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Passenger Likely Not Al Qaeda, U.S. Says

Inquiry: FBI finds no link between the group and a suspect accused of trying to ignite a device in his shoe on a packed airliner. Some feared a 'second wave' of attacks.

December 24, 2001|JOSH MEYER and SEBASTIAN ROTELLA | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

BOSTON — A passenger arrested after allegedly trying to blow up a transatlantic jetliner was identified Sunday as a British citizen who had hidden "two functional improvised explosive devices" in his shoes. Initial indications were that he had acted alone and was not part of a terrorist conspiracy, U.S. authorities added.

Richard C. Reid, 28, was charged in a federal criminal complaint with interfering with flight crew members by assault or intimidation. He is scheduled to make an appearance in U.S. District Court here today--two days after allegedly attempting to detonate the explosives aboard an American Airlines flight from Paris to Miami.

Reid's shoes, described as a pair of high-top sneakers, were flown to the FBI's crime lab in Washington, where initial tests Sunday revealed the presence of the explosives. FBI officials would not characterize what kind of explosives they were or whether Reid had smuggled a high-grade compound known as C4 aboard the plane, as Massachusetts authorities suggested a day earlier. An FBI spokesman stressed that more tests were underway to determine what Reid was trying to ignite when he was subdued by flight attendants and passengers.

Meanwhile, details of that desperate struggle aboard the crowded plane were disclosed in an affidavit filed by an FBI agent in support of the complaint. French authorities confirmed that Reid acted so suspiciously when attempting to board a Miami-bound flight Friday that they had detained him at Charles de Gaulle Airport and questioned him at length--only to let him board Flight 63 the next day.

That flight, with 183 passengers and 14 crew members on board, was diverted to Boston and made an emergency landing at 12:50 p.m. Saturday, escorted by two F-15 fighter jets. Reid remained in federal custody amid heavy security Sunday, and the passengers and crew flew onto Miami after undergoing extensive questioning by the FBI.

The confrontation between Reid and the crew began about 90 minutes after takeoff when flight attendant Hermis Moutardier smelled what she thought was a burnt match; she approached Reid, who put the match in his mouth, the affidavit said.

After alerting the captain, Moutardier returned to find Reid "attempting to set fire to the inner tongue of his sneaker. She then noticed a wire protruding from that sneaker," said the affidavit, which was filed by Special Agent Margaret Cronin and was based on interviews with crew and passengers.

Moutardier "grabbed at" the sneaker and Reid--who is 6-foot-4 and weighs more than 200 pounds--shoved her into a bulkhead, witnesses told the FBI. Moutardier then tried again to grab the shoe, and Reid pushed her to the floor of the plane, prompting several passengers to jump on him in an effort to subdue him, they told the FBI.

After a violent struggle in which Reid bit another flight attendant on the thumb, the suspect was restrained, tied up with passengers' belts and ultimately sedated by two doctors who happened to be aboard, the witnesses said.

The FBI was alerted while the plane was in flight, and counterterrorism authorities in Washington, Britain, France and elsewhere launched what they described Sunday as an intensive investigation into the incident--and into the man claiming to be Reid.

His true identity remained unclear. Despite being listed as Reid--the name on his British passport--in U.S. court papers filed Sunday, French authorities identified him as a Sri Lankan named Tariq Raja. Authorities in London said they believed he is a British national.

After more than a day of questioning Reid and investigating his background, however, authorities said it appeared that the suspect was not acting as part of some larger terrorist conspiracy.

"Everything is always subject to change this early in an investigation, but [FBI investigators] believe he was working alone and not affiliated with any group," one federal law enforcement official in Washington said. Like other authorities, the official stressed that the investigation is continuing and that evidence could surface at any time linking Reid to one of many terrorist cells flourishing in his hometown of London or elsewhere in Europe.

Authorities initially were concerned that Reid's passport may have been altered or fraudulent. The FBI said Sunday that he had obtained a British passport at the British Embassy in Brussels, Belgium, almost three weeks ago.

A French police official said he did not know whether Reid had reported his passport lost or stolen before obtaining a new one.

It is a common tactic of terrorists to get replacement passports at consulates in foreign countries in hopes of concealing past travel that could draw suspicion--particularly to countries, such as Pakistan, that are gateways into terrorist training camps in Afghanistan.

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