A Qatari diplomat who reportedly caused an airline scare Wednesday night was headed to a consular visit with a jailed al-Qaida agent, sources told the Associated Press.
The diplomat reportedly caused commotion on a flight from D.C. when he took a bathroom smoke break, sources told NBC News. Initially, there were reports of a man trying to light an explosive, but no bomb was found on the plane. NBC's Pete Williams reported the man was smoking in the bathroom.
A State Department official and another person close to the matter said Mohammed Al-Madadi was going to meet Ali Al-Marri for an official visit. Consular officials frequently visit foreigners held in the United States to make sure they are being treated well.
United Airlines Flight 663 from Reagan National Airport was 20-30 minutes from Denver when someone on the flight smelled smoke and alerted federal air marshals, who saw a man in his 20s emerging from the bathroom, reported Jonathan Dienst, of WNBC in New York. According to early reports, when questioned, he said he was trying to light his shoe on fire, but some sources have said he may have been misunderstood and simply said he'd extinguished a cigarette on his shoe.
Marshals notified the pilot, who declared an on-board emergency, sources said. F-16s were scrambled and escorted the jet to Denver, where the plane was taken to a secure area.
Violating the federal smoking ban can be punishable by a fine of more than $3,000, and federal authorities are investigating, but a law enforcement official told the Associated Press that the diplomat will not face criminal charges. Authorities do not believe he meant any harm.
The ambassador of Qatar to the U.S., H.E. Ali Bin Fahad Al-Harji, said Al-Madadi, the embassy's third secretary, was traveling to Denver on official embassy business.
"He was certainly not engaged in any threatening activity," Al-Harji said. "The facts will reveal that this was a mistake, and we urge all concerned parties to avoid reckless judgments or speculation."
The diplomat will be sent home or transferred to another country for touching off the bomb scare, officials told the AP.
Al-Madadi's position is a relatively low-ranking one at diplomatic posts. An online biography on the business networking site LinkedIn shows that a Mohammed Al-Madadi has been in Washington since at least 2007, when he began studying at George Washington University's business school. The job title listed on the site is database administrator at Qatar's Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
The flight, a Boeing 757, landed safely in Denver just before 9 p.m. It left Reagan National at 5:34 p.m. Its final destination was Las Vegas. The plane carried 157 passengers and six crew members, according to Mike Trevino, of United Airlines. No one was injured.
Dave Klaversma, 55, of Parker, Colo., told the AP his wife, Laura, was sitting behind the man in the first-class section of the plane. She said she saw him go into the bathroom and that moments later he said something to the flight crew. After that, two federal air marshals in first class apprehended the man and sat next to him for the remainder of the flight.
Klaversma said his wife told him it all happened very quietly and that "there was no hysteria, no struggle, nothing."
Some passengers said they didn't notice any disturbance during the flight. Scott Smith, 61, of Laramie, Wyo., said he realized something unusual was going on during the approach.
"We came in rather fast, and we were flying low for a long period of time," Smith, a computer programmer, told reporters by cell phone. "I've never seen a jetliner do that. There were no announcements, nothing about your carryon bags or tray tables."
Once on the ground, Smith said, the pilot eventually announced that "we have a situation here on the plane."
Passengers said they were kept on the plane for nearly an hour after it landed and then were questioned by officials. Many were still trickling into the baggage area five hours after the plane landed.
Melissa Nitsch, of D.C., told the AP everyone aboard was questioned by the FBI before being released. Agents asked if they'd witnessed anything and for basic personal information.
"Everyone is pretty happy this situation is over," Nitsch said. "If you have to be stuck in a situation like this, it pretty much went perfectly."
President Barack Obama was briefed about the incident while on his way to Prague aboard Air Force One, said a White House official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss an ongoing investigation.
Qatar, about the size of Connecticut and Rhode Island combined with a population of about 1.4 million people, is an oil-rich Middle East nation and close U.S. ally. It is situated on the Arabian peninsula and surrounded by three sides by the Persian Gulf and to the south by Saudi Arabia. The country hosts the forward headquarters of the U.S. Central Command, which runs the wars in both Afghanistan and Iraq, and is a major supporter of operations deemed critical to both campaigns. It also played a prime role in the 1991 Gulf War, which drove Saddam Hussein's Iraq out of Kuwait.
Law enforcement, flight crews and passengers have been on high alert for suspicious activity on airplanes since a Nigerian man tried to blow up a Detroit-bound airliner on Christmas Day.