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Marshal: Flight suspect tried to open cockpit door

A Yemen native accused of twice trying to barge through the cockpit door of a San Francisco-bound American Airlines flight yelled "God is Great," passengers said, prompting them to fear that he was plotting an attack.
/ Source: The Associated Press

A Yemen native accused of twice trying to barge through the cockpit door of a San Francisco-bound American Airlines flight yelled "God is Great," passengers said, prompting them to fear that he was plotting an attack.

Rageh Al-Murisi is scheduled to appear in court Tuesday on a charge of interfering with flight crew members and attendants.

In the court affidavit filed on Monday, Air Marshal Paul Howard said after being told that wasn't the restroom, Al-Murisi made eye contact with the 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.

Al-Murisi, 28, of Vallejo, California, was subdued by the crew member and several passengers, including a retired Secret Service agent and a retired San Mateo police officer, and taken into custody after the flight landed safely around 9:10 p.m. Sunday at San Francisco International Airport, according to authorities.

Al-Murisi went toward the cockpit door about 20 minutes before the flight from Chicago was supposed to land, according to Howard's affidavit. He was yelling unintelligibly as he brushed past a flight attendant, witnesses said.

Passengers said they sat stunned as they watched a man walk quickly toward the front of American Airlines Flight 1561 as it was descending toward San Francisco. He was screaming and then began pounding on the cockpit door.

"I kept saying to myself: 'What's he doing? Does he have a bomb? Is he armed?'" passenger Angelina Marty said.

Another shocked passenger, Andrew Wai, thought, "Could this be it? Are we going down?"

Marty, 35, recalled Monday that she and other passengers on the plane were stunned when they saw Al-Murisi walking down the aisle. She said a woman in a row across from her who speaks Arabic interpreted that Al-Murisi said "God is Great!" in Arabic.

Wai, 27, also remembered on Monday that the wife of one of the men who took Al-Murisi down later said Al-Murisi was yelling the same: "Allahu Akbar."

"There was no question in everybody's mind that he was going to do something," Marty said.

While Al-Murisi has no clear or known ties to terrorism, authorities said, and investigators have not established a possible motive, the skirmish underscored fears that extremists might try to mount attacks to retaliate for the death of al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden last week.

Federal agents are investigating Al-Murisi's background. He was carrying a Yemeni passport and a California identification card, authorities said.

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.

A cousin of the suspect described him as an educated, easygoing person who had arrived in Northern California a year-and-a-half ago from Yemen in search of better opportunities.

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, and recently moved to New York, where his brother lived, in search of better luck, said Rageh Almoraissi, 29, of Vallejo.

Al-Murisi had not told his extended family in California that he was returning to the area, Almoraissi said.

"He's very laid back, he's always smiling, he's always laughing. He's not an angry person," Almoraissi said. "Everybody's worried about him. It's not typical of him."

Almoraissi said he could not imagine what might have caused his cousin to act as authorities allege he did on the plane, but was certain Al-Murisi was not a terrorist. He said his cousin did not show an interest in politics and was not intensely religious.

"He might have seriously mistaken the cockpit for the bathroom," Almoraissi said. "He's only been on three planes in his whole life." Al-Murisi was taking classes in California to learn English but was not happy with his progress, his cousin said.