(Orlando, Florida). Spring-break’s second day in the theme park capital was busiest and chaotic at the airport yesterday April 1st, April fool’s day.
A passenger, carrying a ticket on Jamaica Air flight 80 headed to Kingston was nabbed by police at the Orlando International Airport (MCO) a little after noon. The man had components for explosives in his checked bags, but none in his carry-on knapsack.
Of concern to the Transport Security Authorities on-site was his strange demeanor. As spotted by behavior specialists who searched his belongings, he was found carrying materials for a pipe bomb. The unnamed suspect (as of press time) was immediately detained in front of the Jamaica Air check-in area in Terminal A. This check-in counter shared with Virgin Air was quickly shut down, interrupting same terminal flights and creating huge crowds at the MCO.
The behavior detection officer was able to identify the individual upon screening, though his items were already checked in, and based on the suspect’s observation referred him quickly to local authorities. At the end of the day, the traveler was turned over to local law enforcement, the Orlando Police Department (OPD) and the FBI.
As for the behavior detection officers who were concerned, they evaluated him and watched him, checked his bag and found the suspicious items, said the airport security spokesman.
Passengers described the man in question as acting strangely, rocking left to right and almost knocked himself down with a few more steps. At the time of press, his bag was still being investigated. He was being interrogated for his actions and strange behavior and as to why he had pipe-making bombs inside his luggage.
Landside Terminal A was temporarily shut down. Regular travelers described the scene as one they’ve never seen before. Tenants and concession attendants described it as a mob scene of sorts. All lines snaking through the terminals were jammed till around 4 pm since a little after 1.30 pm when the incident broke. Passengers on indirectly affected airlines have been diverted to the other terminal.
Seven flights, primarily of Jamaica Air, Frontier, Air Canada, WestJet were delayed and were relocated to Terminal B. Passengers were evacuated. Inbound flights were delayed.
There was no imminent threat to any person at the airport and terminal. Greater Orlando Aviation Authority’s director of public affairs Carolyn Fennell said the airport has returned to normal operations. “We had about 11 operations that were affected, out of 1,000 total aircraft operations running daily. Some passengers may have been inconvenienced. We moved with a sense of precaution that when something happens, we stop, react, evaluate and resume. We are in the resumption phase now.”
Fennell said, “The key was to contain the incident to have the least impact. It was done in cooperation with the police and airport officials, together with the TSA and the FBI.”
Behavior monitoring has been an active program at the Orlando airport and across the nation, by which people exhibiting deceptive actions are spotted, and immediately referred to secondary screening and law enforcement. The multi-layered approach the aviation security uses nationwide keeps a watchful eye on criminal- and terrorist-related breaches.
MCO has played a key role in the economic development of Central Florida. MCO has become the 28th busiest in the world and 16th in the US as reflected in an independent national survey naming Orlando as the top family spring break destination over Miami and New York.
As a state-of-the-art ‘origination and destination’ airport spanning 14,672 acres, it is the third largest in landmass in the US.
NO ESCAPE from ORLANDO AIRPORT
On matters of homeland security, Orlando Airport has been put on the international map years ago by Jose E. Melendez-Perez, the US customs and border protection officer who blocked an al Qaeda operative from stepping into US soil. In 2001, the Orlando Airport stopped a man who would have joined the Al Qaeda suicide terrorists of the Twin Towers.
Melendez-Perez identified inbound passenger Mohamed Al Qahtani, believed by the 9-11 Commission to be the 20th hijacker missing from the United Airlines flight 913 which went down with 40 passengers and crew near Shanksville, Pennsylvania on the morning of September 11.
The Commission believed that either the White House or the U.S. Capitol were the intended targets of the terrorist flight. Officials say, the Saudi national may have planned to participate in a terrorist attack prior to the MCO entry. In an exclusive interview with eTurbo News, Melendez-Perez recalled his experience. He was THAT secondary inspector who nabbed the terrorist. “Despite Qahtani’s valid passport and visa, he did not speak any English and his paper work was not completed properly – the reason why he was passed on to me by the primary inspector Anne Rampel. I immediately called Washington for assistance with an interpreter certified by the Primary Justice,” he recalled.
Officer Melendez-Perez said his paperwork gave him away, not his identity. “I never place significance on the nationality but on what is presented to me. In this case, I felt something wrong with the way he stared at me. People are polite in interviews; they know they have to comply with the requirements in order to obtain entry to the US. Some can be a little bit nervous when questioned in detail. But Qahtani gave me a piercing look and sounded arrogant. Yes, he was dressed impeccably with dark, long-sleeve, branded shirt, black trousers and polished shoes. He had a military bearing, trimmed moustache and a crew-cut. Having over 12 years in the service, I had not seen someone like him conduct himself in such arrogant and challenging behavior. In a minute, I felt things were not right,” he said.
The officer said he encountered Saudi nationals before, mostly families. But has never had any problems in the past. “I also know a little bit about their customs allowing me to handle all-type situations. Usually when people travel to Orlando, they come as families, rarely as single males unless a businessman comes in before or after the family arrives. This young man came by himself, could not speak English, had no return ticket and hotel reservation.
“When I asked him why he does not have a return ticket, he answered ‘I don’t know where I’m going’ which is a wrong answer. On top, he said he was coming for 6 days and was going to wait 3-4 days before meeting someone. It was strange; his answers just gave him away; the way he conducted himself did not make any sense. I knew he’s not what we call a bonafide traveler for pleasure. I knew he had something like a mission. I stated straight-away that this man is a hit-man,” Melendez-Perez said.
He told eTurbo News during our interview he had no information that Mohamed Atta was trying to reach the suspect he was interrogating. He said that it was something that the 9-11 commission brought up. “I did not have any knowledge that (Atta) was waiting for him upstairs at the airport. When I asked him if someone was waiting for him, he said yes. But when I asked him for the person’s name, he immediately changed his story and blurted ‘no one’s waiting for me’,” he added.
Officer Perez said he never judged the person by the document presented to him. “Stereotyping is not fair at all. Assuming people guilty of something when they are not is not right. Every one deserves equal treatment. However, if one’s hiding something or trying to lie, body language will always give him away. The lips become dry first; the eyes cannot maintain contact – the natural signs will surely come out unless he is trained to deceive you,” said the US Customs and Border Patrol Agent who was honored by the GOAA board for his actions in 2001 in preventing the entry to the US by a would-be al Qaida hijacker.
Qahtani, meanwhile, was sent back to Dubai (on his return flight) for further interrogation that led him to final detention in Gitmo. Same sharpness in detection by an officer led to April Fool’s 2008 incident at the Orlando Airport. Whether the incident would have been terrorist-, criminal-related or one sad case of borderline dementia, the most important of all – it was nipped at the bud by another unsung hero at the MCO airport.