Suspicious behaviour of Imams ordered off plane was premeditated to provoke removal and litigation
December 13, 2006
Ordering imams off flight was a reasonable act
By Katherine Kersten, Star TribuneUS Airways' treatment of the six imams on Flight 300 on Nov. 20 is being widely portrayed as a discriminatory act against pious men who were just practicing their religion. The imams' only mistake was "flying while Muslim," charges the Muslim American Society Freedom Foundation. "If up to now [Americans] don't know about prayers, this is a real problem," said Omar Shahin, one of the six and president of North American Imams Federation, whose conference the group had attended in Bloomington.
But the incident involved far more than prayers. A "suspicious" pattern of behavior unfolded that day, according to the airport police report, handwritten witness statements attached to that report and US Airways spokeswoman Andrea Rader.
Based on what they knew at the time, the crew and law enforcement officials made reasonable decisions to safeguard the passengers in their care.
The incident began with the imams praying very loudly, almost shouting, according to Rader and a witness statement attached to the police report. (The report does not name any witnesses.) One passenger on Flight 300 observed something else. The imams "seemed angry," and had a "heated discussion" by the ticket counter, he wrote in his statement. The men spoke about the U.S. and "killing Saddam," and two of the men then swore under their breath.
The imams' demeanor changed markedly when boarding was called, the passenger reported. "The men then chanted, 'Allah, Allah, Allah!'," he wrote in his witness statement. "They walked in line for the flight, composed and calm, very different than they had been behind the wall/screen of the desk."
A second passenger, who wrote in his statement that he often travels to the Middle East, also found the imams' conduct "atypical for my experience with Muslims, including ... the way in which they observed their prayers."
But while many passengers observed the imams at prayer, not one passenger refused to board the plane, or apparently even mentioned the matter to US Airways personnel at the time, according to Rader.
Once the imams were on the plane, the crew noticed some of them switching seats. Two sat in first class, though a gate agent had, according to a statement, earlier rejected Shahin's request for a second first class seat, since none were available. One imam "stood at row 4C and pretended to be blind" in an apparent effort to persuade another passenger to switch seats, an off-duty flight attendant wrote in a statement. (The imams claim that he is blind.)
The imams ended up spread out: two in the front of the aircraft, two in the middle, and two in the rear. The 9/11 hijackers used this configuration, which potentially allows control of the area around the cockpit door and all the exit rows, according to Rader. Shahin, the group's leader, sat in seat 1D, closest to the cockpit.
As time passed, several passengers, including an Arabic speaker seated near one of the imams, approached the crew to report suspicions.
Three imams requested seat belt extensions, which increased the crew's concern. "I did not see they actually needed them," one off-duty flight attendant said of two of them in a statement. "They were not overweight."
The extensions are used by people who can't make the regular belts fit. The three imams who requested extensions weighed in, according to the police report and Rader, at 6 feet 1 inch and 201 pounds, 5 feet nine and 170 pounds, and 6 feet and 230 pounds.
An extension is a belt with a heavy buckle that can be turned into a weapon by being wrapped around a fist or used as a noose to take a hostage, according to Rader. After the imams deplaned, crew members discovered extensions -- not affixed to the seatbelts, but rolled up and placed beneath the seats, Rader said.
One passenger, whom the police report describes as "clergy," purposely struck up a conversation with an imam seated next to him. "I travel to Turkey frequently and know many Muslims personally," he wrote in his statement. The imam "expressed views I consider to be extreme Muslim fundamentalist views." The man discussed the problems of countries that don't observe sharia (Islamic law). "He indicated that it was necessary to go to whatever measures necessary to obey all that's set out in the Qur'an," the passenger wrote.
Clearly, pilot John Howard Wood had to weigh many factors in deciding to ask the imams to get off the plane. He consulted with his flight crew, the US Airways ground security coordinator, and the airline's security office in Phoenix. All thought the imams' behavior was suspicious, according to Rader. The captain learned during these discussions that three imams apparently had only one-way tickets and only one had checked luggage -- suspicious factors after 9/11. The subsequent investigation suggests that they may have changed their reservations, which wouldn't have been apparent at the time, says Rader.
Airport police and a federal air marshal were dispatched to the gate. Officer Brad Wingate wrote in his report: "[T]he request for seatbelt extensions, the prior praying and utterances about Allah and the U.S. in the gate area and the seating configuration chosen among the traveling group was suspicious." The FBI instructed airport police to detain the imams for questioning, according to Wingate's report, and the Secret Service participated.
The imams deny engaging in suspicious behavior. But "we are absolutely backing this crew," says Rader.
The airline's pilots' union agrees. "The crew's actions were strictly in compliance with procedures and demonstrated overall good judgment in the care and concern for their passengers, fellow crew members, and the company," said Captain Barry Kendrick, chairman of the pilots' Air Carrier Security Committee.
Thousands of Muslims pray and fly in America every day. The incident on Flight 300 wasn't about prayer.
Katherine Kersten • kkersten@ startribune.com
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