.