By Spencer S. Hsu
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 8, 2010; 11:40 AM
A United Airlines flight from Washington to Denver was disrupted Wednesday night after federal air marshals confronted a Qatari diplomat, who was believed to have been smoking in the plane's bathroom in violation of safety rules, authorities said.
The passenger, Mohammed al-Madadi, was taken into custody by air marshals as he exited the lavatory aboard United Flight 663, officials said. A federal law enforcement official said that Madadi was initially alleged to have extinguished the smoking material on his shoe and made a sarcastic remark to the marshals after he was confronted.
Madadi was asked what he was doing, and at least one marshal apparently thought that Madadi responded with words to the effect of "lighting a bomb in my shoe," one U.S. official said, although other officials cautioned that what actually was spoken remains unclear. No explosives were found on the plane, nor were any traces of explosives found on Madadi's shoes, a senior U.S. official said.
Madadi, who is listed by the State Department as a third secretary at the Embassy of Qatar on M Street NW, invoked diplomatic immunity, officials said.
State Department and White House officials were in talks with Qatari officials Thursday. U.S. authorities indicated Thursday that criminal charges were unlikely, given Madadi's diplomatic status. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because of the ongoing investigation.
The Qatari ambassador, Ali bin Fahad al-Hajri defended Madadi, saying in a statement on the embassy's Web site that the incident resulted from a misunderstanding.
"This diplomat was traveling to Denver on official embassy business on my instructions, and he was certainly not engaged in any threatening activity," Hajri said. "The facts will reveal that this was a mistake, and we urge all concerned parties to avoid reckless judgments or speculation."
After several hours in custody, Madadi was released and is returning to Washington, a spokeswoman for the Qatar embassy said Thursday morning.
"We are on a fact-finding mission, trying to pull all the pieces together, and we'll make a statement fairly shortly," Allison Bradley said.
Asked whether Madadi or U.S. authorities were mistaken, Bradley said, "He was on official embassy business, which was the purpose of his travel. Regardless, whatever happened that alarmed the authorities, that obviously wasn't embassy business.
Bradley said it was too early to say whether Madadi would be recalled to Qatar.
The incident came three months after a Nigerian man trained by al-Qaeda attempted to blow up a flight to Detroit on Christmas Day using explosives hidden in his underwear. U.S. authorities have since ratcheted up security measures, including beefing up the air marshal ranks.
In 2001, British citizen Richard Reid attempted to destroy an American Airlines flight on which he was a passenger by detonating explosives hidden in his shoe. The attempt failed. Reid pleaded guilty to terrorism charges and is serving a life sentence.
United Flight 663 departed Reagan National Airport on Wednesday night with 157 passengers and six crew members, an airline spokesman said. The flight landed in Denver without incident shortly before 9 p.m. Eastern time, a half-hour ahead of schedule. Two F-16 fighter jets escorted the plane into the airport, the North American Aerospace Defense Command said.
"All steps are being taken to ensure the safety of the traveling public," Transportation Security Administration spokesman Greg Soule said.
President Obama, traveling to Prague aboard Air Force One, was briefed about the incident by national security adviser James L. Jones and National Security Chief of Staff Denis McDonough at 8:50 p.m. Wednesday, said a White House official, speaking on the condition of anonymity.
Madadi has been in Washington since at least 2007, according to his online biography at LinkedIn.com, which states that he pursued a master's degree in information systems technology at George Washington University.
Staff writer Clarence Williams contributed to this report.