WASHINGTON — The FBI probe of two men arrested in Amsterdam after suspicious items turned up in one of the men’s luggage were probably not on a test run for a future terror attack, a U.S. official said Tuesday, casting doubt on earlier suggestions even as Dutch authorities held the pair on suspicion of conspiring to commit a terrorist act.
The U.S. does not expect to charge the men, a law enforcement official said. The two men arrested in Amsterdam — both traveling to Yemen — did not know each other and were not traveling together, a U.S. government official said.
The officials spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity to discuss the investigation.
The Amsterdam arrests came at a time of heightened alert less than two weeks before the ninth anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks. Before officials began casting doubt on the test run theory, FBI agents were chasing down leads in Detroit, Birmingham, Ala.; and Memphis, Tenn., a law enforcement official said.
Earlier, U.S. officials said they were investigating whether the two men had been conducting a dry run for a potential terrorist attack. But as the probe evolved, officials said that appeared unlikely.
Both of the detained men missed flights to Dulles International Airport from Chicago, and United Airlines then booked them on the same flight to Amsterdam, the U.S. government official said. The men were sitting near each other on the flight, but not together.
The men were not on any U.S. terror watch lists, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs told CNN Tuesday.
When Customs officials discovered one passenger was not on the flight from Dulles to Dubai, they called the plane back to the gate and removed his luggage. It was then they discovered suspicious items in his bag, a cell phone taped to a Pepto-Bismol bottle, multiple cell phones and watches taped together, and a knife and box cutter, according to another U.S. official who had been briefed on the investigation.
Kip Hawley, the former Transportation Security administrator, said it is not unusual to find items like watches and cell phones bound together on flights to countries like Yemen. He said this would always catch the screener’s eye. In 2007, TSA alerted screeners that suspicious items found at U.S. airports may indicate that terrorists were conducting dry runs. Screeners are deliberately on the lookout for such items.
None of the items found on the men or in their luggage violated U.S. security rules. But the items and the men’s changing travel itinerary raised concern that it may have been a deliberate test of the U.S. aviation security system to determine what would raise red flags.
A U.S. official identified the men as Ahmed Mohamed Nasser al Soofi and Hezam al Murisi. Al Soofi had a Detroit address. Alabama’s director of homeland security, Jim Walker, said he had been living in Tuscaloosa, Ala., and working at a convenience store for about the last three months. He said there was nothing that al Soofi had done in Alabama that brought him to the attention of Alabama officials.
Al Soofi was questioned by the U.S. Transportation Security Administration as he went through security in Birmingham, Ala., Sunday on his way to Chicago, one of the officials said. He told the authorities he was carrying a lot of cash. Screeners found $7,000 on him, but he was not breaking any law by carrying that much money. It is not unusual for people to carry large amounts of cash when they travel to third world countries.
Al Soofi was supposed to fly from Chicago to Washington Dulles International Airport in Virginia and then on to Dubai, one of the officials said. But when he got to Chicago, he changed his travel plans to take a direct flight to Amsterdam, while his luggage went on to Virginia.
On international flights, passengers and their luggage must be headed toward the same destination, according to U.S. policy.
Al Murisi also changed his travel plans in Chicago to take a direct flight to Amsterdam, raising suspicion among U.S. officials. Federal Air marshals were on the flight from Chicago to Amsterdam, a law enforcement official said.
The men were arrested Monday morning at Schiphol Airport after getting off a United Airlines flight from Chicago. Under Dutch law, the men can be held without charges for up to six days. No charges have been filed against the men in the U.S., a law enforcement official said.
Homeland Security spokeswoman Amy Kudwa said once officials found suspicious items in luggage associated with two passengers on Sunday night’s flight, they notified the Dutch authorities.
“This could have been a test or it could have been an honest mistake, but the system in this case worked,” said John Sullivan, managing partner of aviation security consulting firm Welsh-Sullivan Group of Dallas.
Security at Amsterdam’s main airport has been boosted this year, after Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, a Nigerian student, flew from Schiphol airport to Detroit on Christmas Day with explosives in his underwear. Abdulmutallab allegedly tried to detonate the explosives over the United States before being grabbed by passengers and crew.
After the Abdulmutallab security lapse, Schiphol ordered 60 new full body scanners to screen passengers flying to the United States. Those who do not pass through the scanners are patted down.