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Quote: Terror in the Skies, Again?
By Annie Jacobsen
A WWS Exclusive Article

Note from the E-ditors: You are about to read an account of what
happened during a domestic flight that one of our writers, Annie
Jacobsen, took from Detroit to Los Angeles. The WWS Editorial Team
debated long and hard about how to handle this information and
ultimately we decided it was something that should be shared. What does
it have to do with finances? Nothing, and everything. Here is Annie's

On June 29, 2004, at 12:28 p.m., I flew on Northwest Airlines flight
#327 from Detroit to Los Angeles with my husband and our young son.
Also on our flight were 14 Middle Eastern men between the ages of
approximately 20 and 50 years old. What I experienced during that
flight has caused me to question whether the United States of America
can realistically uphold the civil liberties of every individual, even
non-citizens, and protect its citizens from terrorist threats.

On that Tuesday, our journey began uneventfully. Starting out that
morning in Providence, Rhode Island, we went through security screening,
flew to Detroit, and passed the time waiting for our connecting flight
to Los Angeles by shopping at the airport stores and eating lunch at an
airport diner. With no second security check required in Detroit we
headed to our gate and waited for the pre-boarding announcement.
Standing near us, also waiting to pre-board, was a group of six Middle
Eastern men. They were carrying blue passports with Arabic writing. Two
men wore tracksuits with Arabic writing across the back. Two carried
musical instrument cases - thin, flat, 18" long. One wore a yellow
T-shirt and held a McDonald's bag. And the sixth man had a bad leg -- he
wore an orthopedic shoe and limped. When the pre-boarding announcement
was made, we handed our tickets to the Northwest Airlines agent, and
walked down the jetway with the group of men directly behind us.

My four-year-old son was determined to wheel his carry-on bag himself,
so I turned to the men behind me and said, "You go ahead, this could be
awhile." "No, you go ahead," one of the men replied. He smiled
pleasantly and extended his arm for me to pass. He was young, maybe late
20's and had a goatee. I thanked him and we boarded the plane.

Once on the plane, we took our seats in coach (seats 17A, 17B and 17C).
The man with the yellow shirt and the McDonald's bag sat across the
aisle from us (in seat 17E). The pleasant man with the goatee sat a few
rows back and across the aisle from us (in seat 21E). The rest of the
men were seated throughout the plane, and several made their way to the

As we sat waiting for the plane to finish boarding, we noticed another
large group of Middle Eastern men boarding. The first man wore a dark
suit and sunglasses. He sat in first class in seat 1A, the seat
second-closest to the cockpit door. The other seven men walked into the
coach cabin. As "aware" Americans, my husband and I exchanged glances,
and then continued to get comfortable. I noticed some of the other
passengers paying attention to the situation as well. As boarding
continued, we watched as, one by one, most of the Middle Eastern men
made eye contact with each other. They continued to look at each other
and nod, as if they were all in agreement about something. I could tell
that my husband was beginning to feel "anxious."

The take-off was uneventful. But once we were in the air and the

seatbelt sign was turned off, the unusual activity began. The man in the
yellow T-shirt got out of his seat and went to the lavatory at the front
of coach -- taking his full McDonald's bag with him. When he came out
of the lavatory he still had the McDonald's bag, but it was now almost
empty. He walked down the aisle to the back of the plane, still holding
the bag. When he passed two of the men sitting mid-cabin, he gave a
thumbs-up sign. When he returned to his seat, he no longer had the
McDonald's bag.

Then another man from the group stood up and took something from his
carry-on in the overhead bin. It was about a foot long and was rolled in
cloth. He headed toward the back of the cabin with the object. Five
minutes later, several more of the Middle Eastern men began using the
forward lavatory consecutively. In the back, several of the men stood up
and used the back lavatory consecutively as well.

For the next hour, the men congregated in groups of two and three at
the back of the plane for varying periods of time. Meanwhile, in the
first class cabin, just a foot or so from the cockpit door, the man with
the dark suit - still wearing sunglasses - was also standing. Not one
of the flight crew members suggested that any of these men take their

Watching all of this, my husband was now beyond "anxious." I decided
to try to reassure my husband (and maybe myself) by walking to the back
bathroom. I knew the goateed-man I had exchanged friendly words with as
we boarded the plane was seated only a few rows back, so I thought I
would say hello to the man to get some reassurance that everything was
fine. As I stood up and turned around, I glanced in his direction and we
made eye contact. I threw out my friendliest
"remember-me-we-had-a-nice-exchange-just-a-short-time-ago" smile. The
man did not smile back. His face did not move. In fact, the cold,
defiant look he gave me sent shivers down my spine.

When I returned to my seat I was unable to assure my husband that all
was well. My husband immediately walked to the first class section to
talk with the flight attendant. "I might be overreacting, but I've been
watching some really suspicious things..." Before he could finish his
statement, the flight attendant pulled him into the galley. In a quiet
voice she explained that they were all concerned about what was going
on. The captain was aware. The flight attendants were passing notes to
each other. She said that there were people on board "higher up than you
and me watching the men." My husband returned to his seat and relayed
this information to me. He was feeling slightly better. I was feeling
much worse. We were now two hours into a four-and-a-half hour flight.

Approximately 10 minutes later, that same flight attendant came by with
the drinks cart. She leaned over and quietly told my husband there were
federal air marshals sitting all around us. She asked him not to tell
anyone and explained that she could be in trouble for giving out that
information. She then continued serving drinks.

About 20 minutes later the same flight attendant returned. Leaning over
and whispering, she asked my husband to write a description of the
yellow-shirted man sitting across from us. She explained it would look
too suspicious if she wrote the information. She asked my husband to
slip the note to her when he was done.

After seeing 14 Middle Eastern men board separately (six together,
eight individually) and then act as a group, watching their unusual
glances, observing their bizarre bathroom activities, watching them
congregate in small groups, knowing that the flight attendants and the
pilots were seriously concerned, and now knowing that federal air
marshals were on board, I was officially terrified. Before I'm labeled a
racial profiler or -- worse yet -- a racist, let me add this. A month
ago I traveled to India to research a magazine article I was writing. My
husband and I flew on a jumbo jet carrying more than 300 Hindu and
Muslim men and women on board. We traveled throughout the country and
stayed in a Muslim village 10 miles outside Pakistan. I never once felt
fearful. I never once felt unsafe. I never once had the feeling that
anyone wanted to hurt me. This time was different.

Finally, the captain announced that the plane was cleared for landing.
It had been four hours since we left Detroit. The fasten seat belt light
came on and I could see downtown Los Angeles. The flight attendants made
one final sweep of the cabin and strapped themselves in for landing. I
began to relax. Home was in sight.

Suddenly, seven of the men stood up -- in unison -- and walked to the
front and back lavatories. One by one, they went into the two
lavatories, each spending about four minutes inside. Right in front of
us, two men stood up against the emergency exit door, waiting for the
lavatory to become available. The men spoke in Arabic among themselves
and to the man in the yellow shirt sitting nearby. One of the men took
his camera into the lavatory. Another took his cell phone. Again, no one
approached the men. Not one of the flight attendants asked them to sit
down. I watched as the man in the yellow shirt, still in his seat,
reached inside his shirt and pulled out a small red book. He read a few
pages, then put the book back inside his shirt. He pulled the book out
again, read a page or two more, and put it back. He continued to do
this several more times.

I looked around to see if any other passengers were watching. I
immediately spotted a distraught couple seated two rows back. The woman
was crying into the man's shoulder. He was holding her hand. I heard
him say to her, "You've got to calm down." Behind them sat the once
pleasant-smiling, goatee-wearing man.

I grabbed my son, I held my husband's hand and, despite the fact that I
am not a particularly religious person, I prayed. The last man came out
of the bathroom, and as he passed the man in the yellow shirt he ran his
forefinger across his neck and mouthed the word "No."

The plane landed. My husband and I gathered our bags and quickly, very
quickly, walked up the jetway. As we exited the jetway and entered the
airport, we saw many, many men in dark suits. A few yards further out
into the terminal, LAPD agents ran past us, heading for the gate. I
have since learned that the representatives of the Federal Bureau of
Investigation (FBI), the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD), the
Federal Air Marshals (FAM), and the Transportation Security Association
(TSA) met our plane as it landed. Several men -- who I presume were the
federal air marshals on board -- hurried off the plane and directed the
14 men over to the side.

Knowing what we knew, and seeing what we'd seen, my husband and I
decided to talk to the authorities. For several hours my husband and I
were interrogated by the FBI. We gave sworn statement after sworn
statement. We wrote down every detail of our account. The interrogators
seemed especially interested in the McDonald's bag, so we repeated in
detail what we knew about the McDonald's bag. A law enforcement official
stood near us, holding 14 Syrian passports in his hand. We answered more
questions. And finally we went home.

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The problem, due to "political correctness" profiling is no longer permitted. Law enforcement is not allowed to check bags and the like in New York, for the Republican Convention, even after the knowledge that the terrorists want to disrupt the up coming elections. WHEN IS THIS COUNTY GOING TO GET IT THROUGH ITS COLLECTIVE HEADS THAT WE ARE AT WAR, LIKE IT OR NOT. I really dont' think the enemy is going to ask whether you are a Bush supporter, Kerry supporter, or an ass hole like Michael "I am a big fat as dork pig" Moore, before they set of the next attack. This is not law enforcement, it is I kill you before you kill me. Jack

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12,811 Posts
My Mom and I talk about this stuff all the time becaue she is a political junkie as well as I am.

We've come to the conclusion that it has to happen again on the 9-11 scale before anyone gets it. Americans might not even get it after that if it did happen. Americans seem more concerned with who is to blame for 9-11 and who should take the fall over it. At least congress is.

Meanwhile terrorists are learning how to get around around our crazy laws.

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2,851 Posts
Cephus said:
This is going to play out until the people that realy count get hurt or a bunch of kids get killed before the lazy fat liberials get it. If we don't start to demand that they get there shizit together we are all at risk. These fanatics want us all dead and won't stop until stoped by force. Profiling? I say if you are of middel eastern disent you better get used to it at every airport to be gone over with a fine tooth comb and an endoscopey up your as%# because that's just the way it is.

I agree! Look at it this way, it is a lot better to profile than it is to dig thousands for graves.

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7,158 Posts
reading this made me think of my last experience flying at the end of April. This has been the first time I have flown since 2000. When I went to go through security in Atlanta the lady looked at my ticket and highlighted some code that was on it and said its your lucky day follow this gentleman. I had to take off my shoes get the handheld wand around every part of my body and because my belt buckle set it off I had to put both thumbs in my pants and pull my pants away from my body so the guy could put a gloved hand in there to make sure there was nothing hiding behind my belt buckle. Then he went through my bag (luckily I was travelling light as I was going to a funeral), he said nothing here you're good to go. Every time after that going through security at any airport I had to take my shoes off and put them on the conveyor belt. I found out the hard way that the shoes I was wearing had steel inserts in them. I promised myself to never wear those shoes again if I had to fly - only to wear tennis shoes. Now for my ramble to tie into the above story. As I was being thoroughly checked out, I watched people that looked way more suspicious than myself going through security. Luckily for me they weren't on my flight. I could see where it would be easy to profile people at the airport, but I am still trying to figure out how they decide who gets checked out thoroughly and who doesn't. I'm not saying they shouldn't do a random search but to print a code on a ticket and to have the lady highlight it and send me with someone to get checked out - do you all think it is because i purchased a ticket online? Strange thing was that all that were being taken aside were white males in the 30-40 year old range (from what I could see of the people before and after me). I'm just glad I got to the airport with plenty of extra time to spare.

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my bet is at least two maby three times before we GET IT and get mad enough to forget mister nice guy and get on the stick. my guess is the next big one is not too far off. just my oppinion

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Discussion Starter · #9 ·

Don't feel bad, with all the stainless steel plates, screws and pins in my arm, thanks to a idiot who plowed into me while on my H-D, I have to go through all that personalized service every time I fly.

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I saw a special on the news last night that was about this incident. Evidentally they let these guys go after about 2 hours of "questioning", not interrogation. To top it all off, everyone of these guys had expired VISAS.

That would've been the longest 4 hours of my life! Profiling? Damn straight. You be the one to decide whether you want to be politically correct the day you get on a plane with a bunch of these guys that crash your plane into a building.

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By Annie Jacobsen
July 19, 2004

Last Tuesday morning, (WWS) published my first-person account of a recent Northwest Airlines flight that I took from Detroit to Los Angeles called "Terror in the Skies, Again?" A heads up about this article went out in our Daily Cents email -- our subscriber newsletter which primarily features financial tips and information for women.

On Wednesday morning, the WWS page views were unusually high, something like 10 times the normal amount. Apparently our readers had been emailing the article to their friends, family and colleagues and everyone was reading it.

By Thursday morning, that number had again multiplied ten-fold. It felt like the shampoo commercial from my youth: they told two friends, then they told two friends, then they told two friends. We sat in the WWS offices reading through your emails, taking stock of what you had to say. As the afternoon went on, the number of people reading the article continued to increase and the telephone was ringing off the hook.

And then a powerful thing happened. The mainstream media started calling.

The following statement was made by Daniel Drezner, an Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of Chicago, on his website

"I received a mass email linking to this disturbing first-person account by Annie Jacobsen... I can say that the e-mail sent to me and other bloggers was cc-ed to movers and shakers in the mediaspere -- Bill Keller, David Ignatius, George Will, Anne Applebaum, and Nicholas D. Kristoff. So they're certainly aware of the story... I'd like to see real journalists dig deeper into this."

Dig they did. NBC was the first major news outlet to contact WomensWallStreet. The producer I spoke with on the telephone said the FBI had confirmed that 14 Syrians were on the flight, they confirmed the details about what happened upon landing in Los Angeles, and they said that the accounts from the flight attendants regarding what happened during the flight matched the accounts given by me and my husband to the FBI after we landed.

Then I spoke with a producer from ABC. She explained that she could not get Dave Adams, Head of Public Affairs of the Federal Air Marshal Services (FAM), on the phone. So she asked me some of the questions that she had wanted to ask him: Where exactly did this band of 14 musicians play? What was the name of the band? Who booked the band and what kind of music did they play? Did anyone follow up and actually witness these 14 men performing at their desert casino gig? I had none of the answers, even though I had asked Adams these exact questions myself when we spoke last week. The ABC producer also asked me other questions which had crossed my mind after hanging up with Adams. Did I know anything about their return flight on jetBlue? Did the men go back to Syria? Did I believe FAM's story?

And I now have another important question... Is there a link between my experience on flight #327 and the arrest of Ali Mohamed Almosaleh by customs agents at the Minneapolis Airport on July 7 (approximately one week after my flight)? Almosaleh was traveling from Damascus, Syria, to Minneapolis on KLM/Northwest Airlines. According to, "Agents found Almosaleh to be carrying what they described as a suicide note and DVDs containing anti-American material."

It was initially reported by that the man "is not known to the intelligence community, and that his name was not on any terrorist watch list." The following day, on, the St. Paul Pioneer Press reported that Almosaleh "had something with him indicating a connection with at least one known terrorist." So, did a more thorough check of the man reveal this critical new information? Remember, according to Adams, FAM checked the 14 Syrian men on my flight against the terrorist watch lists. They found no match, so they let them go. I wonder what might have happened if the 14 Syrians on my flight had been looked into more thoroughly?

Since publishing the first article, I have received dozens of emails from people in the airline industry, including flight attendants, captains and pilots, some of whom I have also spoken with on the telephone. As of Sunday morning, to my knowledge, WWS had received no emails from anyone in the airline industry suggesting that the incident described in my first article did not happen. Here is what some of them are saying, all of it on the record.

Jeanne M. Elliott, Security Coordinator for the Professional Flight Attendants Association (PFAA), which represents the flight attendants of Northwest Airlines, said, "By the uneducated eye, and to those who don't walk in our shoes, it may have been perceived that we were doing nothing, when indeed we were putting the safety and security of those passengers as our first priority."

In a letter sent to WWS, she also states, "...the needs of this nation's flight attendants to adequately perform aviation security functions have been delayed and/or ignored." (Click here to read Elliot's letter in its entirety.)

Gary Boettcher, Member, Board of Directors, Allied Pilots Association, said, "Folks, I am a Captain with a major airline. I was very involved with the Arming Pilots effort. Your reprint of this airborne event is not a singular nor isolated experience. The terrorists are probing us all the time."

During a later phone conversation I had with Boettcher, he told me that based on his experience, it was his opinion that I was likely on a dry run. He said he's had many of these experiences and so have many of his fellow captains. They've been trying to speak out about this but so far their words have been falling on deaf ears.

According to Mark Bogosian, B-757/767 pilot for American Airlines, "The incident you wrote about, and incidents like it, occur more than you like to think. It is a 'dirty little secret' that all of us, as crew members, have known about for quite some time."

Rand K. Peck, captain for a major U.S. airline, sent the following email: "I just finished reading Annie Jacobsen's article, TERROR IN THE SKIES, AGAIN? I only wish that it had been written by a reporter from The Washington Post or The New York Times. My response would have been one of shock as to how insensitive of them to dare write such a piece. After all, citizens or not, don't these people have rights too?

"But the piece was in The [Wall Street] Journal, a publication that I admire and read daily. I'm deeply bothered by the inconsistencies that I observe at TSA. I've observed matronly looking grandmothers practically disrobed at security check points and five-year-old blond boys turned inside out, while Middle Eastern males sail through undetained.

"We have little to fear from grandmothers and little boys. But Middle Eastern males are protected, not by our Constitution, but from our current popular policy of political correctness and a desire to offend no one at any cost, regardless of how many airplanes and bodies litter the landscape. This is my personal opinion, formed by my experiences and observations."

This brings us to the heart of the matter -- political correctness. Political correctness has become a major road block for airline safety. From what I've now learned from the many emails and phone calls that I have had with airline industry personnel, it is political correctness that will eventually cause us to stand there wondering, "How did we let 9/11 happen again?"

During a follow-up phone conversation, one flight attendant told me that it is her airline's policy not to refer to people as "Middle Eastern men." In addition, many emails have come in calling me a racist for referring to 14 men with Syrian passports as Middle Eastern men. For the record, the Middle East is a geographical region called just that: The Middle East. If you refer to people who come from countries in this region (including Syria, Jordan, Israel, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Yemen, Oman, United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Bahrain, Kuwait, Iran, Iraq) as "Middle Easterners," you are being geographically correct. We call people Americans and Canadians and English and French. I call my relatives who live in Norway Norwegians. So really, what is the hang-up?

The fact that I quoted Ann Coulter seems to have many people up in arms. I want to be clear -- there is no political agenda here. I quoted Ann Coulter for the information she had, not for who she is. Read the quote again and pretend Joe or Jane Doe wrote it. She states the facts. The facts she states are that 10 days after 9/11, Secretary of Transportation Norman Mineta sternly reminded airlines that it was illegal to discriminate against passengers based on their race, color, national or ethnic origin or religion.

Perhaps the title of Michael Smerconish's new book sums it up: "Flying Blind. How Political Correctness Continues to Compromise Airline Safety Post 9/11." On June 24, Smerconish testified before the U.S. Senate about the role political correctness plays in protecting airline security in a post-9/11 world. Click here to read his full testimony.
I keep thinking back to a photograph I saw in the Los Angeles Times called "Falling" by Pulitzer Prize winning AP photographer Richard Drew. It'

This picture is haunting. For a long time I kept it in my office. I still think about this picture and I wonder about this man -- his daily life, what he did for work, what he did for play, what his thoughts were about the world. I think about this person. I think about the meaning of "dry run." And then I think about what it means to be politically correct. And I keep coming up blank.
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