Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

April 8, 2010

First reports about a 20-something, nicotine-addicted, sandal-wearing, low-level diplomat are usually wrong

Filed under: Aviation Security,Border Security,General Homeland Security — by Christopher Bellavita on April 8, 2010

I was going to write about the future of homeland security today.  But the present got in the way.


The story is still unfolding. But as I write this late on April 7th, here is the timeline of what the social network and other media were/are reporting.

Between 6 and 7 PM, Pacific Time

  • A passenger attempted to light an explosive device on board an aircraft from Washington to Denver, sources tell NBC News
  • Update: Air marshals subdued passenger on Denver-bound 757 jet. Plane is parked in remote area of airport – NBC News
  • Update: Passenger detained after ‘shoe bomb’ incident aboard Denver-bound plane is identified as Qatari diplomat – ABC News

Between 7 and 8 PM, Pacific Time

  • Update: Unclear if passenger tied to shoe incident aboard Denver-bound flight had explosives – NBC News

Between 8 and 9 PM, Pacific Time

  • Update: Qatar diplomat subdued on United flight may have been smoking in bathroom – NBC News

Between 9 and 10 PM, Pacific Time

From the Denver Post, reported by Felisa Cardona and Jeffrey Leib :

A United Airlines flight from Washington was escorted by fighter jets to Denver International Airport after a diplomat on board from Qatar may have tried to light his shoes on fire….

More than two hours after the incident, it still wasn’t clear whether the incident was an actual threat or a misunderstanding because al-Modadi attempted to smoke a cigarette on the plane, according to numerous law enforcement sources….

ABC News and other outlets reported that no explosives have been found on the plane, which was still being searched at 9:45 p.m…

Approximately 25 minutes outside of Denver the air marshal, who was not immediately identified, confronted al-Modadi after smelling smoke.

From NBC

…Federal officials told NBC News that a half hour before the jet landed, a flight attendant smelled smoke just as a passenger was coming out of a restroom and alerted an air marshal. The marshal confronted the man, and there were initial reports that the man said he was trying to light his shoe.

But NBC News reported that the man said he was putting out a cigarette, which he smoked in the restroom, on the sole of his shoe.

No explosives were found on the man, and a search of the plane with bomb-detecting dogs also turned up no explosives. And a federal official said the man was wearing sandals….

From the AP (by writers Eileen Sullivan, Matthew Lee, Matt Apuzzo, Joan Lowy, Pauline Jelinek and Lolita C. Baldor in Washington and Judith Kohler and David Zalubowski in Denver)

A Qatari diplomat trying to sneak a smoke in an airplane bathroom sparked a bomb scare Wednesday night on a flight from Washington to Denver, with fighter jets scrambled and law enforcement put on high alert, officials said.

No explosives were found on the man, and officials do not believe he was trying to harm anyone, according to a senior law enforcement officials who spoke on condition of anonymity…

An Arab diplomat briefed on the matter identified the diplomat as Mohammed Al-Madadi.

Two law enforcement officials said investigators were told the man was asked about the smell of smoke in the bathroom and he made a joke that he had been trying to light his shoes — an apparent reference to the 2001 so-called ”shoe bomber” Richard Reid…

A senior State Department official said the agency was aware of the tentative identification of the man as a Qatari diplomat and that there would be ”consequences, diplomatic and otherwise” if he had committed a crime.

The latest edition of department’s Diplomatic List, a registry of foreign diplomats working in the United States, identifies a man named Mohammed Yaaqob Y.M. Al-Madadi as the third secretary for the Qatari Embassy in Washington. Third secretary is a relatively low-ranking position at any diplomatic post and it was not immediately clear what his responsibilities would have been.

Foreign diplomats in the United States, like American diplomats posted abroad, have broad immunity from prosecution. The official said if the man’s identity as a Qatari diplomat was confirmed and if it was found that he may have committed a crime, U.S. authorities would have to decide whether to ask Qatar to waive his diplomatic immunity so he could be charged and tried. Qatar could decline, the official said, and the man would likely be expelled from the United States.

Qatar, about the size of Connecticut and Rhode Island combined, is an oil- and gas-rich monarchy and close U.S. ally of about 1.4 million people on the Arabian peninsula, surrounded by three sides by the Persian Gulf and to the south by Saudi Arabia…..

From the  innocuously uninformative TSA site

TSA Statement on United Flight 663
News & Happenings

On Wednesday, April 7 TSA responded to an incident on board United Airlines flight 663 from DCA to DEN after Federal Air Marshals responded to a passenger causing a disturbance on board the aircraft. The flight landed safely at Denver International Airport at approximately 8:50 p.m. EDT.

Law enforcement and TSA responded to the scene and the passenger is currently being interviewed by law enforcement. All steps are being taken to ensure the safety of the traveling public.


By the time I wake up tomorrow, I’m guessing there will be a clearer picture of this currently bizarre incident.

Based on the evolving first reports, I go to sleep tonight thinking a 20-something, nicotine-addicted, sandal-wearing, low-level diplomat was smoking a cigarette in an airplane toilet-sink room.  He put out the smoke by grinding it into his shoe.  A flight attendant smelled smoke and notified a federal air marshal.  At that point, Mohammed Al-Madadi — if that is really his name — stopped enjoying what in the 1980s used to be called “the friendly skies.”

Airplane, shoes, smoke, Al-Madadi… the first reports write themselves.


What ripples — if any — will this event stir in homeland security?

Do passengers with diplomatic immunity create another vulnerability in the US aviation security system?

Will cigarettes now have to go into checked baggage?

Is health care reform to blame?

Is this yet one more example of how America is turning socialist?

What will the story line be that places blame for this event on Secretary Napolitano?


I wanted to write about the future of homeland security.  But the present is way too weird to be thinking about the future.

Maybe tomorrow.


Update: 20 seconds after I posted the above:


“Qatari diplomat who sparked bomb scare by trying to smoke aboard Denver-bound jet won’t face criminal charges, official tells AP”

Oh well, who knows whether that’s true or not.  First reports are almost always wrong.

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Comment by Jeff Lord

April 8, 2010 @ 3:11 am

Apparently that IS his real name. He’s from George Washington University, where he trained in info technology. He’s also apparently a dumbfuck for pulling a smoke scare like that. Check out:


Comment by William R. Cumming

April 8, 2010 @ 8:20 am

I am so glad that the Airline crew was able to prevent any misunderstandings of the danger posed. Must be the outstanding training package put together by the airline and TSA! By the way what was the Airline? What training does TSA administer for Airline Crew?

Hey perhaps sandals should be mandatory for all airline passengers!

Comment by Desert Dweller

April 8, 2010 @ 1:29 pm

Make diplomats charter private flights. Let them have all the immunity they want, just don’t allow it/them on general commercial aviation.

Comment by John Comiskey

April 8, 2010 @ 5:28 pm

More cause for concern. Smoking a cigarette on a plane is cause for alarm in the current operating environment. After all bad guys/girls have secreted bombs and precursor explosives in their shoes, underwear, bra implants, and water. Media speculation and a mediocre statement by TSA are irresponsible in today’s information age where the withholding of information and/or misinformation might cause catastrophe. Of greater concern is the likelihood of a genuine attack preceded by ruse attacks -unwieldy cigarette smoking passengers on an airplane that diverts our attention from the battle space.

So Chris, go to bed knowing that the man from Qatar had his smoke and world was turned upside down if only for the moment. New TSA regulations to follow.

Comment by William R. Cumming

April 9, 2010 @ 12:22 am

Trained Air Marshalls assisted?

Comment by William Warren

April 9, 2010 @ 8:27 am

If he was smoking, I wonder why the smoke detector didn’t sound? If it had sounded, I also wonder what the protocol would have been. Does the pilot automatically declare an inflight emergency and attempt to land? Or do the flight crew try to fight the fire?

Comment by Christopher Bellavita

April 9, 2010 @ 8:40 am

For the Record (from the NY Times)

Assessing Response to Illegal Smoke and Quip

New York Times

April 9, 2010

WASHINGTON When an illicit pipe and a foolish joke aboard an airliner touches off a national megascare, scrambling fighter jets and F.B.I. agents, alerting all 4,900 flights in progress and unleashing a media flood, does that mean the security system works?

Or was the reaction to an Arab diplomat’s ill-timed smoke break aboard a flight to Denver on Wednesday night overkill, unnecessarily alarming the entire country, inconveniencing passengers and squandering the taxpayers’ money?

Assessing the government and media response was complicated by the revelation on Thursday that the Qatari diplomat, Mohammed al-Madadi, was on his way to make a routine consular visit to a convicted agent of Al Qaeda, a citizen of Qatar who is imprisoned in Colorado.

But officials said that they learned the purpose of the diplomat’s travels well after the plane landed, and that they did not believe Mr. Madadi had any ties to terrorism. Still, the bizarre coincidence only underscored a widespread view that the huge response was justified.

“From a counterterrorism standpoint, the system worked perfectly,” said Kip Hawley, who served as administrator of the Transportation Security Administration under the Bush administration from 2005 to 2009. “The T.S.A. and counterterrorism officials are on high alert for a very good reason. Al Qaeda is going to use pregnant women, people with babies, and it is not out of the realm of possibility that they will use a diplomat.”

The possibility of overreaction to perceived threats is by now a familiar problem in the age of terrorism, when a little powdered sugar can set off an anthrax panic or a Coast Guard training exercise can persuade cable television crews that the nation’s capital may be under attack, as occurred last Sept. 11. In this case, however, there seemed to be little second-guessing of the broad security alert in response to a situation that ultimately turned out to have posed no significant threat.

“As far as I have heard, the passengers, crew and authorities all acted calmly and appropriately,” said Ian S. Lustick, a political scientist at the University of Pennsylvania and author of “Trapped in the War on Terror,” a 2006 book that criticized what he called the exaggerated response to terrorism.

Law enforcement, Homeland Security and airline industry officials, who would speak about the investigation only on condition of anonymity, described what happened aboard United Flight 663 from Reagan National Airport in Washington to Denver. Some details about the flight, which carried 157 passengers and six crew members, varied in different officials’ accounts on Thursday night.

Mr. Madadi, 27, a third secretary at Qatar’s embassy in Washington, was confronted by a flight attendant who smelled smoke as he left the forward lavatory near the cockpit.

The flight attendant alerted a federal air marshal on board, and when challenged, Mr. Madadi denied smoking but admitted he had a pipe and made a joking reference to trying to set his shoes on fire.

The authorities feared a repeat of the attempted bombing of a Detroit-bound airliner on Dec. 25, in which a Nigerian passenger has been accused of trying to assemble explosives hidden in his underwear during a trip to the bathroom. In that case, the would-be bomb fizzled and the man, who later said he had been trained by the Qaeda affiliate in Yemen, ended up burning only himself.

The episode on Wednesday evening seemed to echo the Christmas Day events, which led to a sharp increase in the deployment of air marshals, who pose as ordinary passengers and “break cover” only when there is a security threat.

After the flight attendant and a passenger who followed Mr. Madadi into the lavatory both smelled smoke, the passenger found a bag of what the authorities said was tobacco.

One of the two air marshals on the flight then approached Mr. Madadi at his seat in the first-class section, showing his badge and identifying himself as a federal agent. Mr. Madadi said he had not been smoking but acknowledged that the bag contained tobacco for his pipe.

It was then that he made the remark about setting his shoes on fire, evidently a nervous joke referring to the 2001 episode in which Richard Reid tried to ignite explosives hidden in his shoe during a trans-Atlantic flight.

Within a few minutes, top Transportation Security officials were on a conference call, the Federal Aviation Administration had alerted the pilots of the thousands of flights then in the air of the possible threat, an F.B.I. team had begun to assemble in Denver, and airport authorities positioned fire and safety equipment for the landing there, which took place at 6:54 p.m. Norad sent the fighter jets to accompany the plane for the final segment of its route.

Intelligence agencies, meanwhile, checked their files for information not only on Mr. Madadi, but on the other passengers as well, because security officials had to consider the possibility that a team of terrorists was on the flight.

With thousands of government officials and pilots now aware of what initially appeared to be a possible attempted terrorist attack, news organizations began to get tips and to respond with alarming reports. “Air Marshals Stop Alleged ‘Shoe Bomb’ Attempt,” said a headline on ABC News, which had one of the first reports.

Other networks and newspaper Web sites quickly followed, and for an hour or two the reports continued. By about 8:30 Denver time, after the authorities failed to find any explosives, news media reports shifted to calling the episode a false alarm.

On Thursday, officials confirmed that Mr. Madadi had been headed to the maximum security prison in Florence, Colo., for a routine monthly visit to Ali Saleh Kahlah al-Marri, a Qatari citizen who admitted last year that he entered the United States on Sept. 10, 2001, on the orders of Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, the chief planner of the Sept. 11 attacks. Mr. Marri was arrested in December 2001.

Initially charged in the criminal system, he was then moved to the military system and held in a military jail in South Carolina. Finally he was moved back to federal criminal court, where he pleaded guilty last year and was sentenced to eight years in prison.

But the Qaeda connection appeared to be a red herring. P. J. Crowley, a State Department spokesman, said that such prison visits were routine and that permitting them was an obligation under international agreements.

“We demand the same right of consular visits for our citizens who are imprisoned anywhere in the world,” Mr. Crowley said.

Mr. Madadi’s words on the flight were a vivid confirmation of the ubiquitous airport signs that have warned passengers for decades against joking about bombs and other security issues. Though Mr. Madadi has diplomatic immunity and therefore cannot be prosecuted for violating the smoking ban aboard aircraft, he could be expelled from the United States.

An American official said Qatari Embassy officials had headed off such a step by saying that Mr. Madadi would leave for Qatar soon. On Thursday, after he was interviewed by F.B.I. agents and released, he returned to Washington but not on United. In view of his conduct, said a United spokeswoman, Jean Medina, her airline decided not to honor his return ticket.

Comment by Dan O'Connor

April 11, 2010 @ 9:18 am

Crowe’s Law;

Something attributed to him but I am unable to verify;

Dismiss 80% of the first reports from conflict; they’re almost always wrong…


September 3, 2010 @ 7:20 am

Scientist with canister shut down Miami airport. Must be on the banned stuff list. Snow globes must be checked, no carry on snow globes. No spray paint. Maybe it looked like a can of spray paint and caused a panic. The guy could be guilty of thinking. 80 pounds of coke passes through and none of them see a thing.


September 3, 2010 @ 7:36 am

Sep 2, 2010 … Sources say a Kittanning Middle School science teacher has reportedly been suspended because … It reads: “Maybe someone will blow it up!” …

A good case for cyber schooling. The schools are so rotten even the teachers are saying screw it…blow it up. Tag as Facebook Dingdongs.

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