Aug 312010
 
Authors: By Niraj Warikoo, Ellen Creager and Matt Helms McClatchy-Tribune

DETROIT — Fears that two Yemeni men with Detroit area ties were making a terrorist dry run before being arrested off a flight in Amsterdam are slowly easing.

A senior Yemeni official told the Detroit Free Press Monday that the two men arrested Monday in connection with suspicious items in the luggage of one of the men are not terrorists.

Meanwhile, a Department of Homeland Security statement Monday appeared to downplay earlier federal assertions that it may have been linked to terrorism.

“I do not think they had any intentions” of committing terrorism, Yemen’s consul general in Detroit, Abdul-Hakim Al-Sadah, told the Free Press.

The U.S. does not expect to charge Ahmed Moihamed Nasser al-Soofi, 48, a Yemeni who has permanent resident status in the U.S., and Hezem Abdullah Thabi al-Murisi, 37, a Yemeni who
traveled to the U.S. on a visitor’s visa, a U.S. official has told the Associated Press.

The Department of Homeland Security said in a statement Monday, “This matter is under investigation but as of right now, these two passengers have not been charged with any crime in the United States and we caution you against jumping to any conclusions.

“This incident illustrates how airport security protocols, law enforcement cooperation, and prompt international information sharing allows us to respond quickly to potential threats. In this instance, sound judgment led to suspicious items being identified, which triggered automatic security responses by U.S. security personnel. Appropriate security screening measures took place to ensure the safety of all passengers, including the proper screening, handling and matching of all checked luggage. Federal Air Marshals already on board the flight were notified.”

Al-Murisi’s Dutch lawyer, Klaas-Arjen Krikke, said later Monday that he could not comment on specifics about his client or the incident and questioned why so much information about the case had been made public but not provided to defense lawyers.

“He denies the charges adamantly,” Krikke told the Free Press. “Unfortunately, that’s all I can tell you at the moment.”

Both of the detained men missed flights to Dulles International Airport from Chicago, and United Airlines booked them on the same flight to Amsterdam, the U.S. government official said. The men were sitting near each other on the flight, but were not together. They were not on any U.S. terror watch lists, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs told CNN Monday.

Mike Trevino, a spokesman for Chicago-based United Airlines, declined comment. He said the company is referring questions about the investigation to Homeland Security.

An FBI probe has determined that the pair were probably not on a test run for a future terror
attack, the official said. The pair were detained in connection with items found in the luggage of al-Soofi – which was sent on a separate flight from Chicago bound for Dubai via Washington.

The aircraft was called back to the gate in Washington after it was determined al-Soofi was not on the flight with his luggage and was instead on the United flight from Chicago with al-Murisi that landed in Amsterdam.

Among the suspicious items found on the flight was a cell phone taped to a Pepto Bismol bottle and wristwatches taped together.

Al-Soofi lived in the Detroit area until a few years ago. He most recently lived in Tuscaloosa, Ala., where he worked at a convenience store at a Texaco station. Al-Murisi reportedly lived in Memphis.

Tuscaloosa County, Ala., Sheriff Ted Sexton said the FBI contacted his office Monday night as part of its investigation. Sexton said Monday morning that al-Soofi had lived in Tuscaloosa and worked at a gas station there.

“Apparently he’s been here for about six months,” Sexton said. “I’m not aware of anything that has brought him forward on our radar screen.”

Sexton declined further comment, saying the FBI is leading the investigation.
Al-Sadah said that suspicions may have been aroused because he said Yemenis are currently under “the microscope.”

Al-Sadah said that it’s common for Yemeni-Americans to travel with such items when traveling to visit family members because they are often gifts.

He also said the men “did not ship the luggage themselves.”

The law enforcement official cited by the Associated Press said the arrests resulted from heightened alert less than two weeks before the ninth anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks. FBI agents were chasing down leads in Detroit, Birmingham, Ala.; and Memphis, Tenn., a law enforcement official said.

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