Montreal Incident Points Up Continuing Gaps in 'No Fly' Rules

After an Aeroméxico passenger's name was found on a U.S. "no fly" list on Sunday and his Paris-to-Mexico City flight was denied permission to enter U.S. airspace, the plane made an unscheduled stop in Montreal, and the passenger was taken into custody. The suspect was a permanent U.S. resident of Somali extraction, according to two U.S. counterterrorism officials who requested anonymity when discussing sensitive information. The case highlights continuing gaps in the U.S. government's no-fly system, which is supposed to prevent people on the list from boarding U.S.-bound flights.

Under current checking procedures the passenger, identified in media reports from Canada as Abdirahman Ali Gaal, would not have been subject to direct preflight screening by U.S. government personnel, according to the two officials, because his plane was not scheduled to land in U.S. territory, only to overfly it. The government currently checks passenger lists against watch lists before passengers are allowed to board any U.S. domestic flights and flights on some international airlines that stop in the United States, but one of the officials says Homeland Security does not expect to fully implement its plan before the end of the year to have government employees vet passengers on all flights scheduled to pass through U.S. airspace, whether or not they are to land. According to one of the officials, the Aeroméxico flight was already in the air, en route from France to Mexico, before U.S. authorities learned about the passenger's presence on the plane. Nevertheless, the official stresses that U.S. authorities got word early enough to divert the plane before it entered American airspace.

The officials tell Declassified that details are sketchy as to precisely why Gaal's name was on a U.S. watch list, but they do not challenge an NBC News report suggesting that he might be a member of Al-Shabab, a Somalia-based jihadist group loosely affiliated with Al Qaeda. NEWSWEEK reported early last year that the FBI was investigating the cases of as many as 20 U.S. residents and citizens of Somali extraction who had disappeared and were believed to have traveled to Somalia to join Al-Shabab or other militant groups there. Despite the suspect's legal status as a permanent U.S. resident, questions exist as to whether he will be allowed back into the country, says one of the U.S. officials—who adds nevertheless that he's not aware of any criminal case or other legal charges pending against the Somali.

Both officials say that contrary to NBC's report, they believe there's no connection between the man taken off the plane in Montreal and a Homeland Security bulletin first mentioned last week by Fox News, advising law-enforcement officials in Texas to be on the lookout for a suspected member of Al-Shabab trying to cross into the United States from Mexico. According to Fox, the warning was circulated to police and sheriff's deputies in Houston after an indictment was unsealed in federal court accusing a Somali in Texas of running a large-scale operation that supposedly smuggled hundreds of illegal Somali immigrants into the United States through South America and Mexico. Fox alleged that some of the illegal Somali immigrants had ties to now defunct militant groups, some of which may have merged into current groups like Al-Shabab. The name of the suspected Shabab member in the Homeland Security bulletin is not the same as that of the Aeroméxico suspect, according to the two officials, who say they think the Somalis in question are two different people. The officials also say they don't know why the Montreal detainee was heading to Mexico, but they say his reason could be perfectly innocent.

Gaal is currently in custody of the Canada Border Services Agency, according to U.S. and Canadian officials. The Web site of Canada's newspaper the National Post quotes an unnamed government official as saying Gaal had previously been barred from Canada for unspecified reasons. Although the border agency has not yet responded to requests for comment, news reports say Gaal is expected to face a Canadian immigration hearing on Wednesday.