Jul 21, 2004

NWA Flight 327: June 29, 2004. What's the buzz all about?

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I was forwarded this article from the NY Times today today (thanks ACDC), and it made me want to dig a little deeper, since they said that there are a lot of theories online and elsewhere about what "really happened" on this flight. I have my own thoughts on this, but first I'll post up the article, and then I'll write about it. I should have a link in here somewhere to the original piece that's referenced.

New York Times

July 20, 2004
What Really Happened on Flight 327?

There is no doubt that something out of the ordinary happened on Northwest Airlines Flight 327 from Detroit to Los Angeles on June 29. The plane was met at the airport by squads of federal agents and police responding to radio messages from the pilots about concerns that 14 Middle Eastern male passengers had spent the four-hour flight acting suspiciously.

But was the episode a dry run for a terrorist attack, as is now being widely suggested on the Internet and on talk radio, or an aborted terrorist attack? Or was it an innocent sequence of events that some passengers, overcome by anxiety and perhaps ethnic stereotyping, misinterpreted as a plot to blow up their plane?

The story of Flight 327 was first told in a 3,300-word online article, "Terror in the Skies, Again?" by Annie Jacobsen, a 37-year-old freelance writer from Los Angeles. Ms. Jacobsen's report was published last Tuesday on a Web site for women. It is compelling reading.

I have since spoken at length with Ms. Jacobsen, and also with an official of the Federal Air Marshal Service, who confirmed the gist of Ms. Jacobsen's narrative, if not her interpretation.

On June 29, Ms. Jacobsen; her husband, Kevin; and their 41/2-year-old son were returning home from a family visit in Rhode Island when they boarded a connecting flight in Detroit, Northwest 327. While boarding, both she and her husband became aware of a group of six men of Middle Eastern appearance who followed them on board. One wore a large orthopedic shoe. Two carried what appeared to be small musical instrument cases. One wore a yellow T-shirt and was carrying a big McDonald's sack.

As the Jacobsens settled into their seats, they watched a second group of Middle Eastern men board. These men were in communication with the first group "absolutely from the get-go," Ms. Jacobsen said. Furthermore, she said, "they all seemed to be checking in with the guy in the yellow shirt," who was sitting across the aisle from her.

Mr. Jacobsen, 38, who is the president of an import-and-design company as well as an actor in television commercials, was already feeling uneasy. "When I first got on the flight, my instincts said that something was wrong,'' he recalled. "I did turn to my wife and say, 'We must get off this flight.' " He didn't follow through on that, however, because he didn't want to create a commotion based on a whim, he said.

In great detail, Ms. Jacobsen's article describes the "unusual activity" the men engaged in during the flight. Other passengers and the flight attendants became alerted to it, also. Ignoring the "fasten seat belt'' signs, the men went frequently and in succession to the lavatories, and congregated near the galleys in pairs or threesomes. The man in the yellow shirt gave her a "cold, defiant look" when she caught his eye, she said.

About two hours into the flight, with tension building, her husband decided to approach a flight attendant with his suspicions. The flight attendant said the crew were already aware of the odd behavior, including the fact that parcels like the McDonald's bag were carried into the lavatories.

"She said I was 'right on schedule' with what I was feeling was happening, that she was aware of it, that they were passing notes to each other, that the pilots were aware of it, and that there were people on board who are 'higher up than you or me' that were watching them," Mr. Jacobsen said. He presumed, correctly, that this was a reference to undercover federal air marshals.

Later, as the plane was in its final approach to Los Angeles, at the stage of a flight when even the flight attendants are strapped into their seats, "suddenly, seven of the men stood up in unison," Ms. Jacobsen said. Some walked toward the back lavatories and some toward the front. Two stood by the aircraft door. The flight attendants remained silent, she said.

"I don't have any words to explain how terrified I was" at that point, said Mr. Jacobsen, who added that he clutched a pen in his hand to use as a weapon, while thinking: "I hope I'm not the only one who will react. I hope I don't choke and get scared."

Then the plane landed without a problem. Waiting at the door were officers from the Federal Air Marshal Service, the F.B.I., the T.S.A. and the Los Angeles Police Department. The 14 men were questioned at length and released. The Jacobsens also were questioned for over an hour.

Yesterday, a Federal Air Marshal Service spokesman, Dave Adams, a law enforcement officer for 30 years, said that the suspicious characters on Flight 327 were musicians. The man in the yellow shirt was a drummer, he said.

"We interviewed all 14 of these individuals,'' Mr. Adams said. "They were members of a Syrian band" traveling to a gig at a casino near Los Angeles, he said, adding that their names were run through "every possible" data bank and terrorist watch list. "They were scrubbed. Nothing came back."

Mr. Adams said he spoke by phone to Ms. Jacobsen for 90 minutes on Friday night. "This is an individual's perceptions," he said of her account of the flight. "Obviously, since 9/11, everybody's antennas have risen, and people are very concerned when they see something like this." He said that onboard air marshals did not intervene because the men weren't "interfering with the flight crew."

Even so, he said, he had no doubt that "most of the stuff did happen" as Ms. Jacobsen described it.

Aware of recent reports that the F.B.I. is worried that teams of terrorists may be practicing ways to sneak explosive device parts onto planes and assemble them in flight, Mr. Adams said, air marshals aboard Flight 327 "checked out the lavatories, and nothing looked like it was in disarray after these people went inside; everything was thoroughly inspected."

Ms. Jacobsen isn't convinced. No one has disputed any of her facts, she said, and in an article that she posted on the Web site yesterday, she asked why the Syrian band hadn't been identified. (I couldn't locate them, by the way). She wrote of receiving numerous e-mail messages from airline crew members, several of whom said they believed that terrorist-team dry runs had happened on flights. She said that "political correctness" had become a "major roadblock for airline safety."

I asked her about the inevitable charge that ethnic stereotyping was driving her narrative. "I am simply not a racist," she said. "I travel everywhere. I was just in India, working in a Muslim village. I'm not afraid of any culture. This situation was entirely different. I have never been so terrified."

Imad Hamad, the regional director of the Michigan office of the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, said that he knew nothing more about this incident than what Ms. Jacobsen had reported. "I think this level of high anxiety has been implanted in our hearts and minds, and even those who are good people with good intensions cannot help but to look at things in a very suspicious way," he said. "We've got to be vigilant as citizens, but we also have to be calm."

As for the Syrian band, "They gave their little performance in the casino and two days later they flew out on a JetBlue flight from Long Beach to New York," Mr. Adams said.

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