The Curious Case of al-Soofi and al-Murisi readers know that I’m usually skeptical (at best) whenever there’s news about having thwarted a terrorist plot or attack.  At least in the United States, it seems that most of these cases the perpetrators are more Keystone Cops than al-Qaeda.  In other words, we’ve been fortunate that most of the would-be terrorists have been dimwitted, for example:

  • The Liberty City Seven, a Miami-based religious group, who had aspirations to destroy the Sears Tower in Chicago, the FBI field office in Miami, television and movie studios in Hollywood, the Empire State Building, and other targets.  However, they had no means whatsoever to do anything they planned (apparently much of the planning was done in a marijuana-induced haze).  Indeed, the group’s only source of money and access to weapons was an undercover FBI agent.  The group’s leader boasted of wanting to wage a "full ground war" against the United States to be "be just as good or greater than 9/11" and to "kill all the devils we can."  As John Stewart quipped, "I believe that if you are going to wage a full ground war against the United States, you need to field at least as many people as, say, a softball team."
  • The Fort Dix Six, who, according to U.S. Attorney Christopher Christie intended "to create carnage at Fort Dix."  The reality is that their alleged plot was amateurish at best.   Fort Dix is a training base for the U.S. Army, which means soldiers on the base are armed or have relatively easy access to firearms.  With roughly 3,000 soldiers on the base and six would-be attackers, you do the math.  So if, on a scale of 1 to 10, the Sept. 11 attacks were a 10, then the Fort Dix plot barely registered a one.
  • And then there’s the underwear bomber, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, who managed to light his pants on fire aboard Northwest Airlines Flight 253 last Christmas.  Hardly the picture of a well-trained al-Qaeda operative.

Which brings us to the tale of Ahmed Mohamed Nasser al-Soofi and Hezem Abdullah Thabi al-Murisi.

The first news stories reported that al-Soofi and al-Murisi were two Yemeni citizens who arrived in Amsterdam on a flight from the United States and were suspects in a conspiracy to commit terrorism.  Officials believed they may have been conducting a dry run for a potential terrorist attack.  Al-Soofi’s checked luggage contained a cell phone taped to a Pepto Bismol bottle, watches taped together, a box cutter, and knives (suspicious, but none of which were a violation of U.S. security rules for checked luggage).  Al-Soofi was also carrying $7,000 in cash (which he made Transportation Security Administration authorities aware of when he went through airport security in Birmingham, AL, on his way to Chicago), but he was not breaking any law by carrying that much money.

The red flag, however, was that both men changed their travel plans in Chicago (al-Soofi was supposed to Washington Dulles and then on to Dubai and presumably then to Yemen).  Instead, they booked direct flights to Amsterdam where they sat together and had connecting flights to Yemen.  Their luggage, however, continued on their original flights to different destinations.

On the surface, it’s easy to see how all of this would arouse suspicion.  The concern is that if the Pepto Bismol bottle was a surrogate for an explosive device (apparently an initial ex post facto test of one item of luggage belonging to one of the men showed the possible presence of trace explosives but a later, more accurate, test did not reveal any signs of explosive material), the cell phone could be the triggering device to detonate the explosive remotely, i.e., while safely aboard another flight (cell phones were used to trigger the bombs used in the 2004 Madrid railway bombings).

Naturally, both al-Soofi and al-Murisi declared their innocence.

However, it only took one day before the notion of al-Soofi and al-Murisi being would-be terrorists on a test run for a potential attack began to unravel.  Although under arrest in the Netherlands, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security issued a statement that the men "have not been charged with any crime in the United States, and we caution you against jumping to any conclusions."  And not long after that, al-Soofi and al-Murisi were released without charge. According to Dutch prosecutors, "Investigations in the U.S. and the Netherlands have shown that there is no longer any indication of an possible involvement of the men in any crime."

So what happened?

The real linchpin in the theory that al-Soofi and al-Murisi were conducting a trial run terrorist attack was that they changed flights in Chicago to the same flight going to Amsterdam and sat next to each other.  But it turns out that they didn’t change their flights.  Both men missed their connecting flights out of O’Hare Airport and the airline (United, in this instance) re-booked them on the flight to Amsterdam as a waypoint to Yemen.  And although al-Soofi and al-Murisi were sitting next to each other, they were not together (by all accounts, they do not know each other).  So it seems that this wasn’t some intricately planned plot to not fly on the same plane as their luggage which contained a Pepto Bismol "bomb," but instead just an accident of happenstance.  (If the idea was simply not to be on the same plane as the fake bomb, it would have been easier to just not board the connecting flight, leave the airport, and then call the cell phone to trigger the explosive device.)

In the aftermath of the underwear bomber, there was much ado about how security had failed.  Predictably, there was a hue and cry for more security (one result being the introduction of full body scanners at airports).  However, in the Quixotic quest to eliminate risk with perfect security, we all too easily overlook false positives – which the case of al-Soofi and al-Murisi appears to be.  But how many people have been incorrectly identified as terrorist threats?  To be sure, there will always be false positives but how many should we be willing to accept?  And what freedoms and rights have been abridged as a result?  Sadly, these are inconvenient truths we still refuse to acknowledge – let alone address – because we continue to let fear dictate and believe that security trumps everything else.

Author: Charles V. Peña

Charles V. Peña is a senior fellow at the Independent Institute, a senior fellow with the Coalition for a Realistic Foreign Policy, a former senior fellow with the George Washington University Homeland Security
Policy Institute
, an adviser to the Straus Military Reform Project, and an analyst for MSNBC television. Peña is the co-author of Exiting Iraq: Why the U.S. Must End the Military Occupation and Renew the War Against al-Qaeda and author of Winning the Un-War: A New Strategy for the War on Terrorism.