DCSIMG

How did he slip through airline security?

IT WAS a chilly, overcast Paris morning when Tariq Raja, bearded and with a straggly moustache, strolled into Charles de Gaulle airport on the outskirts of Paris to check in on American Airlines Flight 63 to Miami.

Those passengers who noticed the tall 28-year-old, travelling on a fake or stolen British passport under the name Richard Colvin Reid, did so without alarm. His behaviour, they said later, was innocuous.

Raja appears to have cleared check-in, security and customs without any obvious hitch. Certainly, the dozen sniffer dogs stationed at the airport paid him no attention and his passport, issued in Belgium three weeks earlier, aroused no suspicion.

No-one spotted that on his feet were a pair of high-top basketball boots with holes drilled in the heels to accommodate the plastic explosive C-4, the same off-white putty-like explosive which killed 17 US sailors and wounded 39 aboard the USS Cole in Yemen last year.

The highly-explosive footwear went undetected despite an alert less than two weeks earlier from the Federal Aviation Administration of just such a possibility. "We are concerned that hijackers may attempt to smuggle disassembled weapons on board an airliner by hiding weapon components within their shoes," warned the civil aviation security memo, circulated to airlines and airports.

At 9.30am, now through the boarding gate, Raja walked on to the plane to take his seat on board the Boeing 767 along with the 184 other passengers and 12 crew.

Half an hour later, with Raja strapped into his seat in row 29, the plane took off.

For more than four and a half hours, nothing much happened. Raja sat quietly and did nothing to attract attention to himself.

It was the keen nose of a stewardess which saved the plane and all those aboard. As the clock ticked on towards 2.40pm, she caught the unmistakable whiff of sulphur which fills the air when a match is struck. The smell was coming from row 29, and she walked down the aisle to investigate.

As she approached she could see Raja was bending forwards, apparently holding a match and trying to set fire to a wire protruding from his shoe. In one of the accounts which emerged from the passengers later he is said to have told her: "I am wired".

Ten rows behind Raja, 36-year-old Parisian television reporter Thierry Dugeon heard the stewardess shout: "I need some help!"

Passengers and cabin crew needed no second invitation. "I was there in five seconds, and there were already two or three guys on him," Dugeon said. "It’s pure instinct, it goes so fast."

As other passengers and cabin crew swarmed around him, Raja went berserk. Lashing out at the hands trying to restrain him, he sank his teeth into a flight attendant’s hand, desperately trying to use his 6ft 4in, 200 lb bulk to break free.

But it was no good. "There were numerous passengers grabbing him. We grabbed his hands and tried to put him under control," Dugeon said.

Behind Raja, another Parisian, Eric Debry, had been asleep alongside his wife and children when he was woken by the smell of smoke. Reaching over the seat, he grabbed the would-be terrorist by the shoulders and pulled his arms back. "I jumped on his shoulder. Two other guys came and took his legs," said Debry. "It was just an instantaneous reaction. I feel lucky to be alive and I feel proud of the passengers."

By 2.42pm it was all over. The passengers held Raja down for around 10 minutes, while others strung together 20 leather belts, which acted as a makeshift restraint. Two doctors then rifled through the plane’s medical supplies and found enough sedatives to subdue the still-struggling man.

Raja’s shoes were removed, wrapped in a blanket and put at the rear of the plane as far away from the passengers and crew as was possible.

Raja’s pockets were searched for clues to his identity, but all that was found was a passport and two audio tapes, which were passed to the pilot.

Raja was asked whether he spoke English, French or Arabic. He claimed to be Jamaican.

At 2.50pm, with the situation apparently under control, but the plane still two hours from the American coast, the captain called Logan International Airport in Boston to inform them that there had been an incident on board. Rather than allow the plane to travel any further than necessary, Logan agreed that it should land there.

While the passengers took it in turns to stand guard over the sedated Raja, the pilot set a new course. An hour after he made contact with Logan, and with the Boeing entering US airspace, two F-15 fighters from Otis Air Force Base on Cape Cod appeared alongside .

Inside the plane the doctors had administered two more injections of sedatives, and Raja remained incapable of causing more trouble.

At 4.30pm Logan closed a runway to all other traffic to allow the Boeing a clear landing. Twenty minutes later it touched down safely, accompanied all the way by the F-15s.

Raja was taken into custody by the FBI, while his shoes were removed for analysis.

The questions, however, were only just starting. How had Raja managed to get through the increased security at Charles de Gaulle and almost detonate explosives powerful enough to have ripped the plane apart? How could American Airlines, one of the airlines whose plane were used in the 11 September attacks, yet again find itself at the centre of a terrorist scare? And just who was the man in row 29?

France’s anti-terror police and DST counter-espionage agency immediately announced that they had launched an investigation. So too did the Americans. Britain’s Foreign Office said it was treating Raja as a British citizen and would seek consular access to him.

Initial reports suggested that Raja was from the Middle East, but French police quickly discounted that theory. The British passport was originally described as "questionable", and later, by US officials, as "bogus".

"For the moment, we do not know how this man got through," said an official for French Border Police, which shares responsibility for security at all airports in France with the Interior Ministry. "He had a British passport, and we’re trying to determine whether it was falsified."

 
 
 

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