Yemenis detained on mistaken suspicion of planning attack

By Peter Finn
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 1, 2010

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 and the fact that both were from Yemen, where an affiliate of al-Qaeda has been increasingly active.

"It doesn't look like a conspiracy or a test run," one law enforcement official said. "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 alternate 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, the official said. And Murisi may have been dragged into the investigation only because he was sitting beside Soofi.

Dutch officials detained the two men 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. Dutch officials said the men will have to appear before a judge before they can be released.

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. 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," a second law enforcement official said.

Staff writer William Branigin contributed to this report.

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