03/07/2007

LAX passenger hides objects in his body; bomb squad called

By Andrew Blankstein
Los Angeles Times

Authorities called in the bomb squad early Tuesday and diverted a flight to Las Vegas after Los Angeles International Airport security screeners found hidden wires and other objects in a body cavity of a Philadelphia-bound passenger.

Fadhel Al-Maliki, a 35-year-old Iraqi national living in Atlantic City, N.J., had been flagged by security officials at LAX and was undergoing a secondary "selectee screening" when he set off a metal detector.

Al-Maliki, a former security guard, told screeners that he knew what had triggered the alarm and proceeded to remove items from his rectum, including a rock, chewing gum and thin wire filament.

Larry Fetters, federal security director at LAX, said at news conference that Transportation Security Administration officers had become alarmed because Al-Maliki was acting strange but initially refused to identify the items he had hidden.

Concern that the objects might be components for an explosive device led airport authorities to call in the Los Angeles Police Department and FBI bomb technicians as well as a hazardous material team.

A preliminary investigation appeared to rule out a theory that Al-Maliki may have been looking for weaknesses in security or was rehearsing for a terrorist act, federal and local law enforcement authorities said.

During questioning, Al-Maliki said the objects in his rectum were used to alleviate stress, federal law enforcement sources said.

The rock, authorities said he told them, was from another planet.

As Al-Maliki was being detained, his two bags were loaded on to US Airways Flight 1422, which took off for Philadelphia with 143 passengers and six crew members on board, said Liz Landau, a spokeswoman for the airline.

Federal officials said the bags had been checked for explosives, chemicals and other hazardous materials using the most modern and extensive screening devices available. Even so, they diverted the aircraft to McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas "out of an abundance of caution."

There, passengers were taken off the plane, which was parked away from the terminal.

Passengers had to leave their carry-on bags aboard, and the plane and their luggage were searched, Landau said.

Federal officials also said a search of Al-Maliki's luggage turned up nothing "hazardous or illegal."

"Based on our investigation, there was no threat to Los Angeles International Airport or the airports in Las Vegas or Philadelphia," said Ethel McGuire, the FBI assistant special agent in charge of the Joint Terrorism Task Force.

Airport police briefly blocked access to roads leading to LAX and diverted vehicle traffic. But no other flights were disrupted at the airport, and Terminal 1, the building used by Southwest Airlines and US Airways, remained open.

After several hours of questioning, the FBI determined that Al-Maliki had not committed a crime, but he was turned over to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

At Tuesday afternoon's news conference, authorities said that Al-Maliki had been in the United States legally since 1994 but that federal officials were reviewing his immigration status because he may have outdated information on his green card.

Law enforcement sources said Al-Maliki previously served time in jail for criminal trespassing in Atlantic City.

In addition, he was arrested on suspicion of possession of a destructive device, but the sources said charges were dropped; details of the incident were unavailable.

A law enforcement source close to the investigation said Al-Maliki spent only a day in Los Angeles, arriving Monday afternoon after taking a flight from Philadelphia.

Copyright 2007 Los Angeles Times
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