Womens Wall Street.com, July 2004
Headline: Terror in the Skies
Byline: Annie Jacobsen
On that Tuesday, our journey began uneventfully. Starting out that morning
My four-year-old son was determined to wheel his carry-on bag himself, so I turned to the men behind me and said, "You go ahead, this could be awhile." "No, you go ahead," one of the men replied. He smiled pleasantly and extended his arm for me to pass. He was young, maybe late 20's and had a goatee. I thanked him and we boarded the plane.
Once on the plane, we took our seats in coach (seats 17A, 17B and 17C). The man with the yellow shirt and the McDonald's bag sat across the aisle from us (in seat 17E). The pleasant man with the goatee sat a few rows back and across the aisle from us (in seat 21E). The rest of the men were seated throughout the plane, and several made their way to the back.
As we sat waiting for the plane to finish boarding, we noticed another large group of Middle Eastern men boarding. The first man wore a dark suit and sunglasses. He sat in first class in seat 1A, the seat second-closest to the cockpit door. The other seven men walked into the coach cabin. As "aware" Americans, my husband and I exchanged glances, and then continued to get comfortable. I noticed some of the other passengers paying attention to the situation as well. As boarding continued, we watched as, one by one, most of the Middle Eastern men made eye contact with each other. 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."
The take-off was uneventful. But once we were in the air and the seatbelt sign was turned off, the unusual activity began. The man in the yellow T-shirt got out of his seat and went to the lavatory at the front of coach -- taking his full McDonald's bag with him. When he came out of the lavatory he still had the McDonald's bag, but it was now almost empty. He walked down the aisle to the back of the plane, still holding the bag. When he passed two of the men sitting mid-cabin, he gave a thumbs-up sign. When he returned to his seat, he no longer had the McDonald's bag.
Then another man from the group stood up and took something from his carry-on in the overhead bin. It was about a foot long and was rolled in cloth. He headed toward the back of the cabin with the object. Five minutes later, several more of the Middle Eastern men began using the forward lavatory consecutively. In the back, several of the men stood up and used the back lavatory consecutively as well.
For the next hour, the men congregated in groups of two and three at the back of the plane for varying periods of time. Meanwhile, in the first class cabin, just a foot or so from the cockpit door, the man with the dark suit - still wearing sunglasses - was also standing. Not one of the flight crew members suggested that any of these men take their seats.
Watching all of this, my husband was now beyond "anxious." I decided to try to reassure my husband (and maybe myself) by walking to the back bathroom. I knew the goateed-man I had exchanged friendly words with as we boarded the plane was seated only a few rows back, so I thought I would say hello to the man to get some reassurance that everything was fine. As I stood up and turned around, I glanced in his direction and we made eye contact. I threw out my friendliest "remember-me-we-had-a-nice-exchange-just-a-short-time-ago" smile. The man did not smile back. His face did not move. In fact, the cold, defiant look he gave me sent shivers down my spine.
When I returned to my seat I was unable to assure my husband that all was well. My husband immediately walked to the first class section to talk with the flight attendant. "I might be overreacting, but I've been watching some really suspicious things..." Before he could finish his statement, the flight attendant pulled him into the galley. In a quiet voice she explained that they were all concerned about what was going on. The captain was aware. The flight attendants were passing notes to each other. She said that there were people on board "higher up than you and me watching the men." My husband returned to his seat and relayed this information to me. He was feeling slightly better. I was feeling much worse. We were now two hours into a four-and-a-half hour flight.
Approximately 10 minutes later, that same flight attendant came by with the drinks cart. She leaned over and quietly told my husband there were federal air marshals sitting all around us. She asked him not to tell anyone and explained that she could be in trouble for giving out that information. She then continued serving drinks.
About 20 minutes later the same flight attendant returned. Leaning over and whispering, she asked my husband to write a description of the yellow-shirted man sitting across from us. She explained it would look too suspicious if she wrote the information. She asked my husband to slip the note to her when he was done.
After seeing 14 Middle Eastern men board separately (six together, eight
individually) and then act as a group, watching their unusual glances,
observing their bizarre bathroom activities, watching them congregate in small
groups, knowing that the flight attendants and the pilots were seriously
concerned, and now knowing that federal air marshals were on board, I was
officially terrified. Before I'm labeled a racial profiler or -- worse yet -- a
racist, let me add this. A month ago I traveled to
Finally, the captain announced that the plane was cleared for landing. It
had been four hours since we left
Suddenly, seven of the men stood up -- in unison -- and walked to the front and back lavatories. One by one, they went into the two lavatories, each spending about four minutes inside. Right in front of us, two men stood up against the emergency exit door, waiting for the lavatory to become available. The men spoke in Arabic among themselves and to the man in the yellow shirt sitting nearby. One of the men took his camera into the lavatory. Another took his cell phone. Again, no one approached the men. Not one of the flight attendants asked them to sit down. I watched as the man in the yellow shirt, still in his seat, reached inside his shirt and pulled out a small red book. He read a few pages, then put the book back inside his shirt. He pulled the book out again, read a page or two more, and put it back. He continued to do this several more times.
I looked around to see if any other passengers were watching. I immediately spotted a distraught couple seated two rows back. The woman was crying into the man's shoulder. He was holding her hand. I heard him say to her, "You've got to calm down." Behind them sat the once pleasant-smiling, goatee-wearing man.
I grabbed my son, I held my husband's hand and, despite the fact that I am not a particularly religious person, I prayed. The last man came out of the bathroom, and as he passed the man in the yellow shirt he ran his forefinger across his neck and mouthed the word "No."
The plane landed. My husband and I gathered our bags and quickly, very quickly, walked up the jetway. As we exited the jetway and entered the airport, we saw many, many men in dark suits. A few yards further out into the terminal, LAPD agents ran past us, heading for the gate. I have since learned that the representatives of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD), the Federal Air Marshals (FAM), and the Transportation Security Association (TSA) met our plane as it landed. Several men -- who I presume were the federal air marshals on board -- hurried off the plane and directed the 14 men over to the side.
Knowing what we knew, and seeing what we'd seen, my husband and I decided to talk to the authorities. For several hours my husband and I were interrogated by the FBI. We gave sworn statement after sworn statement. We wrote down every detail of our account. The interrogators seemed especially interested in the McDonald's bag, so we repeated in detail what we knew about the McDonald's bag. A law enforcement official stood near us, holding 14 Syrian passports in his hand. We answered more questions. And finally we went home.
Home Sweet Home
The next day, I began searching online for news about the incident. There was nothing. I asked a friend who is a local news correspondent if there were any arrests at LAX that day. There weren't. I called Northwest Airlines' customer service. They said write a letter. I wrote a letter, then followed up with a call to their public relations department. They said they were aware of the situation (sorry that happened!) but legally they have 30 days to reply.
I shared my story with a few colleagues. One mentioned she'd been on a
flight with a group of foreign men who were acting strangely -- they turned out
to be diamond traders. Another had heard a story on National Public Radio
(NPR) shortly after 9/11 about a group of Arab musicians who were having a hard
time traveling on airplanes throughout the
Terrorist bid to build bombs in mid-flight: Intelligence reveals dry runs of new threat to blow up airliners
"Islamic militants have conducted dry runs of a devastating new style
of bombing on aircraft flying to
The tactics, which aim to evade aviation security systems by placing only
components of explosive devices on passenger jets, allowing militants to
assemble them in the air, have been tried out on planes flying between the
...The... Transportation Security Administration issued an urgent memo detailing new threats to aviation and warning that terrorists in teams of five might be planning suicide missions to hijack commercial airliners, possibly using common items...such as cameras, modified as weapons.
...Components of IEDs [improvised explosive devices] can be smuggled on to an aircraft, concealed in either clothing or personal carry-on items... and assembled on board. In many cases of suspicious passenger activity, incidents have taken place in the aircraft's forward lavatory."
So here's my question: Since the FBI issued a warning to the airline industry to be wary of groups of five men on a plane who might be trying to build bombs in the bathroom, shouldn't a group of 14 Middle Eastern men be screened before boarding a flight?
Apparently not. Due to our rules against discrimination, it can't be done. During the 9/11 hearings last April, 9/11 Commissioner John Lehman stated that "...it was the policy (before 9/11) and I believe remains the policy today to fine airlines if they have more than two young Arab males in secondary questioning because that's discriminatory."
So even if Northwest Airlines searched two of the men on board my Northwest flight, they couldn't search the other 12 because they would have already filled a government-imposed quota.
I continued my research by reading an article entitled Arab Hijackers Now Eligible For Pre-Boarding from Ann Coulter.
"On September 21, as the remains of thousands of Americans lay smoldering at Ground Zero, [Secretary of Transportation Norman] Mineta fired off a letter to all U.S. airlines forbidding them from implementing the one security measure that could have prevented 9/11: subjecting Middle Eastern passengers to an added degree of pre-flight scrutiny. He sternly reminded the airlines that it was illegal to discriminate against passengers based on their race, color, national or ethnic origin or religion."
Coulter also writes that a few months later, at Mr. Mineta's
behest, the Department of Transportation (DOT) filed complaints against United
Airlines and American Airlines (who, combined, had lost 8 pilots, 25 flight
attendants and 213 passengers on 9/11 - not counting the 19 Arab
hijackers). In November 2003, United Airlines settled their case with the
DOT for $1.5 million. In March 2004, American Airlines settled their case with
the DOT for $1.5 million. The DOT also charged Continental Airlines with
discriminating against passengers who appeared to be Arab, Middle Eastern or
Muslim. Continental Airlines settled their complaint with the DOT in April of
2004 for $.5 million.
From what I witnessed, Northwest Airlines doesn't have to worry about Norman Mineta filing a complaint against them for discriminatory, secondary screening of Arab men. No one checked the passports of the Syrian men. No one inspected the contents of the two instrument cases or the McDonald's bag. And no one checked the limping man's orthopedic shoe. In fact, according to the TSA regulations, passengers wearing an orthopedic shoe won't be asked to take it off. As their site states, "Advise the screener if you're wearing orthopedic shoes...screeners should not be asking you to remove your orthopedic shoes at any time during the screening process. " (Click here to read the TSA website policy on orthopedic shoes and other medical devices.)
I placed a call to the TSA and talked to Joe Dove, a Customer Service Supervisor. I told him how we'd eaten with metal utensils moments in an airport diner before boarding the flight and how no one checked our luggage or the instrument cases being carried by the Middle Eastern men. Dove's response was, "Restaurants in secured areas -- that's an ongoing problem. We get that complaint often. TSA gets that complaint all the time and they haven't worked that out with the FAA. They're aware of it. You've got a good question. There may not be a reasonable answer at this time, I'm not going to BS you."
Two days after my experience on Northwest Airlines flight #327 came this
notice from SBS TV, The World News,
"The U.S. Transportation and Security Administration has issued a new directive which demands pilots make a pre-flight announcement banning passengers from congregating in aisles and outside the plane's toilets. The directive also orders flight attendants to check the toilets every two hours for suspicious packages."
Through a series of events, The Washington Post heard about my
story. I talked briefly about my experience with a representative from the
newspaper. Within a few hours I received a call from Dave Adams, the Federal
Air Marshal Services (FAM) Head of Public Affairs.
There were 14 Syrians on NWA flight #327. They were questioned at length by
FAM, the FBI and the TSA upon landing in
So the question is... Do I think these men were musicians? I'll let you decide. But I wonder, if 19 terrorists can learn to fly airplanes into buildings, couldn't 14 terrorists learn to play instruments?
The assistance is legal, but civil liberties groups and Arab-American advocacy organizations say it is a dangerous breach of public trust and liken it to the Census Bureau's compilation of similar information about Japanese-Americans during World War II.
The tabulations were produced in August 2002 and December 2003 in response to requests from what is now the Customs and Border Protection division of the Department of Homeland Security. One set listed cities with more than 1,000 Arab-Americans. The second, far more detailed, provided ZIP-code-level breakdowns of Arab-American populations, sorted by country of origin. The categories provided were Egyptian, Iraqi, Jordanian, Lebanese, Moroccan, Palestinian, Syrian and two general categories, "Arab/Arabic" and "Other Arab."
Hermann Habermann, deputy director of the Census Bureau, said such cooperation was standard practice. "We are required to provide information to other federal agencies," he said. "This is not a cabal calculating secret tabulations."
But Mr. Habermann also expressed concern over application of the data, adding: "We do worry about how information will be used. However, we have not been given the authority to determine which organization gets which information."
Census tabulations of specialized data are legal as long as they do not identify any individual.
Christiana Halsey, a spokeswoman for Customs and Border Protection, said the
requests were made to help the agency identify in which airports to post signs
and pamphlets in Arabic. "The information is not in any way being used for
law enforcement purposes," she said. "It's being used to educate the
traveler. We're simply using basic demographic information to help us
But critics of the information sharing said general demographic snapshots could be derived without such detailed information and that the ZIP-code-level data with its breakdowns of ancestral origin seemed particularly excessive because for all of the groups only English or Arabic need be used.
"The real question is to Homeland Security," said Samia El-Badry, an Arab-American member of the Census Bureau's decennial census advisory committee. "What are they hiding? Why do they need this?"
James Zogby, president of the Arab American Institute, said the data sharing was particularly harmful at a time when the Census Bureau is struggling to build trust within Arab-American communities. "As this gets out, any effort to encourage people to full compliance with the census is down the tubes," Mr. Zogby said. "How can you get people to comply when they believe that by complying they put at risk their personal and family security?"
In 2000, the bureau issued a formal apology for allowing its statistical data to be used to round up Japanese-Americans for internment during World War II.
Kenneth Prewitt, the former census director who made the apology, said that given the bureau's history, consideration of requests from law enforcement agencies requires more than strict parsing of legalities.
"The Census Bureau has a longstanding practice of being unusually cautious about such cooperation because it is difficult to explain to the public," Mr. Prewitt said. "There is an issue of principle involved as well as law. In World War II we violated our principles even if we didn't violate the law, and we assured people we wouldn't do it again."
The data sharing on Arab-Americans was disclosed by the Census Bureau in
response to a Freedom of Information Act request by the
Several entries in the documents have been blacked out by the Department of Homeland Security, with notations citing the need to protect privacy and government operations.
Census Bureau guidelines for preparing special tabulations for outside agencies and groups include considerations about how the data sharing will affect the bureau's reputation; whether the data deals with "sensitive populations"; and whether it is being requested by law enforcement agencies. With those agencies in particular, the guidelines suggest that the bureau evaluate whether the agency will use the data for statistical applications or for law enforcement.
But the guidelines apply only to projects for which the bureau will be paid. The request from Homeland Security involved no contract or payment and so was not subject to full review by census officials.
Ultimately, Mr. Habermann said, any discussion about the controversial nature of the information sharing is separate from the agency's mandate to provide information.
"The only way we can guarantee that no one will ever be harmed by our information is to release nothing," he said. "We understand that groups can be affected by what we give out, and we understand that can be sensitive. But that is a societal debate, not a census debate."
Headline: Terror Fears Hamper
Byline: NEIL MacFARQUHAR
For Ahmed Ahmed, a comedian, it is even worse. His double-barreled
name matches an occasional alias used by a henchman of Osama
bin Laden. "It's a bad time to be named Ahmed right now," he riffs in
his stand-up routine, before describing being hauled through the
Taleb Salhab and his wife say
they too were dragged away in handcuffs at the border crossing in
The delays, humiliation and periodic roughing up have prompted some American Muslims to avoid traveling as much as possible. Some even skip meeting anyone at the airport for fear of a nasty encounter with a law-enforcement officer. Those who do venture forth say they are always nervous.
"I find myself enunciating English like never before, totally over-enunciating just because I want the guy to know that I am an American," says Maz Jobrani, an Iranian-born, Berkeley-educated actor. "Middle Easterners are just as scared of Al Qaeda as everybody else, but we also have to be worried about being profiled as Al Qaeda. It's a double whammy."
Many Muslim Americans fault the Department of Homeland Security and its various agencies, chiefly the Transportation Security Administration, as failing to develop an efficient system to screen travelers. In particular, they deplore the lack of a workable means for those on the federal watch list by mistake — or those whose names match that of someone on the list — to get themselves off.
Mr. Salhab, 36, says his family remains shaken by their treatment at the border. Officers, their hands on their guns, swarmed around his vehicle, barking at him to get out as alarm bells clanged, he said.
"If I had sneezed or looked the wrong way, who knows what would have happened," Mr. Salhab said in a telephone interview. "I feared for my life."
Now, he said, every time his daughter, 4, sees uniformed officers, she asks if they are going to take him away.
"What happened to me at the border is inexcusable," Mr. Salhab said.
A complaint filed with the Department of Homeland Security in January got Mr. Salhab a form letter saying the government was looking into the situation. There has been no further response.
The Department of Homeland Security denies engaging in racial profiling. Agents should not base their decisions on a face or a name, said Dan Sutherland, head of the Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties. "They should look at behavior, concrete action, observable activities," he said.
Mr. Sutherland said the department was aware of some problems with the watch list, but he argued that many Muslim Americans traveled without encountering difficulties.
Still, traveling makes many Muslim Americans feel like second-class citizens. Mr. Ahmed, the comedian, often travels wearing a T-shirt that says "Got rights?"
"That's the whole question of my existence right now," he said. "Do we have rights? I'm a taxpayer and I'm an American, and I want to be treated like one."
The problem has become such a part of being a Muslim American that some comedians have built routines around it. Mr. Ahmed and Mr. Jobrani both perform on The Axis of Evil Comedy Tour. Mr. Jobrani jokes about his heightened state of anxiety as he passes through security.
He says, "If anything beeps in the metal detector, I think, 'Dammit, I'm a terrorist! I knew it!"
But underneath the
one-liners, the treatment grates. Mr. Ahmed, 35, now avoids flying on the day
of a show lest he be barred from his flight. The stress reached a level that
the whiskers in his beard started to fall out, he says. ("Your body is
trying to de-Muslimize," Mr. Jobrani
said jokingly, sitting next to him in a
Mr. Ahmed was handcuffed
It is an apt comparison,
Mr. Ahmed feels, noting that after the 1995
"I know I have to be demure and humble when I approach a ticket agent," Mr. Ahmed said. "If you show any ounce of negativity or righteousness, they'll deny you, they'll say, 'You're not getting on this flight, I don't like your attitude."'
When he called a phone line for those with travel problems like his, he said, he got no response. "I understand the need for security, but they go overboard, they always have to put on this public display," he said. Mr. Usman, 30, and part of a different comedy act called Allah Made Me Funny, draws big laughs when joking about his obviously Muslim appearance. "If I was a crazy Muslim fundamentalist, this is not the disguise I would go with," he cracks.
He refuses to shave his
beard. "I have a problem that people associate a certain look with Muslim
terrorists," he said by telephone from his native
Dr. Sam Hamade, 33, was born in
In the last two years,
driving back from
was handed a "Fact Sheet" instructing him to write to the Border
Patrol's "Customer Satisfaction Unit" in
"It's a nightmare," Dr. Hamade said.
Questions: What connections do you see between the three articles? Are Annie Jacobsen’s fears (the first article) reasonable ones? Do you think she would support the research activities of Homeland Security described in the second article and the enforcement activities Of Homeland Security described in the third article? Why? How would you like to see our government handle the terrorist threat posed by certain extremist Muslim groups?