Terror probe may be false alarm
Tuesday, August 31, 2010; 2:41 PM
Two Yemeni men who flew from Chicago to Amsterdam and were detained Monday in the Netherlands on suspicion of planning a terrorist act do not appear to be involved in any conspiracy and did not know each other before they were arrested, according to two U.S. law enforcement officials.
The officials said suspicions that the men were involved in an attempt to test the security of the aviation system with fake bombs appeared misplaced. Rather, they said, the two became the focus of an international terrorism scare as a result of a series of odd events.
"It doesn't look like a conspiracy, or a test run," said one law enforcement official. "And these guys don't show up on any of our lists."
Ahmed Mohamed Nasser al-Soofi, a permanent resident of the United States, was traveling from Birmingham, Ala., to Chicago. From Chicago, he planned to connect to a flight to Washington Dulles International Airport and fly from there to Yemen.
In Birmingham, he declared that he was carrying $7,000 in cash and underwent additional screening. In his checked luggage, security screeners found a cellphone taped to a Pepto-Bismol bottle, three cellphones taped together and a number of watches taped together.
In Chicago, Soofi missed his flight because of a gate change, and the airline booked him on an alternative route through Amsterdam. But his suitcase with the suspicious items continued to Dulles, setting off alarms and prompting American officials to alert Dutch authorities.
Hezem Abdullah Thabi al-Murisi, a Yemeni citizen, also missed his flight in Chicago. He was booked to Amsterdam as well and seated beside Soofi. The two did not know each other before getting on the same flight, the official said. And Murisi may have been dragged into the investigation only because he ended sitting beside Soofi.
The two men were detained by Dutch officials after United Airlines Flight 908 landed at Schiphol Airport on Monday morning.
In a statement, the Dutch prosecutor's office said the two Yemenis were arrested "on the basis of information provided by the U.S. authorities." It said they were traveling to Sanaa, the Yemeni capital.
U.S. officials said they have not closed the book on the investigation because they still want Soofi to explain why he taped various items together as he did. But they said the explanation of some of his relatives that he used the tape to separate different things for different relatives in Yemen could be plausible.
"We see a lot of strange stuff in luggage," said a second law enforcement official.
Staff writer William Branigin contributed to this report.