A Qatar embassy official who was detained by federal air marshals for disrupting a flight to Denver Wednesday night was on a diplomatic mission to meet with an al Qaeda agent imprisoned for plotting a post September 11 terrorist attack.
The disruption prompted one key lawmaker to call for the expulsion of the diplomat and ignited warnings that a dangerous air travel security loophole exists for al Qaeda sympathizers.
The official, Mohammed Al-Madadi, was taken into custody by the air marshals during a Washington to Denver flight after he was reportedly caught smoking in the first class lavatory.
Al-Madadi smarted off to the officials suggesting he was trying to ignite a shoe bomb, prompting an F16 jet escort of Flight 663 into Denver International Airport.
Al-Madadi, who has diplomatic immunity, was questioned and released and faces no criminal charges, or the standard $3,300 fine for smoking in an airplane lavatory.
“He should be expelled, we should demand he be recalled and insist that Qatar get him out of the country as quickly as possible,” said Rep. Peter King, New York Republican and ranking member of the House Homeland Security Committee.
Upon learning that Al-Madadi was traveling to meet with Ali Al-Marri, a Qatar citizen who came to the U.S. the day after the September 11 terrorist attack and is now serving eight years at a federal prison in Illinois, King said diplomats needs to face better security screening while traveling in the U.S.
All bags and luggage marked “Diplomatic Pouch” that are carried by foreign embassy officials are excluded from security screening at airports.
“Some countries in the Middle East are sketchy at best, and government officials can be traveling under diplomatic cover and still be al Qaeda sympathizers or affiliated with al Qaeda,” Mr. King said.
“And if they are carrying diplomatic pouches, well, we definitely have to make exceptions in certain cases, and this case certainly drives that home.”
Rather than apologizing for the incident, which was serious enough at the time to warrant an in-air briefing for President Barack Obama aboard Air Force One to Prague, the Qatar ambassador to the U.S. said in a statement the incident was a misunderstanding.
“We respect the necessity of special security precautions involving air travel, but this diplomat was traveling to Denver on official embassy business on my instructions, and he was certainly not engaged in any threatening activity” said Ambassador Ali Bin Fahad Al-Hajri.
“The facts will reveal that this was a mistake, and we urge all concerned parties to avoid reckless judgments or speculation,” the ambassador said.
Jon Adler, president of the Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association, says the situation was handled correctly by federal air marshals and that it should be taken seriously.
“Let’s not be too quick to dismiss this as an arrogant diplomat who thinks the rule of law doesn’t apply to him. Where he was going to raises the hair on the back of my neck just a little more,” Mr. Adler said.
Mr. King says the country of Qatar owes the U.S. an apology, and should pay for all of the expenses of the emergency landing, as well as the cost of scrambling jets from NORAD.
‘If they are going to claim diplomatic immunity, then the government of Qatar should be responsible for what he did,” Mr. King said.
It’s one thing to escape parking violations with immunity, as diplomats in New York City were want to do in the 1990s, but some critics say the official was intentionally flaunting U.S. security rules.
“They are sticking up their middle finger to our aviation security system, saying that it does not apply to them,” said one Transportation Security Administration (TSA) official.
“He’s lucky he wasn’t shot,” the TSA official said.
Debra Burlingame, co-founder of 911 Families for a Safe and Strong America, said Al-Madadi’s actions show a lack of respect for U.S. laws.
“I think Qatar should experience maximum embarrassment over this,” Burlingame said. “At a minimum, it shows on the part of this individual a callousness with our security mission and a lack of appreciation for what we are trying to do to keep this nation safe.”
Added Former Air Marshal Robert MacLean: “After the havoc he caused, Qatar will be smart if they scoop him up and send him home.