Terror In The Skies, Again
By Annie Jacobsen
Editor’s Note: This is a personal account of what happened during
a domestic flight between Detroit and Los Angles written by a staff member
of WomensWallStreet.com. It is a very scary story to anyone concerned
about potential airline terrorism against the US or other western nations.
It is a story about national self-defense, preparedness and how efforts
to be politically correct ultimately undermine your traveling safety.
On June 29, 2004, at 12:28 p.m., I flew on Northwest Airlines flight
#327 from Detroit to Los Angeles with my husband and our young son. Also
on our flight were 14 Middle Eastern men between the ages of approximately
20 and 50 years old. What I experienced during that flight has caused
me to question whether the United States of America can realistically
uphold the civil liberties of every individual, even non-citizens, and
protect its citizens from terrorist threats.
On that Tuesday, our journey began uneventfully. Starting out that morning
in Providence, Rhode Island, we went through security screening, flew
to Detroit, and passed the time waiting for our connecting flight to
Los Angeles by shopping at the airport stores and eating lunch at an
airport diner. With no second security check required in Detroit we headed
to our gate and waited for the pre-boarding announcement. Standing near
us, also waiting to pre-board, was a group of six Middle Eastern men.
They were carrying blue passports with Arabic writing. Two men wore tracksuits
with Arabic writing across the back. Two carried musical instrument cases
- thin, flat, 18" long. One wore a yellow T-shirt and held a McDonald's
bag. And the sixth man had a bad leg -- he wore an orthopedic shoe and
limped. When the pre-boarding announcement was made, we handed our tickets
to the Northwest Airlines agent, and walked down the jetway with the
group of men directly behind us.
My four-year-old son was determined to wheel his carry-on bag himself,
so I turned to the men behind me and said, "You go ahead, this could
be awhile." "No, you go ahead," one of the men replied.
He smiled pleasantly and extended his arm for me to pass. He was young,
maybe late 20's and had a goatee. I thanked him and we boarded the plane.
Once on the plane, we took our seats in coach (seats 17A, 17B and 17C).
The man with the yellow shirt and the McDonald's bag sat across the aisle
from us (in seat 17E). The pleasant man with the goatee sat a few rows
back and across the aisle from us (in seat 21E). The rest of the men
were seated throughout the plane, and several made their way to the back.
As we sat waiting for the plane to finish boarding, we noticed another
large group of Middle Eastern men boarding. The first man wore a dark
suit and sunglasses. He sat in first class in seat 1A, the seat second-closest
to the cockpit door. The other seven men walked into the coach cabin.
As "aware" Americans, my husband and I exchanged glances, and
then continued to get comfortable. I noticed some of the other passengers
paying attention to the situation as well. As boarding continued, we
watched as, one by one, most of the Middle Eastern men made eye contact
with each other. They continued to look at each other and nod, as if
they were all in agreement about something. I could tell that my husband
was beginning to feel "anxious."
The take-off was uneventful. But once we were in the air and the seatbelt
sign was turned off, the unusual activity began. The man in the yellow
T-shirt got out of his seat and went to the lavatory at the front of
coach -- taking his full McDonald's bag with him. When he came out of
the lavatory he still had the McDonald's bag, but it was now almost empty.
He walked down the aisle to the back of the plane, still holding the
bag. When he passed two of the men sitting mid-cabin, he gave a thumbs-up
sign. When he returned to his seat, he no longer had the McDonald's bag.
Then another man from the group stood up and took something from his
carry-on in the overhead bin. It was about a foot long and was rolled
in cloth. He headed toward the back of the cabin with the object. Five
minutes later, several more of the Middle Eastern men began using the
forward lavatory consecutively. In the back, several of the men stood
up and used the back lavatory consecutively as well.
For the next hour, the men congregated in groups of two and three at
the back of the plane for varying periods of time. Meanwhile, in the
first class cabin, just a foot or so from the cockpit door, the man with
the dark suit - still wearing sunglasses - was also standing. Not one
of the flight crew members suggested that any of these men take their
Watching all of this, my husband was now beyond "anxious." I
decided to try to reassure my husband (and maybe myself) by walking to
the back bathroom. I knew the goateed-man I had exchanged friendly words
with as we boarded the plane was seated only a few rows back, so I thought
I would say hello to the man to get some reassurance that everything
was fine. As I stood up and turned around, I glanced in his direction
and we made eye contact. I threw out my friendliest "remember-me-we-had-a-nice-exchange-just-a-short-time-ago" smile.
The man did not smile back. His face did not move. In fact, the cold,
defiant look he gave me sent shivers down my spine.
When I returned to my seat I was unable to assure my husband that all
was well. My husband immediately walked to the first class section to
talk with the flight attendant. "I might be overreacting, but I've
been watching some really suspicious things..."Before he could finish
his statement, the flight attendant pulled him into the galley. In a
quiet voice she explained that they were all concerned about what was
going on. The captain was aware. The flight attendants were passing notes
to each other. She said that there were people on board "higher
up than you and me watching the men." My husband returned to his
seat and relayed this information to me. He was feeling slightly better.
I was feeling much worse. We were now two hours into a four-and-a-half
Approximately 10 minutes later, that same flight attendant came by with
the drinks cart. She leaned over and quietly told my husband there were
federal air marshals sitting all around us. She asked him not to tell
anyone and explained that she could be in trouble for giving out that
information. She then continued serving drinks.
About 20 minutes later the same flight attendant returned. Leaning over
and whispering, she asked my husband to write a description of the yellow-shirted
man sitting across from us. She explained it would look too suspicious
if she wrote the information. She asked my husband to slip the note to
her when he was done.
After seeing 14 Middle Eastern men board separately (six together, eight
individually) and then act as a group, watching their unusual glances,
observing their bizarre bathroom activities, watching them congregate
in small groups, knowing that the flight attendants and the pilots were
seriously concerned, and now knowing that federal air marshals were on
board, I was officially terrified. Before I'm labeled a racial profiler
or -- worse yet -- a racist, let me add this. A month ago I traveled
to India to research a magazine article I was writing. My husband and
I flew on a jumbo jet carrying more than 300 Hindu and Muslim men and
women on board. We traveled throughout the country and stayed in a Muslim
village 10 miles outside Pakistan. I never once felt fearful. I never
once felt unsafe. I never once had the feeling that anyone wanted to
hurt me. This time was different.
Finally, the captain announced that the plane was cleared for landing.
It had been four hours since we left Detroit. The fasten seat belt light
came on and I could see downtown Los Angeles. The flight attendants made
one final sweep of the cabin and strapped themselves in for landing.
I began to relax. Home was in sight.
Suddenly, seven of the men stood up -- in unison -- and walked to the
front and back lavatories. One by one, they went into the two lavatories,
each spending about four minutes inside. Right in front of us, two men
stood up against the emergency exit door, waiting for the lavatory to
become available. The men spoke in Arabic among themselves and to the
man in the yellow shirt sitting nearby. One of the men took his camera
into the lavatory. Another took his cell phone. Again, no one approached
the men. Not one of the flight attendants asked them to sit down. I watched
as the man in the yellow shirt, still in his seat, reached inside his
shirt and pulled out a small red book. He read a few pages, then put
the book back inside his shirt. He pulled the book out again, read a
page or two more, and put it back. He continued to do this several more
I looked around to see if any other passengers were watching. I immediately
spotted a distraught couple seated two rows back. The woman was crying
into the man's shoulder. He was holding her hand. I heard him say to
her, "You've got to calm down." Behind them sat the once pleasant-smiling,
I grabbed my son, I held my husband's hand and, despite the fact that
I am not a particularly religious person, I prayed. The last man came
out of the bathroom, and as he passed the man in the yellow shirt he
ran his forefinger across his neck and mouthed the word "No."
The plane landed. My husband and I gathered our bags and quickly, very
quickly, walked up the jetway. As we exited the jetway and entered the
airport, we saw many, many men in dark suits. A few yards further out
into the terminal, LAPD agents ran past us, heading for the gate. I have
since learned that the representatives of the Federal Bureau of Investigation
(FBI), the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD), the Federal Air Marshals
(FAM), and the Transportation Security Association (TSA) met our plane
as it landed. Several men -- who I presume were the federal air marshals
on board -- hurried off the plane and directed the 14 men over to the
Knowing what we knew, and seeing what we'd seen, my husband and I decided
to talk to the authorities. For several hours my husband and I were interrogated
by the FBI. We gave sworn statement after sworn statement. We wrote down
every detail of our account. The interrogators seemed especially interested
in the McDonald's bag, so we repeated in detail what we knew about the
McDonald's bag. A law enforcement official stood near us, holding 14
Syrian passports in his hand. We answered more questions. And finally
we went home.
Home Sweet Home
The next day, I began searching online for news about the incident.
There was nothing. I asked a friend who is a local news correspondent
if there were any arrests at LAX that day. There weren't. I called Northwest
Airlines' customer service. They said write a letter. I wrote a letter,
then followed up with a call to their public relations department. They
said they were aware of the situation (sorry that happened!) but legally
they have 30 days to reply.
I shared my story with a few colleagues. One mentioned she'd been on
a flight with a group of foreign men who were acting strangely -- they
turned out to be diamond traders. Another had heard a story on National
Public Radio (NPR) shortly after 9/11 about a group of Arab musicians
who were having a hard time traveling on airplanes throughout the U.S.
and couldn't get seats together. I took note of these two stories and
continued my research. Here are excerpts from an article written by Jason
Burke, Chief Reporter, and published in The Observer (a British newspaper
based in London) on February 8, 2004:
Terrorist bid to build bombs in mid-flight: Intelligence reveals dry
runs of new threat to blow up airliners
have conducted dry runs of a devastating new style of bombing on
aircraft flying to Europe, intelligence sources believe.
"The tactics, which aim to evade aviation security systems by placing
only components of explosive devices on passenger jets, allowing militants
to assemble them in the air, have been tried out on planes flying between
the Middle East, North Africa and Western Europe, security sources
"...The... Transportation Security Administration issued an urgent
memo detailing new threats to aviation and warning that terrorists
of five might be planning suicide missions to hijack commercial airliners,
possibly using common items...such as cameras, modified as weapons.
"...Components of IEDs [improvised explosive devices] can be smuggled
on to an aircraft, concealed in either clothing or personal carry-on
items... and assembled on board. In many cases of suspicious passenger
activity, incidents have taken place in the aircraft's forward lavatory."
So here's my question: Since the FBI issued a warning to the airline
industry to be wary of groups of five men on a plane who might be trying
to build bombs in the bathroom, shouldn't a group of 14 Middle Eastern
men be screened before boarding a flight?
Apparently not. Due to our rules against discrimination, it can't be
done. During the 9/11 hearings last April, 9/11 Commissioner John Lehman
stated that "...it was the policy (before 9/11) and I believe remains
the policy today to fine airlines if they have more than two young Arab
males in secondary questioning because that's discriminatory."
So even if Northwest Airlines searched two of the men on board my Northwest
flight, they couldn't search the other 12 because they would have already
filled a government-imposed quota.
I continued my research by reading an article entitled Arab Hijackers
Now Eligible For Pre-Boarding from Ann Coulter (www.anncoulter.com):
"On September 21, as the remains of thousands of Americans lay
smoldering at Ground Zero, [Secretary of Transportation Norman] Mineta
fired off a letter to all U.S. airlines forbidding them from implementing
the one security measure that could have prevented 9/11: subjecting
Middle Eastern passengers to an added degree of pre-flight scrutiny.
reminded the airlines that it was illegal to discriminate against
passengers based on their race, color, national or ethnic origin or
Coulter also writes that a few months later, at Mr. Mineta's behest,
the Department of Transportation (DOT) filed complaints against United
Airlines and American Airlines (who, combined, had lost 8 pilots, 25
flight attendants and 213 passengers on 9/11 - not counting the 19 Arab
hijackers). In November 2003, United Airlines settled their case with
the DOT for $1.5 million. In March 2004, American Airlines settled their
case with the DOT for $1.5 million. The DOT also charged Continental
Airlines with discriminating against passengers who appeared to be Arab,
Middle Eastern or Muslim. Continental Airlines settled their complaint
with the DOT in April of 2004 for $.5 million.
From what I witnessed, Northwest Airlines doesn't have to worry about
Norman Mineta filing a complaint against them for discriminatory, secondary
screening of Arab men. No one checked the passports of the Syrian men.
No one inspected the contents of the two instrument cases or the McDonald's
bag. And no one checked the limping man's orthopedic shoe. In fact, according
to the TSA regulations, passengers wearing an orthopedic shoe won't be
asked to take it off. As their site states, "Advise the screener
if you're wearing orthopedic shoes...screeners should not be asking you
to remove your orthopedic shoes at any time during the screening process. "
I placed a call to the TSA and talked to Joe Dove, a Customer Service
Supervisor. I told him how we'd eaten with metal utensils moments in
an airport diner before boarding the flight and how no one checked our
luggage or the instrument cases being carried by the Middle Eastern men.
Dove's response was, "Restaurants in secured areas -- that's an
ongoing problem. We get that complaint often. TSA gets that complaint
all the time and they haven't worked that out with the FAA. They're aware
of it. You've got a good question. There may not be a reasonable answer
at this time, I'm not going to BS you."
At the Detroit airport no one checked our IDs. No one checked the folds
in my newspaper or the contents of my son's backpack. No one asked us
what we'd done during our layover, if we bought anything, or if anyone
gave us anything while we were in the airport. We were asked all of these
questions (and many others ) three weeks earlier when we'd traveled in
Europe -- where passengers with airport layovers are rigorously questioned
and screened before boarding any and every flight. In Detroit no one
checked who we were or what we carried on board a 757 jetliner bound
for America's largest metropolis.
Two days after my experience on Northwest Airlines flight #327 came
this notice from SBS TV, The World News, July 1, 2004:
"The U.S. Transportation and Security Administration has issued
a new directive which demands pilots make a pre-flight announcement
banning passengers from congregating in aisles and outside the plane's
The directive also orders flight attendants to check the toilets
every two hours for suspicious packages."
Through a series of events, The Washington Post heard about my story.
I talked briefly about my experience with a representative from the newspaper.
Within a few hours I received a call from Dave Adams, the Federal Air
Marshal Services (FAM) Head of Public Affairs. Adams told me what he
There were 14 Syrians on NWA flight #327. They were questioned at length
by FAM, the FBI and the TSA upon landing in Los Angeles. The 14 Syrians
had been hired as musicians to play at a casino in the desert. Adams
said they were "scrubbed." None had arrest records (in America,
I presume), none showed up on the FBI's "no fly" list or the
FBI's Most Wanted Terrorists List. The men checked out and they were
let go. According to Adams, the 14 men traveled on Northwest Airlines
flight #327 using one-way tickets. Two days later they were scheduled
to fly back on jetBlue from Long Beach, California to New York -- also
using one-way tickets.
I asked Adams why, based on the FBI's credible information that terrorists
may try to assemble bombs on planes, the air marshals or the flight attendants
didn't do anything about the bizarre behavior and frequent trips to the
lavatory. "Our FAM agents have to have an event to arrest somebody.
Our agents aren't going to deploy until there is an actual event," Adams
explained. He said he could not speak for the policies of Northwest Airlines.
So the question is... Do I think these men were musicians? I'll let
you decide. But I wonder, if 19 terrorists can learn to fly airplanes
into buildings, couldn't 14 terrorists learn to play instruments?