St. Petersburg Times Online: World and Nation

Weather | Sports | Forums | Comics | Classifieds | Calendar | Movies

Suspect aroused suspicion on El Al

An airline passenger accused of trying to ignite explosives in his shoes underwent intensive screening in July before boarding an Israeli jet.

Compiled from Times wires

© St. Petersburg Times, published December 29, 2001

An airline passenger accused of trying to ignite explosives in his shoes underwent intensive screening in July before boarding an Israeli jet.

BOSTON -- The airline passenger accused of trying to ignite explosives in his sneakers had a homemade bomb that could have blown a hole in the jet's fuselage, an FBI agent testified Friday at a bail hearing for Richard C. Reid.

Meanwhile, the Associated Press reported that Reid underwent a rigorous body check and had to remove his shoes for special screening before boarding an El Al plane this past summer. Even after no explosives were found, Israel's national carrier considered Reid a top security risk and seated him next to an armed sky marshal in the second to last row, far from the cockpit, according to the AP report, which cited a senior El Al security official.

AP, citing the security official, said Reid apparently flew to Israel last July to try to find weaknesses in the airline's vaunted security system, in preparation for a possible attack on an El Al flight.

The 28-year-old Reid, a British citizen of English and Jamaican descent, appeared at his bail hearing Friday in federal court in an orange jail jumpsuit, his hands shackled.

U.S. Magistrate Judge Judith Dein ordered him held without bail, saying Reid's "violent and assaultive behavior toward the flight attendants" showed he would pose a danger to the public if released.

"The evidence is that the defendant was trying to set off an explosive device on a flight with approximately 183 passengers and 14 crew members on board," Dein wrote. "He acted with callous disregard for the safety of others, and, in fact, appears to have intended to cause them all serious harm, if not death."

She also noted he has at least 16 prior convictions, mostly for theft, and has lived mostly in Europe at various locations for short periods. He told investigators he was never "officially" employed, but worked at construction and as a restaurant kitchen helper, Dein said.

Reid was arrested Saturday after American Airlines attendants saw him try to touch a lighted match to his sneakers during a Paris-to-Miami flight. Reid was overpowered by flight attendants and passengers, and the Boeing 767 was diverted to Boston.

FBI agent Margaret G. Cronin, a specialist in crime aboard aircraft, testified that Reid was carrying "functioning improvised explosives, or, in layman's terms, a homemade bomb."

She said an explosives expert concluded that if the sneakers had been placed against an outside wall and blown up, they "would have blown a hole in the fuselage." Reid was in a window seat.

Cronin said preliminary tests last weekend on Reid's sneakers showed the presence of triacetone triperoxide, TATP, a highly volatile plastic explosive. She said she did not know if the explosive devices in Reid's sneakers could have been detonated with a match, as Reid allegedly tried to do. The high-top hollowed out sneakers are undergoing further tests.

A global investigation is under way to determine whether Reid had any ties to terrorist groups. Authorities have been retracing Reid's travels across Europe and the Middle East and tracking his recent purchases in search of possible ties to terrorists. They said they haven't drawn any conclusions about whether Reid had accomplices. Reid's court-appointed lawyer said she knew of no evidence connecting him to terrorism.

In the Netherlands, authorities said Friday that they were investigating whether Reid bought explosives and sneakers in Amsterdam.

From Amsterdam, Reid boarded an El Al flight to Tel Aviv on July 7. He spent five days in Israel, before traveling to Egypt via the Rafah border crossing at the southern end of the Gaza Strip. From Egypt, Reid apparently returned to Europe on a commercial flight, the Israeli Maariv daily said Friday.

During the preboarding security check, Reid aroused the suspicion of El Al ground personnel, said the airline's spokesman, Nachman Klieman, who would not elaborate on what Reid did to set off warning bells.

AP, again citing the El Al security official, reported that Reid was considered suspicious because of his appearance and because he was traveling only with a hand bag.

El Al profiles passengers, and Arabs and some foreigners routinely come under closer scrutiny. Arabs, including those with Israeli citizenship, usually have their suitcases searched, and some belongings are screened individually for explosives.

Reid was subjected to a "very rigorous check of all the items he was carrying, as well as a personal search, including the removal of shoes and sending the shoes to be checked," Klieman said. "Everything he was carrying was checked."

The search did not allay suspicions and Reid was given a window seat in the back of the plane, with an armed sky marshal next to him in the aisle seat, according to an Israeli source, speaking on condition of anonymity to AP. The AP reported that the source said Israel had received no advance intelligence warnings about Reid.

In London, Metropolitan Police Commissioner Sir John Stevens said Friday that British police also received no word that Reid was a potential security risk.

AP reported that the El Al security official said he believed Reid flew to Israel to check the airline's security arrangements, in preparation for a possible attack on a future El Al flight.

Nery Yarkoni, an Israeli aviation security consultant with clients in the United States, said the close scrutiny given to Reid indicates that profiling works. "What we see is that this guy was actually profiled as one who should be very carefully checked," said Yarkoni, a former head of Israel's Civil Aviation Authority.

Yarkoni said airport security officials must not only focus on techniques, such as trying to anticipate how suspects might try to smuggle explosives aboard a plane.

Yarkoni said blanket, intensive security checks of all passengers, regardless of the risk they pose, are not practical. "Either this will destroy the (aviation) industry or it won't prevent attacks," he said.

Reid has been charged with intimidation or assault of a flight crew, which carries up to 20 years in prison. The FBI has indicated that additional charges are likely. Reid is being held at the Plymouth County Correctional Facility in Plymouth, Mass.

On Friday morning, Reid's mother -- Lesley Hughes of Frome, in southwest England -- told reporters at a news conference that the family needed time to come to grips with the situation.

"As any mother would be, I'm obviously shocked," she said.

- Information from the Associated Press and New York Times was used in this report.

© Copyright, St. Petersburg Times. All rights reserved.