Fact Check

Annie Jacobsen 'Terror in the Skies'

Article details reporter's encounter with terrorists on U.S. airline flight.

Published July 24, 2004


Claim:   Passengers encountered by reporter on airline flight were proved to be terrorists making a dry run at assembling a bomb on-board.

Status:   False.

Example:   [Jacobsen, 2004]

On June 29, 2004, at 12:28 p.m., I flew on Northwest Airlines flight #327 from Detroit to Los Angeles with my husband and our young son. Also on our flight were 14 Middle Eastern men between the ages of approximately 20 and 50 years old. What I experienced during that flight has caused me to question whether the United States of America can realistically uphold the civil liberties of every individual, even non-citizens, and protect its citizens from terrorist threats.

On that Tuesday, our journey began uneventfully. Starting out that morning in Providence, Rhode Island, we went through security screening, flew to Detroit, and passed the time waiting for our connecting flight to Los Angeles by shopping at the airport stores and eating

lunch at an airport diner. With no second security check required in Detroit we headed to our gate and waited for the pre-boarding announcement. Standing near us, also waiting to pre-board, was a group of six Middle Eastern men. They were carrying blue passports with Arabic writing. Two men wore tracksuits with Arabic writing across the back. Two carried musical instrument cases — thin, flat, 18 long. One wore a yellow T-shirt and held a McDonald's bag. And the sixth man had a bad leg — he wore an orthopedic shoe and limped. When the pre-boarding announcement was made, we handed our tickets to the Northwest Airlines agent, and walked down the jetway with the group of men directly behind us.

My four-year-old son was determined to wheel his carry-on bag himself, so I turned to the men behind me and said, You go ahead, this could be awhile. No, you go ahead, one of the men replied. He smiled pleasantly and extended his arm for me to pass. He was young, maybe late 20's and had a goatee. I thanked him and we boarded the plan.

Once on the plane, we took our seats in coach (seats 17A, 17B and 17C). The man with the yellow shirt and the McDonald's bag sat across the aisle from us (in seat 17E). The pleasant man with the goatee sat a few rows back and across the aisle from us (in seat 21E). The rest of the men were seated throughout the plane, and several made their way to the back.

[Rest of article here]

Origins:   The above-quoted "Terror in the Skies, Again?" article written by Annie Jacobsen and published on WomensWallStreet.com, in which the author detailed her experience with passengers who were supposedly making a "dry run" bombing attempt on Flight 327 from Detroit to Los Angeles on 29 June 2004 flight, caused quite a stir when it was first released. As summarized by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) from statements given by a number of persons involved with that flight (i.e., other passengers, flight crew members, federal air marshals), thirteen "Middle Eastern men" traveling as passengers Flight 327 were observed behaving "in a suspicious manner that aroused attention and concern":

Briefly, the following events occurred. Thirteen Middle Eastern men were traveling together as a musical group, 12 carrying Syrian passports and one, a lawful permanent resident of the United States of Lebanese descent, purchased one-way tickets from Detroit to Los Angeles. Six of the men arrived at the gate together after boarding began, then split up and acted as if they were not acquainted. According to air marshals, the men also appeared sweaty and nervous. An air marshal assigned to Flight 327 observed their behavior and characterized it as "unusual," but made no further reports at the time.

During the flight, the men again acted suspiciously. Several of the men changed seats, congregated in the aisles, and arose when the fasten seat belt sign was turned on; one passenger moved quickly up the aisle toward the cockpit and, at the last moment, entered the first class lavatory. The passenger remained in the lavatory for about 20 minutes. Several of the men spent excessive time in the lavatories. Another man carried a large McDonald's restaurant bag into a lavatory and made a thumbs-up signal to another man upon returning to his seat.

However, what was lost amidst the hubbub and hysteria engendered by the "Terror in the Skies" article was the fact all the passengers in question were detained by federal and local law enforcement officials, investigated by the FBI and the FAMS (Federal Air Marshal Service), cleared, and released. No matter how suspect their actions might have appeared to observers, none of the Middle Eastern men was arrested or charged with a crime (then or later), no unusual materials were found on their persons or in the airplane, and no information released to the public since then by any of the investigating agencies has claimed or documented that those men were actually terrorists engaged in a "dry run" bombing attempt rather than musicians traveling to a scheduled performace. (The National Review reported that
the Syrians were in fact booked to perform as backup musicians for singer Nour Mehana at the Sycuan Casino & Resort near San Diego two days after arriving in Los Angeles on Flight 327.)

According to federal air marshals who spoke to the press shortly afterwards, Ms. Jacobsen "overreacted" to events:

Undercover federal air marshals on board a June 29 Northwest airlines flight from Detroit to LAX identified themselves after a passenger, "overreacted," to a group of middle-eastern men on board, federal officials and sources have told KFI NEWS.

The passenger, later identified as Annie Jacobsen, was in danger of panicking other passengers and creating a larger problem on the plane, according to a source close to the secretive federal protective service.

"The lady was overreacting," said the source. "A flight attendant was told to tell the passenger to calm down; that there were air marshals on the plane."

The middle eastern men were identified by federal agents as a group of touring musicians travelling to a concert date at a casino, said Air Marshals spokesman

Dave Adams.

Jacobsen wrote she became alarmed when the men made frequent trips to the lavatory, repeatedly opened and closed the overhead luggage compartments, and appeared to be signaling each other.

"Initially it was brought to [the air marshals] attention by a passenger," Adams said, adding the agents had been watching the men and chose to stay undercover.

Jacobsen and her husband had a number of conversations with the flight attendants and gestured towards the men several times, the source said.

"In concert with the flight crew, the decision was made to keep [the men] under surveillance since no terrorist or criminal acts were being perpetrated aboard the aircraft; they didn’t interfere with the flight crew," Adams said.

The air marshals did, however, check the bathrooms after the middle-eastern men had spent time inside, Adams said.

FBI agents met the plane when it landed in Los Angeles and the men were questioned, and Los Angeles field office spokeswoman Cathy Viray said it's significant the alarm on the flight came from a passenger.

"We have to take all calls seriously, but the passenger was worried, not the flight crew or the federal air marshals," she said. "The complaint did not stem from the flight crew."

Federal agents later verified the musicians' story.

'We followed up with the casino," Adams said. A supervisor verified they were playing a concert. A second federal law enforcement source said the concert itself was monitored by an agent.

"We also went to the hotel, determined they had checked into the hotel," Adams said. Each of the men were checked through a series of databases and watch-lists with negative results, he said.

The source said the air marshals on the flight were partially concerned Jacobsen's actions could have been an effort by terrorists or attackers to create a disturbance on the plane to force the agents to identify themselves.

Air marshals' only tactical advantage on a flight is their anonymity, the source said, and Jacobsen could have put the entire flight in danger.

"They have to be very cognizant of their surroundings," spokesman Adams confirmed, "to make sure it isn't a ruse to try and pull them out of their cover."

In May 2007, the Department of Homeland Security Office of Inspector General (OIG) released to the public its March 2006 review of the "Handling of Suspicious Passengers Aboard Northwest Flight 327." Although the OIG report was critical of some of the aspects of the Flight 327 investigation, the report did not claim or offer evidence that the Syrian men on Flight 327 were terrorists, a point the Deputy Administrator of the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) emphasized in that agency's response to the report:

Overall, a key element when considering the response to this incident should be noted, which is that the 13 Syrian musicians were not terrorists and that the law enforcement assessments made by the FAMS and FBI on June 29, 2004 were appropriate.

The decision not to contact the HSOC was decided only after the FAMS and FBI leadership jointly determined that the subjects could be cleared. The reported suspicious activity was determined to be unfounded, and not a terrorist threat ...

Additonal information:  

  The Syrian Wayne Newton The Syrian Wayne Newton   (The National Review)
  The Hysterical Skies The Hysterical Skies   (Salon.com)

Last updated:   28 May 2007

  Sources Sources:

    Jacobsen, Annie.   "Terror in the Skies, Again?"

    WomensWallStreet.com.   13 July 2004.

    Jacobsen, Annie.   "Part II: Terror in the Skies, Again?"

    WomensWallStreet.com.   21 July 2004.

    Leonard, Eric.   "Air Marshals Say Passenger Overreacted."

    KFI News.   22 July 2004.

    Sharkey, Joe.   "What Really Happened on Flight 327?"

    The New York Times.   20 July 2004.

    Smith, Patrick.   "The Hysterical Skies."

    Salon.com.   21 July 2004.

    Taylor, Clinton W.   "The Syrian Wayne Newton."

    The National Review.   21 July 2004.

David Mikkelson founded the site now known as snopes.com back in 1994.

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