FBI drops ball in preventing incident of imams on plane
The next time you take a plane out of Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, be sure to tell the FBI. Better yet, invite them to whatever event you're attending and let them know that 60 of your religious friends will be traveling from all o...
The next time you take a plane out of Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, be sure to tell the FBI.
Better yet, invite them to whatever event you're attending and let them know that 60 of your religious friends will be traveling from all over the country.
Why is this necessary? Well, it shouldn't be, but if you're a Muslim clergyman, it might be a good idea.
And it still might not do any good. An FBI notification was exactly the pre-emptive step organizers of the North American Imams Federation took before their meeting at the Ramada Inn Mall of America a week ago. Notwithstanding, on their return, six of the clerics were ejected from a US Airways jet awaiting takeoff after a passenger alerted the flight crew of "suspicious Arabic men, spaced out in their seats" who were also overheard in the gate area "saying 'Allah... Allah...' [and] cursing U.S. involvement w/Saddam."
Those suspicions were heightened when a flight attendant responded to the request of some of the clerics for seat belt extenders, saying in a police report "it was odd as [one of the clerics] was not overly heavy," an assessment corroborated by an off-duty flight attendant who added that the same imam "pretended to be blind." The captain, having received the passenger's note, alerted police. The clerics were removed from the plane and detained at the airport.
And with the FBI now involved, the imams were questioned and their backgrounds checked, the final assessment being they were cleared and free to go, though not on US Airways, which refunded their money. The imams left on other airlines.
So was the scare about sheiks on a plane a reasonable reaction in the post-9/11 world of terrorist attacks, or the jittery response of culturally naïve heartland Americans?
Incontrovertibly, America was attacked by Muslim extremists who remain a threat today. As celebrity security consultant Gavin DeBecker warns in his book, "The Gift of Fear," it's foolhardy to ignore obvious danger signs. He cites several instances of office workers joking that a brown-paper package with no return address "might be a bomb" who turned out to be laughing their last.
But the spark that set off suspicions about the imams was "they were praying very loud," as one witness attested -- an unusual show of devotion at an American airport gate but not an illegal one. It was precisely the sort of activity conference planners say they worried would get attendees in trouble.
"We were expecting problems were going to happen," Imam Mohamad Alhomsi, a member of the group's executive committee, told the News Tribune's editorial page from Augusta, Ga. He added he no longer brings his Quran with him on airplanes because "somebody might panic."
Alhomsi expressed surprise that those detained were not his brethren in turbans and robes but "tie and suit imams." In either a he-said, she-said or difference of perception with the witnesses, he said Imam Marwan Sadeddin of Phoenix is unquestionably blind and indeed overweight. Published pictures suggest the cleric could lose a few pounds.
Imam Sadeddin's diet regimen would be of little concern had the FBI taken up the invitation to attend the conference or at least conducted background checks ahead of time and alerted the airlines, the very sort of preventive security plan proposed in the Transportation Security Administration's Registered Traveler program. Officials from the FBI's Minneapolis office, who Alhomsi said thanked the group when declining the invitation, were not immediately available for comment.
Ironically, one of the conference themes was "Improving Imams' Professionalism and Community Outreach," with a workshop on relations with the media and non-Muslims.
That they accomplished, though not the way they would have wished.