Questions Remain in Suspicious-Baggage Inquiry of Men Arrested in Holland

U.S. authorities are still not sure what the bottom line is in an investigation that led to the detention in the Netherlands on Monday morning of two Yemeni men who were trying to fly from the U.S. to their homeland.

Several American officials familiar with the case, who asked for anonymity when discussing sensitive information, said evidence is accumulating that the men did not know each other before they were arrested together by Dutch authorities after their Chicago-to-Amsterdam flight landed. Ultimately, some of the officials say, the case could turn out to be a series of misunderstandings, though authorities insist there was sufficient suspicion to open an investigation.

U.S. officials confirm that they asked Dutch authorities to detain and question the men, identified as Ahmed Mohamed Nasser al-Soofi and Hezam al-Murisi, after baggage screeners at the airport in Birmingham, Ala., filed a report that al-Soofi’s baggage contained suspicious items. The Blotter, a blog written by the investigative team at ABC News, reported that some investigators believed the suspicious objects in the bag could have been “mock bombs” and that the men could have been engaged in a “dry run” for a future terror attack.

According to ABC, al Soofi was subjected to extra screening in Birmingham because security officers thought his clothing was “bulky.” Screeners discovered he was carrying $7,000 in cash. ABC said a check of his baggage found it contained a cell phone taped to a bottle of Pepto-Bismol, three phones taped together, several watches taped together, a box cutter, and three large knives. ABC broadcast what U.S. officials acknowledged were confidential government pictures of the suspicious items. A statement by Dutch authorities confirmed key details, describing the suspicious items this way: “Mobile phones were found taped, one phone was taped to a plastic bottle. These phones were seized in the US [and] stayed there.” The  statement said, “Luggage of the flight to Amsterdam was searched, but nothing suspicious was found.”

ABC said the men were charged by Dutch authorities with “preparation of a terrorist attack.” Martijn Boelhouwer, a spokesman for the Dutch public prosecutor’s office, confirmed that police were holding them on such grounds, but said the arrest was made at the request of American authorities and that no formal criminal charges had been filed by prosecutors in Dutch courts. Boelhouwer said that under Dutch law, authorities have three days after their arrests to question the men and decide whether to file formal charges.

U.S. officials close to the investigation said that while the contents of the bag examined in Birmingham were suspicious and led to the men's detention, the material in the bag, however strange, was not illegal. Nor, say U.S. officials, was any trace of explosives detected. Because the bag's contents were not in themselves hazardous or illegal, screeners allowed it to be loaded aboard the passenger's flight, though, after a change of itinerary, the bag ended up at Washington’s Dulles airport and the passenger wound up in Amsterdam. A U.S. official said an American security regulation that required all checked baggage to be matched with boarded passengers was abolished in 2003, although international-flight rules still ban airlines from transporting baggage for passengers who are not confirmed travelers on a particular flight.

American officials say that as they understand the facts as of Tuesday lunchtime, al-Soofi, a permanent U.S. resident, was planning to fly from Birmingham to Chicago O’Hare and change planes to Dubai. Al-Murisi, whose immigration status in the U.S. is unclear—one American official says he may have overstayed his American visa—boarded his first flight in Memphis and also planned to change to the Dubai flight at O’Hare.

The officials said that according to the latest information available, it now appears likely that the men did not know each other. Instead, the officials say what they now think happened was that when the men arrived at O’Hare—a difficult airport to navigate at the best of times—both missed their connecting flight to Dubai. One official said the men were booked together on an alternative routing via Amsterdam because an airline clerk assumed they were traveling together since they were both from Yemen. They were both arrested apparently because they were booked on the same flight at about the same time.

U.S. officials said that at the time the men boarded their flights, there was no listing of either of them in any of the government’s principal terrorist-screening databases, including the no-fly list; the Terrorist Screening Database; a border-control computer known as TECS; or TIDE, the classified master database listing information on terrorism suspects. As of midday Tuesday, officials said no additional information had turned up connecting the men to terrorism.