A Qatari diplomat who sparked a bomb scare after surreptitiously smoking in an airplane bathroom was on his way to visit an imprisoned al-Qaida sleeper agent, a spokeswoman for the Qatari embassy said Thursday.
NPR has confirmed that Mohammed Al-Madadi was on his way to Florence, Colo., to visit Ali Al-Marri. Alison Bradley, the embassy spokeswoman, said such consular visits with al-Marri have occurred monthly since the middle of last year, when he was charged with two counts of conspiracy to provide material support to terrorism.
Al-Marri, a citizen of Qatar, is serving eight years in prison after pleading guilty last year to conspiring to support terrorism. He was arrested after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, accused of being a sleeper agent researching poisonous gases and plotting a cyberattack.
While en route to Denver from Washington, Al-Madadi, the diplomat, apparently smoked a cigarette in the airplane bathroom. When questioned about it, he made a reference to lighting his shoes on fire. Federal air marshals then sat with him for the rest of the flight, and he was arrested once the plane landed in Denver. He's since been released.
Gailen David, who has worked as a flight attendant with American Airlines for more than 20 years, told NPR's Melissa Block that smoking on a plane is treated as an inflight disturbance.
"We really treat it the same way that we treat someone who has assaulted a passenger or just has gotten out of control," he said.
Al-Madadi enjoys diplomatic immunity from U.S. prosecution and will not be criminally charged, authorities said. The State Department official said Qatar had not yet informed the administration how it will handle the case, but has assured the U.S. that Al-Madadi will leave the country. U.S. officials expect that to happen Friday.
Wednesday's scare came three months after the attempted terror attack on Christmas Day when a Nigerian man allegedly tried to blow up a Detroit-bound airliner. The Nigerian, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, went to the bathroom just before he allegedly tried to ignite his bomb in his seat. Since then, law enforcement, flight crews and passengers have been on high alert for suspicious activity on airplanes. That scare exposed major holes in the country's national security and prompted immediate changes in terror-screening policies.