Journalist Annie Jacobsen gained a certain degree of fame last year as the woman who wrote about the strange and frightening behavior of a group of Syrian “musicians” aboard a Northwest Airlines flight. She has now written a riveting book, Terror in the Skies: Why 9-11 Could Happen Again about what happened that day and in the months that followed. Jacobsen put her investigative skills to work, and discovered that the harrowing events that took place on her flight were far from an isolated occurrence. She ends her book with a warning: If our security system does not improve, another 9/11 is almost inevitable.
The events of Flight 327, on June 29, 2004, became notorious after Jacobsen described them on WomensWallStreet.com. Jacobsen, her husband, and their four-year-old son boarded Flight 327 in Detroit, the last leg of their flight home to Los Angeles after a family vacation in Connecticut. Settling into their seats, the Jacobsens noticed 14 Middle Eastern men board the plane. Shortly after takeoff, she writes, “The unusual activity began.” One of the men got up and entered the restroom at the front of the coach section, taking with him a large McDonald’s bag. Leaving the restroom, he passed the bag to another man and gave him a thumbs-up sign. For the next hour, the men used the restroom consecutively. They congregated in groups at the rear of the plane. One of them stood in first class a foot from the cockpit door. Two were standing mid-cabin, and two more were standing in the galley, keeping an eye on the flight attendant. Others spent the flight patrolling the aisles, scrutinizing increasingly nervous passengers.
Unable to stand it any longer, Jacobsen’s husband got up and spoke with a flight attendant, who told him the captain was concerned about what was going on, and that there were people on board “higher up than you and me watching”–an apparent reference to federal air marshals. But it got worse: As the plane prepared to land, seven of the men suddenly stood up in unison and walked to the front and back lavatories of the coach-class cabin. One by one, they entered the lavatories, each spending about four minutes inside. Two men stood against the emergency-exit door; another stood blocking the aisle. At the back of the plane, two more men stood next to the bathroom, blocking the aisle. They ignored repeated orders from a flight attendant to sit down. “The last man came out of the bathroom, and as he passed [one of the other Syrians] he ran his forefinger across his neck and mouthed the word ‘No,’” Jacobsen writes.
As they deplaned, the Jacobsens saw two air marshals flash their badges and pull over several of the men. She later learned that representatives of the FBI, the LAPD, the Federal Air Marshals Service (FAMS) and the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) met the plane. But, contrary to protocol, there was nobody from Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the post-9/11 law-enforcement arm of what was once the Immigration and Naturalization Service, which oversees the air marshals. Nor was there anyone to take statements from passengers who’d witnessed the events. The Jacobsens told airport security what they had seen, and eventually told their story to a FAMS supervisor, who directed them to write down their statements and swear to their veracity. It quickly became clear that key elements of the story they (and a flight attendant) told–particularly regarding what the men had done with the McDonald’s bag–conflicted with accounts offered by the Syrians.
The next day Jacobsen was surprised to find no mention of the incident in the newspapers, or of any arrests at LAX. She began doing some online digging–and what she found chilled her. Jason Burke, a correspondent for the London Observer, had written a story a few months earlier headlined “Terrorist Bid to Build Bombs in Mid-Flight: Intelligence Reveals Dry Runs of New Threat to Blow Up Airlines.” Burke described “dry runs” on European flights by terrorists attempting to carry components of explosive devices onto passenger jets hidden in everyday items like cameras and medicine bottles, and assemble them in mid-flight–in restrooms. Burke noted that the United States was aware of these dry runs and that recent British Airways flights from London to Washington had been canceled over fears of such attacks. The French also knew of these attempts after discovering 100 grams of the explosive pentrite hidden in an armrest on a jet arriving in France from Morocco. (In August 2004, barely a month after the Jacobsens’ flight, two civilian aircraft in Russia exploded, killing all 90 passengers and crew. The cause of the explosions? Bombs that had been placed in the planes’ bathrooms by women with links to Chechen terrorists.)
When Jacobsen decided to write about her experience aboard Flight 327, she was contacted by Dave Adams, the head of public affairs at FAMS. Adams insisted that the Middle Eastern men on her flight were “just musicians” from Syria. They’d been questioned by FAMS, the FBI, and the TSA. Their story checked out, Adams said, and none of their names appeared on the FBI’s “no fly” list. Given the evidence that terrorists had been trying to assemble bombs in airliner restrooms, why, Jacobsen asked, had air marshals done nothing about the Syrians’ bizarre behavior–much of it involving restrooms? “Our . . . agents have to have an event to arrest somebody,” Adams explained.
Jacobsen didn’t buy Adams’s “they were just musicians” story, and her gripping account of what happened on Flight 327–”Terror in the Skies, Again?”–was posted on July 12, 2004, on WomensWallStreet. It exploded through the blogosphere, then the mainstream media, spawning intense debate. To some, Jacobsen was a courageous journalist exposing deadly flaws in America’s security system; to others, she was a racist, paranoid mommy with an overactive imagination. Jacobsen’s persistence in pursuing the story angered higher-ups in FAMS, and led to her testimony to the U.S. House Judiciary Committee.
Astonishingly, Jacobsen writes, many of the federal agents who investigated the events of Flight 327 continued to insist that nothing unusual happened. In a sense, this was correct: These dry runs, or probes, apparently happen all the time. In the weeks after she posted her story, Jacobsen received more than 5,000 e-mails–including 250 from commercial pilots, flight attendants, and other airport employees who are forbidden by their employers to talk to the press about similar “incidents.” Gary Boettcher, president of the Coalition of Airline Pilots Associations, told Jacobsen that she’d likely witnessed a “dry run,” and that he’d had many similar experiences himself: “The terrorists are probing us all the time.” Mark Bogosian, an American Airlines pilot, said incidents like the one she described were a “dirty little secret” that airline crew members had known about for some time. Air marshals sent e-mails congratulating Jacobsen for bringing to light “something that had been going on since shortly after 9/11 and was being suppressed.” Many airline employees expressed outrage over security procedures that are lax, politically correct, and likely to lead to another 9/11.
Much blame for these procedures can be assigned to two entities: the Transportation Department and the ACLU. Incredibly, the Transportation Department forbids searches of more than two male Arabs per flight; to search more would be “discriminatory.” This rule is strictly enforced by Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta, who, just ten days after Arab hijackers used jets to murder 3,000 Americans, reminded all U.S. airlines that it was illegal to discriminate against passengers based on their race, color, national or ethnic origin, or religion. To make sure they got the message, Mineta subsequently directed his department to file discrimination complaints against Continental, United Airlines, and American Airlines. (United and American settled their cases for $1.5 million each; Continental, for $500,000.)
In June 2002, the ACLU got into the act, joining forces with the Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee to launch a number of lawsuits over cases of men being removed from jets. The ACLU has also filed a class-action lawsuit against the Department of Homeland Security, claming, among other things, that the “no-fly list” violates passengers’ right to be free from unreasonable search and seizure. The airlines are now working hard to avoid discriminating against anyone else–apparently by allowing unlimited numbers of Middle Eastern men carrying expired visas and mysterious packages to board jets and engage in conduct that terrifies the passengers and crew. “The airlines’ fear of being accused of racial profiling could very well lead us to stand around and wonder, ‘How did we let 9/11 happen again?’” Jacobsen writes.
As Jacobsen began appearing on television, FAMS kicked into high gear, repeatedly denying that anything untoward had occurred on Flight 327 and that it had no “specific intelligence information” that terrorists were conducting dry runs, even as more and more journalists broke stories about them. FAMS spokesman Dave Adams insisted that all 14 of the Syrians had been thoroughly investigated and that they were in the U.S. legally. FAMS employees had followed the Syrians to the casino, he claimed, and then trailed them to their hotel.
The reality, as Jacobsen documents, was that only two of the men were briefly investigated, 13 were traveling on expired visas (the 14th was an American citizen), and nobody had any idea where the “musicians” went after leaving the airport.
Much of the information FAMS gave out about Flight 327 was contradictory, and as Jacobsen continued to write and speak out, frustrated FAMS and FBI spokesmen tried to discredit her, painting the Princeton-educated journalist as a hysterical mother who had become upset at the sight of Middle Easterners on her plane. “That the FBI and FAMS wanted the story to disappear was obvious. And I knew why,” Jacobsen writes. “They made major errors in their handling of Flight 372. The more attention it received, the more would be revealed about how they had bungled the operation.”
Even as they attacked her veracity, seven other passengers from Flight 327 came forward to confirm Jacobsen’s account. One was so frightened by what she witnessed that she no longer travels by air. Others said they were convinced they were about to die. These passengers contacted Homeland Security, the FBI, and FAMS, telling stories similar to Jacobsen’s. Nevertheless, Dave Adams continued to insist that Jacobsen and her husband were the only passengers to complain.
“That so many passengers were terrified underscores how outrageous it was that the government had simply let the fourteen Syrians go based only on their claim that they were a traveling band of musicians with a gig to get to,” Jacobsen writes. (Months later, Jacobsen says, Adams admitted that he’d lied to her about the Syrians’ being followed to the casino and to their hotel.)
Thanks to Jacobsen’s reporting–she wrote 13 additional articles about Flight 327–the House Judiciary Committee opened an investigation into the matter, putting the actions of the Department of Homeland Security, ICE, and other federal agencies under congressional scrutiny. Even then, Jacobsen says, FAMS officials continued to lie about her, about what took place on Flight 327, and about how they’d dealt with the Syrians once the plane landed. They also refused to allow the Judiciary Committee to question the air marshals from Flight 327.
Jacobsen continues to receive e-mails from airline employees relating apparent terrorist probes: Middle Eastern men who arrive moments before boarding, without luggage, and pay cash for one-way flights on which they take photographs and pass objects to one another. She writes of the all but useless “no fly” list that allows suspected terrorists to board while keeping babies and U.S. senators off; of law-enforcement officials not bothering to show up to interview badly behaving passengers despite requests from pilots to do so. In July 2004, a flight attendant e-mailed Jacobsen, telling her that a partially made bomb had been found in a flight-attendant jump seat on an Airbus 330S–discovered because flight attendants heard ticking. And on April 8, 2005, Department of Homeland Security officials discovered that two passengers aboard KLM Flight 685, traveling from Amsterdam to Mexico City, were Saudis who had attended the same flight school as 9/11 hijacker Hani Hanjour. “Will we ever know how often these incidents occur? Twice a year? Once a month? Every day?” Jacobsen asks.
More to the point: What can we do to stop them? What it will take, Jacobsen says, is a strong leader in the Department of Homeland Security–one who will ruthlessly purge the agency of incompetence and out-of-date policies (such as continuing to train flight crews to cooperate with hijackers). The National Intelligence Reform Act, known as the Intel Bill, should also help: It created a new Cabinet-level position, the Director of National Intelligence–someone who will oversee the 15 federal intelligence agencies and presumably teach them the need to share crucial information about terror suspects. Furthermore, the Intel Bill will make it more difficult for airlines–ever mindful of those empty jets in the weeks after 9/11–to hide suspicious incidents from the public. They must now report them directly to the TSA Operations Center as they happen, preventing airlines from making information from these incidents disappear–and pretending people like Annie Jacobsen are crazy.
Jacobsen also recommends that Americans take a leaf from the Israeli intelligence book: The Israelis have not lost a commercial plane to hijackers in 35 years because they engage, not in racial profiling, but in passenger profiling.
Terror in the Skies is based on Jacobsen’s 14 WomensWallStreet columns but also contains much new material mined from confidential government reports and correspondence and from interviews with dozens of pilots, flight attendants, air marshals, and FBI agents. It is a sobering and necessary book–one that ought to be read by anyone planning to fly the increasingly unfriendly skies.
– Anne Morse is a writer living in Unity, Maryland.