Mon, Jul 26, 2004 - Page 7 News List

Arab musicians sparked terror panic

DARK-SKINNED MALES A Syrian singer and his band boarded a plane in Detroit. By the time they got to Los Angeles, they'd been turned into bloodthirsty killers

THE OBSERVER , LONDON

It started as a routine flight from Detroit to Los Angeles. But what followed would plunge the US into another Sept. 11 panic.

A simple, if frightening, account of a plane flight on an obscure US Web site has become something else in the paranoid world of post-Sept. 11 air travel. Annie Jacobsen's tale of flying to Los Angeles with 14 "Middle Eastern-looking" men quickly generated a storm of controversy.

It caused airline whistleblowers to come forward with lurid tales of lapses in security against terrorists.

It threw a spotlight on rumors and warnings of terrorists carrying out dry runs for future hijackings.

But it also revealed an unpleasant underbelly of fear and loathing among ordinary passengers who are terrified of seeing a dark-skinned male face board their plane.

It showed a world in which passengers saw terrorists around every corner and in which an innocent band of Arab musicians going to play a gig were mistaken for suicidal jihadis intent on mayhem.

For Jacobsen, a writer for a finance and lifestyle Web site, the sight of six men of Middle Eastern appearance waiting for her Northwest Airlines Flight 327 from Detroit to Los Angeles was not an initial source of concern.

But when the six men boarded, she noticed eight others were also getting on board. It is then that Jacobsen's controversial account takes on the tone of a cheap airport thriller. Though seated in different places, Jacobsen noticed that all the men knew each other. "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," Jacobsen wrote.

Things soon went from bad to worse. Jacobsen described how the men began making frequent trips to the lavatory.

One took a paper bag inside and then emerged without it. The men would congregate in groups. One man, in a dark suit and wearing sunglasses, was seated in first class in the seat closest to the cockpit door.

Jacobsen said she smiled at one of the men, whom she had exchanged pleasantries with while boarding. "The man did not smile back. In fact, the cold, defiant look he gave me sent shivers down my spine," she said.

Soon, other passengers were scared too. The pilot was informed, flight attendants wrote notes to each other and Jacobsen's husband was assured by one of them that air marshals were monitoring the group.

Just as the plane was cleared to land, suddenly seven of the men jumped up to go to the lavatory at the same time. One female passenger began to cry as the men entered the toilet one by one. In Jacobsen's own words: "The last man came out of the bathroom, and as he passed ... he ran his forefinger across his neck and mouthed the word `No.'"

The plane then landed safely. As relieved passengers disembarked the 14 men were shuffled over to one side where they were taken away for questioning by airport authorities and the police. Jacobsen went to the FBI.

The authorities interviewed her at length. She later found out that the men had claimed to be a musical group.

"Do I think these men were musicians? I'll let you decide," Jacobsen's story concluded.

"But I wonder, if 19 terrorists can learn to fly airplanes into buildings, couldn't 14 terrorists learn to play instruments?" she wrote.

Jacobsen's account was an instant hit. Jacobsen's magazine Web site, Womenswallstreet.com, was soon getting 100 times its normal amount of hits. The story spread rapidly. Jacobsen was interviewed by newspapers, radio shows and television.

This story has been viewed 3213 times.

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