Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano Thursday praised the actions of federal air marshals who detained a diplomat from Qatar on a flight from Washington, DC, to Denver, Colo., Wednesday.
The diplomat–identified as Mohammed al-Madadi–apparently joked about igniting a shoe bomb after sneaking a smoke in the lavatory of United Airlines Flight 663. After confronting him, air marshals detained him in his seat and then held him for questioning after the flight landed.
"I commend the Federal Air Marshals on board United Airlines flight 663 last night, who swiftly responded to a potential threat to passenger safety while the plane was in flight," Napolitano said in a statement on the actions of the federal law enforcement officers, who are employees of the Transportation Security Administration (TSA).
"These highly trained individuals took appropriate and immediate action to secure the aircraft and communicate the potential threat to authorities on the ground–ensuring that the flight was met by TSA and law enforcement officials when it landed safely in Denver," she added.
Napolitano revealed that she spoke to the air marshals Thursday morning and praised their service and actions in keeping the flight secure. She said it was appropriate to treat every potentially threatening occurrence as a serious threat until resolved as otherwise.
Ironically, al-Madadi was making a routine trip to visit a Qatari citizen convicted of terrorist charges and sentenced to eight years in a prison in Florence, Colo.
Initially, the Embassy of Qatar vehemently defended its diplomat in a statement Wednesday.
"Press reports today regarding an incident aboard a commercial flight from Washington, DC, to Denver, Colorado, indicated that a Qatari diplomat was detained for suspicious behavior," said Qatari Ambassador HE Ali bin Fahad al-Hajri Wednesday.
"We respect the necessity of special security precautions involving air travel, but this diplomat was traveling to Denver on official embassy business on my instructions, and he was certainly not engaged in any threatening activity. The facts will reveal that this was a mistake, and we urge all concerned parties to avoid reckless judgments or speculation," the ambassador added.
Qatar later agreed to remove the diplomat, who faces no charges, from the United States and return him to Qatar.
The role of federal air marshals has come under renewed scrutiny since the attempted Christmas Day bombing of Northwest Airlines Flight 253, where a Nigerian national attempted to blow up a plane traveling from Amsterdam to Detroit, Mich. The flight, considered a high-risk route, contained no federal air marshal, who could possibly have identified and stopped the terror suspect Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab before he threatened the plane.
In response to these concerns, the Department of Homeland Security proposed boosting the number of federal air marshals at TSA in its fiscal 2011 budget submitted to Congress last February. The budget requests $85 million to fund additional air marshals.