|Was an al-Qaeda plot unfolding on Northwest Airlines flight 327?
||[26 Jul 2004|01:16pm]
By James Langton
As Annie Jacobsen boarded Northwest Airlines flight 327 from Detroit to Los Angeles, she was starting to feel sick with nerves. Her fear had been mounting since the realisation that she and the other passengers who had already passed through security were being served meals in the airport diner with metal knives and forks.
Her alarm grew further still when she noticed that there was minimal checking of the hundreds of travellers who had arrived on other connecting flights. In particular, she was worrying about six Middle Eastern men waiting to board their flight, two of whom were carrying musical instrument cases, while the third was wearing an orthopaedic shoe. None was checked as he boarded the aeroplane.
Mrs Jacobsen, her husband Kevin and their young son were already in their seats when a second large group of Arab men arrived, one of whom, clearly the leader, disappeared into the first-class cabin.
"I noticed some of the passengers paying attention to the the situation as well," she recalled later. "As boarding continued, we watched as, one by one, most of the Middle Eastern men made eye contact. They continued to look at each other and nod, as if they were all in agreement about something. I could tell that my husband was beginning to feel anxious."
What happened next on that June afternoon last month was to bring the Jacobsens face to face with a fear that has gripped America since the morning of September 11, 2001. Or, as Annie Jacobsen was to put it: "It was four and a half hours of terror. My legs turned to rubber."
It would also place Mrs Jacobsen, a freelance financial writer, at the centre of a controversy that has raged this week in America about how a country increasingly bound by political correctness can protect itself in a war where the enemy might be sitting in the next seat.
By the time the aircraft reached cruising altitude and the seatbelt lights had been switched off, one of the men, wearing a yellow T-shirt and carrying a bulging McDonald's bag, had already disappeared into the lavatory next to first class. When he reappeared, the bag was empty. As he walked down the length of the plane, he gave a thumbs-up sign to two other members of his party. Then he went back to his seat - but without the bag.
Another man stood up. From an overhead locker, he removed a foot-long object wrapped in cloth, then walked to the back of the plane. Five others from the Middle Eastern party then began using the forward lavatory consecutively. Several others made for the rear bathroom.
Trying to reassure herself and her husband Kevin, Mrs Jacobsen walked past one of the men, with whom she had exchanged a few friendly words in the terminal. Making eye contact, she smiled. "The man did not smile back. His face did not move," she said. "In fact, the cold defiant look he gave me sent shivers down my spine."
That was enough for her husband. Marching into first class, he approached a flight attendant and told her: "I might be overreacting, but I've been watching some really suspicious things."
Before he could finish, the flight attendant pulled him aside. "In a quiet voice, she explained that they were all concerned about what was going on," Mrs Jacobsen says. "The captain was aware. The flight attendants were passing notes to each other. She said there were people on board 'higher up than you and me watching the men' [in a reference to the presence of undercover air marshals]."
Four hours later, the mental torture of imagining one worst-case scenario after another was beginning to take its toll. Just when the Jacobsens felt that they could endure no more, the aircraft began its final approach. But any sense of relief at an imminent landing was short-lived. With the "fasten seatbelts" lights on and the cabin crew strapped in their seats for landing, seven of the men stood up and made for the front and back lavatories. As they waited, speaking in Arabic, one pulled out his mobile telephone. None of the flight crew, Mrs Jacobsen was alarmed to note, intervened to stop the telephone call or to make the men sit down.
Two rows behind her, Mrs Jacobsen heard the sound of crying and turned to find a woman being comforted by her husband. "You've got to calm down," he was trying to tell her in strained tones. Mrs Jacobsen grabbed her husband and son by the hand.
Mr Jacobsen began writing down what he increasingly feared might be his last thoughts. "I am just afraid that I am not going to see home again and that I am not going to see my son grow up," he wrote. "And I am also terrified of dying a painful death. I am terrified that I am not going to be able to protect my son and family."
Moments later, the last man came out of the bathroom. As he passed the man in the yellow T-shirt, Mrs Jacobsen saw him draw his finger across his throat and mouth the word "no".
Nothing more happened. There was no mass attack on the cockpit, no need for a heroic fightback like the passengers on American Airlines flight 93 before it crashed into a Pennsylvanian field as the tragic events of 9/11 unfolded.
The tyres of the Boeing 757 bounced once on the runway at Los Angeles International Airport, the engines roared into reverse and the tension that had choked the cabin began to lift.
As the passengers walked into the terminal, Mrs Jacobsen saw men in dark suits gathering. Los Angeles Police Department agents rushed past them. Several other men from the aircraft, believed to be air marshals, pulled the group of 14 Arab men to one side.
The Jacobsens decided to go straight to the authorities. The FBI took a series of sworn statements from the couple, showing special interest in the McDonald's bag. As she talked to them, Mrs Jacobsen noticed another FBI agent holding a pile of Syrian passports.
So what did happen on Northwest Airlines flight 327 on that June afternoon? The above events came to light after Mrs Jacobsen shared her story with a few colleagues, and finally wrote it down. She sent a copy to the Washington Post but did not receive a response.
However, she did get a swift telephone call from the Federal Air Marshal Services. Under questioning, a spokesman revealed, the 14 men had said they were musicians travelling to a concert at a Californian desert casino. None showed up on the FBI's most wanted list and since their story checked out they were allowed to go. The band, the spokesman said, "gave their little performance in the casino and two days later flew out on a JetBlue flight from Long Beach to New York".
Mrs Jacobsen's article was eventually published by a financial website, WomensWallStreet. Largely ignored by the mainstream American media for a week, copies of the piece Terror in the Skies, Again? were soon racing across the internet. Her experience was exhaustively discussed in hundreds of personal internet websites and on news forums.
By the time the official September 11 Commission report was published on Thursday, her onboard "ordeal" had become the underground story of the week, sparking wide-ranging debate between those who thought the Jacobsens and their fellow passengers were paranoid and those who believe the flight had been used as a "dry run" for a real hijacking.
Those in the first camp accused Mrs Jacobsen of at best exaggerating the story and at worst of being a fantasist and a racist. Some contended that it was a cultural misunderstanding - the Syrians were perhaps frequently using the toilet as they carried out their ablutions in preparation for Muslim prayer, with the foot-long object a mat for one of the men to kneel on.
Imad Habib, of the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, said that a high anxiety had been implanted in the hearts and minds of Americans since the attacks of 9/11. "Even those who are good people with good intentions cannot help but look at things in a very suspicious way," he said. "We've got to be vigilant as citizens, but we also have to be calm."
A mass circular email of the article was sent to some of America's leading columnists, including Michelle Malkin of the New York Post. Initially sceptical, she became increasingly convinced that the Jacobsens had witnessed a rehearsal for a sequel to 9/11. Writing on her website, Malkin praised Mrs Jacobsen's bravery and patriotism in telling her story. She urged sceptics to wake up and stop behaving as they did before 9/11. "Better a false alarm than a flaming plane," she said.
Security specialists in America have been warning for some time that terrorists have been boarding US internal flights with bombs split into seemingly innocent parts that allow members of their gangs to pass through checkpoints undetected. The device, they say, is then put together during the flight, probably in the aircraft lavatory, and hence involves multiple visits to the bathroom by all those involved.
Gary Boettcher, a member of the board of directors of the Allied Pilots Association, wrote to Mrs Jacobsen, saying that he and many fellow captains had witnessed similar practice runs. "I am a captain with a major airline," he said. "I was very involved with the Arming Pilots effort. Your reprint of this airborne event is not a singular nor isolated experience. The terrorists are probing us all the time."
Another pilot, Mark Bogosian, with American Airlines, said: "The incident you wrote about, and incidents like it, occur more than you like to think. It is a 'dirty little secret' that all of us, as crew members, have known about for quite some time."
Whatever happened during the flight from Detroit to Los Angeles last month, Clinton W. Taylor, a local reporter in Stanford, has at least confirmed that a Syrian band did perform at the Sycuan Casino and Resort, near San Diego, on July 1 to support an Arab singer called Nour Mehana.
Mehana is no Osama bin Laden, but a Syrian balladeer with an uncanny resemblance to the Vegas crooner Wayne Newton. Concert promoters confirmed that some of his band had flown in on Northwest 327 but that the members did not remember anything unusual about the flight. Beyond that, the promoter said, he had been told by Homeland Security not to talk to the press.
According to Mr Taylor, the fact that he had proven the existence of the band is not to suggest that Mrs Jacobsen, or any of the other passengers (though no one else on board has yet come forward), was wrong to worry. It does, however, he wrote, confirm some of the details of Mrs Jacobsen's story, and some of the worst fears Americans have about airline security. "The mindset of the passengers, of the crew, and even of the law-enforcement personnel and decision-makers higher up the ladder was reactive, not proactive," he said.
In particular, many of Mrs Jacobsen's supporters have poured scorn on the "racially sensitive" anti-discrimination rules that say that no more than two passengers of Arab origin can be searched at random before any flight. The inflight undercover air marshals, too, are not allowed to "deploy" against a passenger unless there is what they call an "event".
Rand K. Peck, a captain for a large US airline, said: "I've observed matronly-looking grandmothers being practically disrobed at security checkpoints and five-year-old blond boys turned inside out, while Middle Eastern males sail through undetained.
"Middle Eastern males are protected, not by our Constitution, but from our current popular policy of political correctness and a desire to offend no one at any cost, regardless of how many airplanes and bodies litter the landscape."
The issue of political correctness, according to Mrs Jacobsen, is at the heart of the matter. It is, she says, eroding airline safety. "From what I've now learned from the many emails and phone calls I have had with airline industry personnel, it is political correctness that will eventually cause us to stand there wondering, 'How did we let 9/11 happen again?' "
But what no one knew - not the frightened passengers or the apparently untroubled Syrian band - was that June 29 was far from an ordinary day. Only hours earlier, the Department of Homeland Security had issued an urgent alert at half a dozen airports for a group of six Pakistani men believed to be training for a terrorist attack in the US. Two of those airports were Detroit and Los Angeles.
So it is clear that the authorities were already worried about flight 327. Despite the impression often given, armed air marshals are not on every US flight. To have several on one aircraft is highly unusual and suggests that there was a real fear of a terrorist attack.
Two days after Mrs Jacobsen's trip, the US Transport and Security Administration ordered pilots to stop passengers from congregating around aircraft toilets and told flight crew to check bathrooms every two hours for suspicious packages. Six days after that, customs officers at Minneapolis arrested a Syrian who was carrying a suicide note and DVDs containing what has been described as "anti-American material".
Since her safe arrival in Los Angeles and the subsequent publishing of her article, Mrs Jacobsen has reconsidered many times the question of whether the Syrians on board flight 327 were in fact musicians. "I'll let you decide," she has said. "But I wonder, if 19 terrorists can learn to fly airplanes into buildings, couldn't 14 terrorists learn to play instruments?"