I've hesitated to write about the case of two Yemeni men arrested in Amsterdam on suspicion of terrorism, but now that the story appears to be clearing up, it's worth taking a look at what happened.
Here's the play-by-play of how the details unfolded:
- Two Yemeni men, Ahmed Mohamed Nasser al Soofi and Hezam al Murisi, were arrested Monday in Amsterdam at the request of U.S. authorities. They were both flying from Chicago and had both made last-minute changes to their itineraries in order to be on that flight.
- According to the Washington Post, al Soofi also raised suspicions because he was carrying $7,000 in cash (which he declared), and his luggage contained a cell phone taped to a bottle of Pepto-Bismol, several cell phones and watches taped together, and a knife and box cutter. This in particular triggered fears of a "terrorist dry run," though none of the items are prohibited from checked baggage.
- Since the arrest, authorities have determined that the two men did not know each other. Each was scheduled to fly from Chicago to Washington, D.C., (Dulles) before continuing onward to Yemen, but they missed their flights and were rebooked on the same flight to Amsterdam. The suspicious last-minute changes, then, were not exactly by choice.
- Neither man is on any terrorist watchlist.
- The U.S. is not pressing charges, but has not closed the book on the investigation. Authorities still want al Soofi to explain why he taped items together, though the Post reports some of al Soofi's relatives said he packages together items he brings home for family members.
- The Dutch judge released both men, determining "there is no reason for the men to be held any longer or to be considered suspects."
What to make of this incident? One could characterize the security response as an abundance of caution, a sign of airport security working to identify and neutralize potentially volatile circumstances. To a degree, that's accurate. These men initially raised numerous red flags, even though none have turned out to be anything substantial. But hindsight is not a luxury typically available to people making snap judgments about circumstances like this; you can see why the two men attracted attention.
"In this instance, sound judgment led to suspicious items being identified, which triggered automatic security responses by U.S. security personnel," Homeland Security spokesperson Matthew Chandler told USA Today.
Fair enough. But if there was so much suspicion, why did these men fly at all? Why didn't the items in al Soofi's bag trigger some sort of intervention in Chicago or Birmingham, his initial point of origin? The fact that such an accumulation of suspicious circumstances did not prevent them from flying to Amsterdam suggests either a) there was never anything to see here in the first place, or b) some aspect of our domestic security process failed, and exposed U.S. citizens to a threat.
As a traveler and concerned citizen myself, it's this latter uncertainty that worries me. When I spoke to pilot and columnist Patrick Smith this winter, he explained to me that it's bombs, not sharp objects or even liquids that worry him. "Bombs have and always will be the primary threat to aircraft," Smith told me, "and effective screening for bombs and bomb-making materials should be priority number one." To that end, it seems the men passed through several layers of security. The Chicago Tribune reports that screeners looked in al Soofi's bag and determined the items posed no threat. The two men were also observed by behavioral specialists, who saw nothing out of the ordinary.
So my question is, if the items passed through security, why were the men arrested? Does this imply a lack of faith in our screening process? Were the items deemed OK, and the arrest ordered only to investigate the constellation of odd coincidences?
Still, people can and will debate whether or not these men were "testing security" and argue that it's a mistake to let them go. And yes, I share some lingering doubt over the suggestion that these items were taped together for the purpose of gift-giving. But quite frankly, it doesn't matter. The items made it onboard and flew across the Atlantic to Amsterdam, and ultimately the goal of whatever scheme two hypothetical terrorists could be testing probably wouldn't involve reaching Holland at all.
So while people may look for explanations from the men themselves—why tape the items together?—I feel we should look for an explanation from the government. What really happened here, and why, as former FAA security chief Billie Vincent told the Tribune, did the U.S. seem a few steps behind this incident?