AMSTERDAM (AFP) – Two US residents of Yemeni descent have been arrested in Amsterdam after flying in from Chicago and staging what officials fear may have been a dry run for a terror attack.
US airport security screeners found suspicious-looking items in the men’s checked luggage late Sunday before they left the United States, including a cellphone taped to a medicine bottle, three cellphones taped together and watches taped together, The Washington Post reported.
One of the men, a 48-year-old, was also carrying 7,000 dollars in cash. US officials notified Dutch authorities that the men’s luggage included “suspicious items,” the Department of Homeland Security said.
Federal air marshals were aboard the flight, which reached its destination without incident, according to US officials.
The pair was arrested early Monday upon landing at Schiphol Airport.
Amid limited details about the incident, there were suggestions it may have been an unusual but harmless misunderstanding.
ABC News reported the bizarre incident may have been an attempt to test what items could pass through airport security by concealing “mock bombs” in their luggage, in possible preparation for a future attack.
But the Department of Homeland Security said in a statement that “the items were not deemed to be dangerous in and of themselves.”
A law enforcement official, requesting anonymity because the investigation was still ongoing, told AFP the men “did not have prohibited items on their persons or their carry on luggage.”
There were also questions about how the men were able to fly to Amsterdam after US airport security officials flagged bags belonging to at least one of them.
ABC News, which first reported the incident, identified the men as Ahmed Mohamed Nasser al-Soofi, of Detroit, Michigan, and Hezam al-Murisi. It said US officials had requested the arrests, a claim not confirmed by the Department of Homeland Security.
ABC also said the pair was charged with “preparing a terrorist attack,” but US law enforcement officials told The New York Times that the men had not been charged and the ordeal may have simply been a misunderstanding.
Dutch airport police declined to provide details of the arrest.
The men appear to have boarded United Airlines flight 908 from Chicago, Illinois to Amsterdam despite a slew of security concerns, beginning in Birmingham, Alabama, where Soofi reportedly started his journey.
Airport screeners there stopped him because of his “bulky clothing.” But because no explosives were discovered, Soofi was cleared to fly to Chicago.
Several US media sources reported that he then checked his luggage on a flight bound from Chicago for Sana, with scheduled stops in both Dulles International Airport — just outside Washington — and Dubai.
Reports said he and Murisi boarded a flight to Amsterdam, and when officials at Dulles Airport realized that Soofi was not on the same plane as his bag, they recalled the flight and removed the luggage.
But The New York Times, which reported both men were US residents, said Soofi checked his bag onto a Yemen-bound flight from Birmingham, parting ways with his luggage in Alabama rather than Illinois.
CBS News said the men were not linked to each other and that investigators were focused exclusively on Soofi’s case.
And the Times quoted a man who said he was Soofi’s cousin as saying his relative’s luggage contents were not surprising.
He said Soofi had likely been taking electronic equipment and medication back home and had simply taped together items intended for the same recipient.
“This is our culture,” Omar Sufi told the newspaper.