Qatari Diplomat in “Shoe Bomb” False Alarm to Leave U.S. Soon

After setting off the biggest mobilization of U.S. counterterrorism agencies since the unsuccessful Christmas Day underpants bombing attempt, Mohammed Al-Madadi is expected to leave the United States voluntarily within the next day or so, according to a senior administration official. Still, as of Friday morning, the Qatari diplomat remained in the country, and Brown Lloyd James, the public-relations firm that represents the Qatari Embassy in Washington, said plans had not been finalized for his departure. “We’re still very much in discussions,” said Alison Bradley, a spokeswoman for the firm, whose principals include a former editor of Britain’s raunchiest tabloid. “There are no negotiations going on,” said the senior administration official, asking not to be named when discussing diplomatically sensitive information.

Al-Madadi was aboard United Flight 663 on Wednesday night, traveling from Washington to Denver, when he left his seat in his flight’s first-class section to go to the restroom. After spending some time there—as long as 15 minutes, some reports suggest—cabin-crew members reportedly became concerned. Some accounts say one member of the crew smelled smoke, either while the diplomat was in the restroom or shortly after he emerged. Federal air marshals aboard the flight were alerted and quickly brought Al-Madadi under their control, though not before he had made an ill-advised remark about setting fire to his footwear (presumably referring to the December 2001 incident aboard a transatlantic airliner that led to the arrest and conviction of “shoe bomber” Richard Reid). F-16 fighter jets were scrambled, according to one official, and escorted flight 663 to its landing at Denver International Airport.

After a thorough search of the diplomat and the plane, no explosives or weapons were found. Federal officials concluded that Al-Madadi’s remark was an attempt at humor. In fact, a law-enforcement official confirms, the diplomat was wearing sandals, not heavier footwear in which a shoe-bomb might be concealed. Asked whether the plane’s smoke detectors worked, or whether they might have been disabled, officials declined to comment. U.S. officials, identifying Al-Madadi as a junior diplomat in his late 20s and a regular on the Georgetown party circuit, describe his conduct aboard the plane as “arrogant” and “stupid.”

According to a statement issued by the embassy’s P.R. firm, “Mr. Al-Madadi was engaged in official Embassy business in traveling to Colorado on April 7, which included planned visits with Qatari college students, and a consular visit with Mr. Ali Al-Marri, a Qatari national incarcerated at the United States Prison, Florence, Colorado.” Al-Marri, an alleged Al Qaeda sleeper agent, pleaded guilty last April to providing material support to terrorism and was sentenced in July to 15 years in prison, with eight years’ time served. The P.R. firm’s statement added that prison authorities had approved the visit to Al-Marri in advance, and said Qatari diplomats had been visiting Al-Marri roughly every month since mid-2009.

The senior U.S. official says that in light of the airliner incident, the administration believes that Al-Madadi’s “ability to function credibly in the U.S. has been compromised.” Had the Qatari government not agreed that the diplomat would leave voluntarily, there were “a number of options available,” in the official’s words. According to another U.S. official, those options included declaring the diplomat “persona non grata,” essentially throwing him out of the country. Still, the administration prefers to avoid that course if possible, reasoning that expelling foreign diplomats can only encourage other governments to do the same to U.S. diplomats who irk a host government.

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