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Florida Is Gripped by Terrorist Scare

Tension: Comment sets off a massive police response. It's the latest unsettling incident in U.S. in a week marked by a high state of alert.

September 14, 2002|JOHN-THOR DAHLBURG and STEPHEN BRAUN | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

THE EVERGLADES, Fla. — An overheard comment in a Georgia coffee shop sparked a massive law-enforcement response in southern Florida on Friday, shutting down a major highway for most of the day while authorities questioned three men and searched their cars for explosives.

By day's end, no munitions were found, the men were released and a jittery nation eased after the latest in a series of suspected terrorist sightings proved to be false alarms during a week lived under a state of high alert.

From tense first moments to anti-climactic finale, the Florida episode played out all day on cable news channels--the culmination of a weeklong string of incidents involving Arab Americans and other minorities caught up in the spiraling tensions of the anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks.

The incidents diverted airborne passenger jets, emptied airport terminals and left Arab Americans fuming about overreactions by police and concerned citizens--a vivid example of the civil rights perils complicating the effort to heighten homeland security.

The Florida case was sparked Thursday by a nurse who told police she heard the three men at a Calhoun, Ga., coffee shop vowing to "make America cry," and provided descriptions and license plate numbers. Following an alert from Georgia authorities, the men were stopped late Thursday night a few miles east of Naples on Interstate 75, a remote section of highway known as Alligator Alley.

For nearly 13 hours, teams of federal and Florida law enforcement authorities held the three men--two Arab Americans and a foreign student--under guard in a police van on the highway. Automated robots and demolition experts in padded, fire-retardant suits spent hours combing two cars for traces of munitions until officials finally acknowledged the men were not terrorists, but medical students driving south for a training session.

Charges Possible

At dusk, the men were released and drove east along the Everglades highway toward Miami.

Unamused police officials said the men could still be charged in Georgia for concocting a prank that led nurse Eunice Stone to report them as terrorism plotters. "If this is a hoax, they will be charged," said Collier County Sheriff Don Hunter.

The men denied they had said anything that could be construed as a threat.

In Washington, government officials said they have been prudent in moving quickly to investigate what they perceived initially as legitimate threats--even when they ultimately turn out to be harmless.

"The FBI and law enforcement authorities receive tips from the public, and it is our obligation to follow up and respond to them," said an FBI official who spoke on condition of anonymity. "I think the American public is glad to see that we respond in these situations and take them seriously."

But officials were accused of recklessness and abusing the civil liberties of citizens by the Illinois relatives of one of the Arab American students held in Florida.

"He's a caring person, he wouldn't hurt an ant!" cried Laila Gheith, whose son, Ayman, was stopped by county police and state troopers early Friday. "We are Americans!" During a news conference in the Chicago suburb of Palos Hills, a family friend, Sabri Samirah, insisted that "we are being discriminated [against] by the government."

It was a complaint echoed Friday by a lawyer for an Indian immigrant now being held in Fort Smith, Ark., on federal charges after a passenger jet was diverted there two days earlier on its way to Las Vegas. The attorney, Matt Ketcham, said his client was the victim of "a horrible overreaction on the part of the government."

Ketcham said Gurdeep Wander, a naturalized citizen, and Harinder P. Singh, a legal immigrant, face federal charges of interfering with a flight crew after they were hustled off a plane from Memphis on Wednesday.

A flight attendant, worried when both men went into a bathroom with a razor and began shaving, notified the pilot. When the two men failed to return to their seats, the pilot aborted the flight. It was one of several incidents on airlines Sept. 11 that ended without terrorism-related arrests.

Misunderstandings Cited

The U.S. attorney in Fort Smith, Tom Gean, said Friday that the government will not tolerate misconduct aboard airliners. But Transportation Department officials in Washington acknowledged that the Arkansas air incident grew from a series of escalating misunderstandings.

"It was Sept. 11 and people were very concerned about flying," said one official, who asked not to be named.

Even if the tricky business of divining and stemming terror threats in the making is sometimes hobbled by errors and communication breakdowns, law enforcement officials in Florida were unapologetic about their own quick reactions Friday.

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