Dutch police have arrested two men on a US flight who officials fear may have been staging a terror attack "dry run" after box cutters and a mobile phone taped to a bottle were reportedly found in their bags. American officials told US media outlets that the bizarre incident could have been an attempt to test what items could pass through airport security, in possible preparation for a future attack.
In the hours that followed the arrests, there were conflicting theories about whether the episode was a misunderstanding or a genuine threat. There were also questions about how the men were able to fly to Amsterdam after US airport security official flagged bags belonging to at least one of them. ABC News, which first reported the incident, said the pair was charged with "preparing a terrorist attack," and that US authorities had requested the arrests.
But Dutch airport police would say only that the men were arrested at Schiphol airport yesterday morning "at the request of the judicial police." The US Department of Homeland Security said it had informed Dutch authorities that luggage "associated" with two men travelling from Chicago to Amsterdam included "suspicious items." "This matter continues to be under investigation," a statement said. But the department declined to say whether it had requested the arrest of the two men, and how and why they were allowed to board the flight despite the discovery of multiple suspect objects in at least one of their bags.
A law enforcement official said that neither man had "prohibited items on their persons or their carry-on luggage". The official also said there were federal air marshals on the flight the men took from Chicago to the Netherlands. ABC News identified the men as Ahmed Mohamed Nasser al Soofi and Hezam al Murisi, and said Mr al Soofi was from Yemen, citing one of the man's neighbours. The New York Times, citing a Dutch official, said the men were both of Yemeni descent.
They appear to have boarded United Airlines flight 908 from Chicago, Illinois to Amsterdam despite a slew of security concerns, beginning in Birmingham, Alabama, where Mr al Soofi reportedly started his journey. Airport screeners there stopped him because of his "bulky clothing". They discovered he was carrying $7,000 in cash, and then opened his luggage, ABC News said. There they found a cellphone taped to a Pepto-Bismol bottle, three cellphones taped together and several watches taped together, but because no explosives were discovered, Mr al Soofi was cleared to fly to Chicago.
Several US media sources reported that he then checked his luggage on a flight bound from Chicago for Yemen, with scheduled stops in both Washington's Dulles airport and Dubai. Reports said he and Mr Murisi boarded a flight to Amsterdam, and when officials at Washington's Dulles airport realised that he was not on the same plane as his bag, they recalled the flight and removed the luggage. But The New York Times said Mr Soofi checked his bag onto a Yemen-bound flight from Birmingham, parting ways with his luggage in Alabama rather than Illinois.
Amid limited details about the incident, there were suggestions that it could turn out to be have been an unusual but harmless misunderstanding. Citing US authorities, CBS News said the men were not linked to each other and that investigators were focused exclusively on Mr al Soofi's actions. And the Times quoted a man who said he was Mr al Soofi's cousin as saying his relative's luggage contents were not surprising.
He said Mr al Soofi had likely been taking electronic equipment and medication back home and had simply taped together items intended for the same recipient. "This is our culture," Omar Sufi told the newspaper. * AFP