For the past several hours I have been watching a drama unfold -- 'watching' via my computer monitor, that is. The story I am about to tell emerged over a period of several hours, during which I monitored Twitter and many news Web sites. What follows is a summary of what is known so far, pieced together from numerous sources -- subject to amendment when information from official sources becomes available.
Earlier this evening there was an incident aboard a United Airlines flight while it was en route to Denver from Washington, DC. It seems that a male first class passenger decided to sneak a smoke in the forward lavatory of the Boeing 757-200, which was operating as United Flight 663. The smoke was noticed, the passenger was confronted by Federal Air Marshals (FAMs), and some sort of verbal exchange followed.
Apparently the behavior and/or statements of the passenger were perceived as suspicious enough that the crew requested that law enforcement officials meet the plane when it landed at Denver. In fact, early news reports suggested that the passenger may have been trying to set fire to his shoe (like the infamous shoe bomber back in 2001), although those reports were later tempered, implying instead that the incident arose from a "misunderstanding" rather than a true threat. (ABC News quoted an unnamed US security official who said the passenger may have made a "sarcastic" comment about lighting his shoes on fire when he was confronted by the FAMs, who had been told by flight attendants that smoke was coming from the lavatory.)
In any case, two F-16s from Buckley AFB were dispatched by NORAD to intercept the United aircraft and escort it during its approach to Denver. Upon arrival, just before 7:00 PM local time, the airliner parked at a 'remote location' at Denver International Airport. The passenger at the center of the drama was taken into custody, and the aircraft was searched for explosives; none were found. The Denver Post reported that the remainder of the 157 passengers and six crew members deplaned and were bused to an airport fire station where they were "interviewed by the FBI."
The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) issued a brief statement about the incident, saying only that "Federal Air Marshals responded to a passenger causing a disturbance on board the aircraft," that the plane had landed safely at Denver, and that the passenger was being interviewed by law enforcement.
At some point along the way, several news media reports said that the suspicious passenger was a diplomat from Qatar. This turned out to be accurate, given that the Embassy of Qatar in Washington, DC released the following statement, via its Web site, a short time ago:
FROM THE AMBASSADOR OF THE STATE OF QATAR TO THE UNITED STATES, H.E. ALI BIN FAHAD AL-HAJRI(Yes, it was all in capital letters, exactly as I have posted it.)
PRESS REPORTS TODAY REGARDING AN INCIDENT ABOARD A COMMERCIAL FLIGHT FROM WASHINGTON, DC TO DENVER, CO INDICATE THAT A QATARI DIPLOMAT WAS DETAINED FOR SUSPICIOUS BEHAVIOR. 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. THE FACTS WILL REVEAL THAT THIS WAS A MISTAKE, AND WE URGE ALL CONCERNED PARTIES TO AVOID RECKLESS JUDGMENTS OR SPECULATION.
Moments before I began to write this post, several news media -- quoting unnamed law enforcement officials -- reported that no criminal charges will be filed against the Qatari diplomat.
UPDATE Apr. 8, 2010: Several news media are reporting today that Qatari government officials have informed the U.S. State Department that the Qatari diplomat who caused last night's incident would leave the United States, probably by the end of this week.
This morning, U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Napolitano issued the following statement about the incident:
“I commend the Federal Air Marshals on board United Airlines flight 663 last night, who swiftly responded to a potential threat to passenger safety while the plane was in flight. These highly trained individuals took appropriate and immediate action to secure the aircraft and communicate the potential threat to authorities on the ground—ensuring that the flight was met by TSA and law enforcement officials when it landed safely in Denver. I spoke to the Air Marshals this morning, and I expressed my appreciation for their vital service keeping passengers around the world safe from potential threats of terrorism—work that nearly always goes unnoticed. We always treat security-related incidents seriously until verified otherwise, and thankfully this incident posed no actual security threat."