Special Report

Rashomon in the Skies: The Tangled Tale of Flight 327

What happened on the now infamous June 29 Northwest Airlines flight from Detroit to Los Angeles starring 13 Syrian musicians? Are terrorists sizing up our commercial aviation for another strike?

By 8.5.04

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No one yet has the full story on the infamous June 29 Northwest Airlines Flight #327 from Detroit to Los Angeles, on which thirteen Syrian musicians acted so suspiciously that passenger and WomensWallStreet.com writer Annie Jacobsen feared she was about to be killed by terrorists. The identity of the band remained unknown for a while until I identified them as the backup band for Canaanite crooner Nour Mehana, whom I dubbed the "Syrian Wayne Newton."

Regardless of the behavior of Nour Mehana's band, Ms. Jacobsen's story has focused international attention on the very serious issue of terrorists sizing up our commercial aviation for another strike. She has been getting the full Paula Jones treatment for her trouble.

Critics gleefully hang Ms. Jacobsen's fear on a moral defect: a hidden and unacknowledged racism. She felt fear, you see, because deep down, she is really a bad person. And also because she is "bigoted and paranoid" (per Salon.com's Patrick Smith), and a "sniveling little twit" (from leanleft.com), and because girls tend to get hysterical and overreact. It's their hormones. It's why they can't be president.

I told my wife that, and she overreacted.

But it's not just the amateurs on left-wing blogs gunning for Ms. Jacobsen. Anonymous "federal officials and sources" told Los Angeles radio station KFI that "[t]he lady was overreacting," More recently she tangled with the Syrian ambassador to the United States, who repeatedly called her a "paranoid racist." It's always reassuring when officials of Syria's government and of our own sing from the same hymn book.

The opposite of paranoia is complacency -- in this case, a refusal to grapple with mounting evidence that hostile forces still stalk our skies. The Washington Post reported that air marshals had observed and filed reports on 192 instances of "potential terrorists" probing and testing aircraft between September 11, 2001 and January 2, 2003. Recent news, such as a Middle Eastern passenger removing a mirror from a plane's bathroom wall in order to break into the cockpit, and the capture of a suspected al Qaeda hotshot trying to fly to New York from Texas, suggests that our airliners and our resolve are still being tested.

For those who assume it's paranoid to suppose that a musical group might practice espionage, here's one better: How about an entire film crew? We know it can be done, because we've done it. During the Iranian hostage crisis, a CIA team infiltrated Iran disguised as a Canadian film company.

But don't take my word for it. You know who else thinks there's a terrorism risk posed by some Middle Eastern bands? Nour Mehana's tour manager. But more about him in a second.

LEFTISH PUNDITS ARE ALSO attacking the notion that political correctness had something to do with the way that Flight 327 unfolded. And it's true that "PC" can be a convenient scapegoat for outcomes conservatives dislike. But that's not the case here.

The funny thing about flight 327 is that something very much like it happened before. When it did, Northwest Airlines reacted very differently. Consider the case of Northwest Airlines Flight 979, traveling from Memphis to Las Vegas on Sept. 11, 2002. The behavior of three passengers on that flight was not that much more suspicious than that of the Swingin' Syrians on Flight 327.

Flight 979 had matching shaving kits; Flight 327 had a McDonald's bag. Flight 979 happened on the anniversary of 9/11; during Flight 327, DHS had issued an "unusually specific internal warning" that mentioned potential terrorist activity in both Detroit and LAX. But on Flight 979, the men were challenged by flight attendants. When they refused to obey, the plane landed in Little Rock and the men were arrested for "interfering with a flight crew in furtherance of their duty."

Had Nour Mehana's band been ordered to sit down but failed to comply, they might be spending the next 20 years serenading the fashion show in Leavenworth. But the confrontation and order never came, and the plane continued to its destination. Whatever you think of the decisions the two flight crews made, it seems clear that they were faced with two similar scenarios, but made very different choices. Why the change in policy? What intervened?

Lawsuits and pressure, especially from the ACLU, and fines from the Department of Transportation.

A few days after the September 11 attacks, Northwest expelled three Middle Eastern men from a flight in Salt Lake City. The Utah Attorney General's office publicly condemned the violation of civil rights and extracted an apology from Northwest, and one of the men sued the airline. On Christmas Day of 2001, Northwest ejected a Pakistani immigrant named Harris Khan from a boarded aircraft in Minneapolis. They had to apologize, pay a monetary settlement, and reeducate the pilot in civil-liberties sensitivity. Another "Flying while Arab" case involved Arshad Chowdury, who also sued Northwest Airlines for discrimination with the help of the ACLU.

Perhaps Northwest's culture has changed in response to these suits, although a former Northwest employee who worked in Customer Relations (and preferred to remain anonymous) also fingered Department of Transportation sanctions as another likely cause: "Northwest was gun-shy of being slapped with a bunch of fines by the DOT if we were too stern with customer complaints -- especially with militant minorities like Middle Eastern folks...So I felt that it was necessary to kowtow to customers of any stripe who would complain to the Dept. of Transportation so as to avoid fines. Once that kind of bad politics seeps into an organization or event, everyone feels that they are on notice to handle certain kinds of passengers with 'kid gloves.'"

Regardless of the merits of these suits and sanctions, it is difficult to imagine that they had no effect on Northwest's corporate culture over time. They were intended to punish and change the peremptory way Northwest dealt with minority passengers. But they may have pushed Northwest too far in the other direction, leaving the flight attendants scared even to enforce the rules and ask unruly Arabs to take a seat.

THANKS IN PART TO MS. JACOBSEN, there is now a reawakened concern over the potential for terrorism on commercial aircraft. The House Judiciary Committee has held emergency sessions to get to the bottom of the law enforcement response to the situation, and federal agencies seem to be actively running down the story of Flight 327.

James Cullen, who booked Nour Mehana's act at Sycuan Casino, declined further comment by e-mail: "Clinton I was asked by homeland sercurity [sic] not to talk to the press...we have to protect nour mehana from any negative stuff...Please do not divulge his number" And Elie Harfouche's former business partner has received three visits from two FBI agents at her home in Connecticut since the story broke.

Wait, who is Elie Harfouche?

Mr. Harfouche was the promoter for Nour Mehana's tour in America. He was on flight 327, and currently is in Lebanon but requested his former partner contact me on his behalf. (Blogger and professor of history H.D. Miller helped me verify some information about Elie Harfouche. Check out Miller's erudite and wide-ranging blog here.)

At his request, his former partner (who asked not to be identified) contacted me and provided the following list of the musicians who were traveling on Flight 327:

Minas Lablbjian
Ammer Sawas
Ziad Mlais
Nabil Anwar
Huuan El Waez
Saad Idlbi
Youssef Alajati
Mohamad Nahhas
Manaf Al Ibrahim
Edmond Derderian
Adbullah Hkwati
Tarek Alfaham

(My speculation in the NRO article that the passenger in seat 1A was Mr. Mehana was incorrect. The band was flying out to join Mehana in Los Angeles for the trip to Sycuan casino.)

Nour Mehana, she added, is a Middle Eastern superstar, equivalent in fame to Frank Sinatra.

"Or Wayne Newton?" I asked. Yes, or Wayne Newton.

I asked about the suspicious behavior of the band and the former partner acknowledged that it was quite likely they were being rowdy and disorderly. They were on tour 24-7, she said, with very little sleep and lots of drinking and partying. She did not think Ms. Jacobsen's account of their actions was at all implausible. She cited cultural differences language barriers as a likely source of the misunderstanding. "In the Middle East they're not disciplined to follow orders, and to stand in line...They're proud of who they are," she explained. "It's an Arab thing."

I asked columnist Michelle Malkin, who has covered this story from the beginning on her blog, to pass along a picture of Elie Harfouche along to Annie Jacobsen, without identifying who it was. I also sent along a ringer: a picture of Al-Jazeera journalist Elias Harfouche (no relation). This way the test was blinded so she couldn't know that one of them definitely was on the plane, and one of them wasn't.

And Ms. Jacobsen declined to comment.

MR. HARFOUCHE WAS ALARMED to learn he was being discussed as a potential terrorist. I telephoned him in Lebanon and he was adamant that he would contact his lawyer as soon as he returned to America, probably at the end of August.

Mr. Harfouche, a singer himself, came to America from Sweden in 1998. He is a dual citizen of Lebanon and Sweden and lives in New Jersey. In 2000 he opened an entertainment business has booked several Middle Eastern acts. Mr. Harfouche is a Maronite Catholic who attends Our Lady of Lebanon Church in Brooklyn.

In his version, not much happened on Flight 327. One of the band went back to the bathroom to discard a McDonald's bag, it was too small to fit in the garbage chute, so he gave it to a flight attendant to get rid of. He didn't remember Ms. Jacobsen from the flight -- in fact he couldn't recall her name -- but he was not aware of anyone being scared in the cabin. "She said we were doing strange stuff? That's bullsh*t. No, we're busy, we were tired and sleeping the whole way. That's it." Why, then, was Ms. Jacobsen so terrified? "Maybe she had something against Middle Eastern people."

I mentioned that some other people had written in to confirm her account, but he was quite firm that the band's demeanor on the flight was not that different from the other passengers'.

He did not remember the man in a suit and sunglasses whom Ms. Jacobsen saw in first class. No one in the band was in first class, he's certain, and they were all traveling comfortably in T-shirts and jeans and sandals, not suits. About the only point of agreement with Ms. Jacobsen's account of the flight was a confirmation of the man with the limp -- one singer is handicapped and wears some sort of brace on his foot.

What about everyone standing up at the end of the flight? According to Mr. Harfouche, it didn't happen. I took a multicultural tack with him and mentioned I'd read in the New York Times that the rules were different on Middle Eastern flights, and that perhaps some of these guys weren't used to our rules. "What? No. When the light is on and the plane lands, you sit in your seat. Everybody knows that."

When the FBI met them, he said, the agents were laughing and one of them admitted to him that "this was ridiculous" and that "one lady got scared." "I said, no, do your job. I'm happy when they do their job." Mr. Harfouche was surprised to hear the reports that he had been traveling on an expired visa. "We had extensions," he told me. "The proof was that the FBI looked at our visas and let us go."

Mr. Harfouche noted that these men had already been through a rigorous visa application process with the U.S. embassy in Syria. Each man was individually interviewed by several different agencies. He has never had an application refused, he says, and wants to keep it that way. So he pre-screens the musicians in-country before even starting the visa process.

Mr. Harfouche's story is so at odds with Ms. Jacobsen's that it will keep people guessing for quite a while, until perhaps more witnesses come forward. While I don't endorse all of the conclusions Ms. Jacobsen drew, or didn't quite draw, there are three witnesses -- her husband, who was writing things down in his journal, plus two anonymous passengers who have spoken up -- that corroborate her account of the events and, also, the mood of Flight 327.

The behavior of the flight attendants she describes indicates they also suspected something bad was up. And if the flight crew really thought the only problem on the flight was Ms. Jacobsen's hysteria, why would they summon the FBI, the TSA, Air Marshals service, and the LAPD to await them at their destination airport? Four agents, not four agencies, would have been sufficient to get her off the plane.

ANOTHER MEMBER OF THE Nour Mehana tour was Atef Kamel, an American citizen who works at the Nile Restaurant in North Bergen, New Jersey. He was born in Egypt and has been in America since 1987; he has worked with many Arabic stars such as Lebanese diva Feyrouz. The Nile confirmed he was recently on tour with Mr. Mehana. I spoke with Mr. Kamel and he confirmed that the band had played in various American cities: San Diego, Chicago, Anaheim, San Francisco, and Detroit, among others. Mr. Kamel was the manager for the tour and also worked as an emcee at the events. He traveled with this band on several occasions and met them at the gate in LAX. Like Mr. Harfouche, Mr. Kamel was insistent that all the trouble on Annie Jacobsen's flight arose from the McDonald's bag the drummer, Alfaham, carried back to the bathroom.

According to Mr. Kamel, the drummer told him the McDonald's bag contained "McDonald's." It was too big to fit in the bathroom trash can, so the drummer brought it back out. Someone noticed this, said Mr. Kamel, and the FBI was waiting for them as they came off the plane. They let them go on after an hour and a half -- "It was nothing." The whole band told the same story to Mr. Kamel as soon as the Feds released them.

It's not surprising the band didn't tell the trip manager anything more incriminating they might have done on the flight that might have alarmed the passengers and crew and had the FBI waiting to meet them. But since the band first arrived in Washington, D.C., on May 30, until the last concert at the Nile on July 4 (after which the band returned to Syria out of JFK), Mr. Kamel was with them constantly and never knew them to go to the bathroom together or "act weird."

Mr. Kamel had planned a month-long tour for Nour Mehana. But when the band arrived in the U.S. they were mistakenly issued visas for only a week, to Mr. Kamel's consternation. So they applied for and received extensions to their visas to finish out their trip. (Homeland Security now affirms that the band's paperwork was in order.)

I asked Mr. Kamel about the lyrics to a song called "Um al Shaheed" -- "Mother of a Martyr" -- that Mr. Mehana has recorded. It is not about suicide bombers, he insisted, but about soldiers who die in battle. Besides, if Mr. Mehana didn't do that old standard, "the people wouldn't like him." Mr. Kamel was raised Muslim but is now Catholic; he stated that suicide bombing bars you from heaven in both religions. "If you kill yourself, you're evil."

And on this subject Mr. Kamel said something I didn't expect him say: there are Middle Eastern bands out there with ties to terror groups. "I am a proud Arab American," he said. "But I don't deny there are some bad people" out there. He then named a couple of singers -- I will demur from repeating their names, but they appear to be quite prominent in Middle Eastern music -- whom he said had tried to enter the United States but were turned down because of alleged connections to [radical] Shi'a or to Hezbollah. One of them played at a party linked to Hezbollah. A rockin' affair that must have been.

Mr. Kamel has no problem with keeping terror-linked bands out of the United States. "That's how I like it!" he said. "Check them out and stop them over there -- if there's a problem, don't even let them in." He also welcomed surveillance of the bands while in the United States: "You have to have some people follow [the bands] around, so you don't leave people behind. You don't want to come over with 14 and leave with 12."

In case you missed that: A successful promoter with intimate knowledge of the Middle Eastern music scene admits that a few connections exist between Islamic terrorists and musicians, and that care is warranted in screening the musicians' visits to the United States. For those of you in the "mere paranoia" camp: Denial isn't just a nightclub in New Jersey.

When I told Mr. Kamel some of the details of Ms. Jacobsen's article, however, he was not impressed. "This reporter wants to make something from nothing," he said. "That's not nice. No, that's not nice." I mentioned to him that ABC's Good Morning America had contacted me to try to book Nour Mehana on their show, and he paused. "As the good guy, or the bad guy?"

He was not on the flight, but his account of the passengers on Flight 327 differs in some important respects from Ms. Jacobsen's and confirms Mr. Harfouche's. Mr. Kamel does not remember anyone in the band with a limp or an orthopedic shoe. And, like Elie Harfouche, he denies the man in the dark suit and sunglasses in seat 1-A was with the band. "No one flies first class except Nour Mehana," who wasn't on the plane.

Who was the dude in 1-A, then? Sharp dresser, stood in front of the cockpit door, fluently chatted up the Arab contingent on the plane...my next guess would be this was an Air Marshal. Or maybe he was just a fan.

IN HER FIRST ARTICLE, ANNIE Jacobsen asked why, if terrorists can learn to fly airplanes, they cannot also learn to play musical instruments. This new information doesn't answer that entirely fair question. In fact, given potential ties between certain musical groups and terrorist groups, it makes the question all the more critical.

All of which begs the question of why Nour Mehana's entourage wasn't simply dealt with, firmly but politely, by the flight crew. They were scared enough to call the FBI to meet the plane, but apparently they were not permitted to enforce federal regulations in flight. "I expect that no one came up and asked them to sit down, so how would they know they were creating a problem?" wondered the former business partner.

As New York Times business columnist Joe Sharkey noted, cultural differences are important to understanding this matter. I agree, and should I visit Syria, I would try to learn and accommodate that country's laws and customs as best I could, to avoid giving offense or alarm. Similarly, this country also has laws and customs that govern air travel and, under the real threat of terrorism, following these rules is more than just a matter of civility. It's deadly serious.

Mr. Harfouche's former partner may be right that the band's behavior was just "an Arab thing." But even the Islamic newswire Alt.muslim offers a "note to Arabs flying in groups in the US: don't play out your worst stereotypes."

It's still a free country. But the dry runs are real. And, there's a war on. Look, gentlemen, play your music, and enjoy your time in America. All we ask is that you don't act like terrorists. We don't tolerate that anymore.

It's an American thing.

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