July 21, 2004,
Annie Jacobsen's recent piece for WomensWallStreet.Com made waves. Her account of flying with her family while 14 Middle Eastern passengers acted in a threatening and apparently coordinated manner makes for a terrifying read. Her article captures her sickening sense of both uncertainty and inevitability as what might possibly have been the next 9/11 unfolded around her.
Fortunately, nothing of the sort happened. On June 29, Northwest Airlines Flight 327 landed safely in Los Angeles and a phalanx of law enforcement greeted the suspicious passengers, whisking them away for some intense interviews. Jacobsen noted a pile of Syrian passports in the hand of a law-enforcement official.
But the men checked out, and Jacobsen was told that they were "hired as musicians to play at a casino in the desert." She was not told the name of the band, nor the name of the casino. And as her story made the rounds through the Internet and beyond (the Dallas Morning News printed a condensed version earlier this week), a note of skepticism about her story crept in. Had she imagined the whole thing? Or was the government covering up a "dry run" for another terrorist attack?
Columnist and blogger Michelle Malkin confirmed some of the details of Jacobsen's story with the Federal Air Marshal's service, but the identity of the band remained the subject of much speculation. For a while the blogosphere settled on a Syrian band called Kulna Sawa as a likely candidate, but the gents at Powerline received a note from that group's tour manager explaining the band was still in Syria when all this happened. Even the mainstream media began to notice the story: New York Times reporter Joe Sharkey confirmed some of the details of the story today but admitted he, too, was unable to identify the band.
Well, I am nominally the "news director" for Stanford University's student radio station, KZSU, and I figured I'd help the Times out. There aren't that many casinos in southern California, so I had my research assistant, Mr. Google, take a look at some. An hour later I was talking to the nice folks at Sycuan Casino & Resort, near San Diego. Unlike most casinos where it's all Elvis impersonators, Paul Anka, and Linda Ronstadt oh, wait, scratch that last one Sycuan books the occasional "ethnic music" show, too. In August, for example, they'll have a Vietnamese night.
"Oh, do you mean Arab music?" inquired Angie, who answered Sycuan's phone. Yes, they had had an Arab act perform on July 1, an artist named Nour Mehana. Terry, Angie's supervisor at Sycuan, confirmed that he was there and that there was probably a backup band brought in, since there's no house band at Sycuan. In fractions of a second, Mr. Google found a website for Sycuan's event promoters, Anthem Artists, whose archive confirms Nour Mehana performed at Sycuan on 7/01/04.
And then I noticed something that was truly terrifying, something linking Nour Mehana to a figure of such repulsive evil that I felt a rush of prickly fear not unlike Jacobsen's: Just one week later, the same company that arranged Mehana's performance, also booked Carrot Top!
I talked to James Cullen of Anthem Artists who confirms that Nour Mehana's large band did arrive on Northwest Flight 327. Some of them came in from Detroit, and some from Lebanon. Cullen says they never said anything about a disturbance on the flight to him, even though "I stayed in the same hotel, they were nice, they stayed right above me." He said that they were fine musicians, put on a great show, and he would work with them again in the future.
Cullen did receive a follow-up e-mail from the Department of Homeland Security, asking him to confirm that the band had played their gig at Sycuan. He had read Jacobsen's article and concluded that some "people are just paranoid." A pilot himself, Cullen insisted that the patterns Jacobsen perceived wouldn't occur to him. "We should take pride in our system. We've got to trust our system." (Cullen made it clear that he opposes "this crazy Bush Iraq war sh*t," but it is important to bear in mind that Cullen also admitted to booking Carrot Top.)
Nour Mehana (a.k.a. Noor Mehanna, or Nour Mhanna, plus various permutations of those spellings) is, in fact, Syrian. He performs both "new-agey" hits and old sentimental Middle Eastern classics in a style called Tarab. In this catchy ten-minute video of Mehana on stage, (scroll down; the name is rendered Noor Mhanan this time ) you can see he has a rather large backup band helping him out. (The resolution is low, but Jacobsen might recognize some of the band members Mehanna is interacting with.) Followers of news from Iraq may have heard about the U.S. tour of the "Iraqi Elvis." Well, Mehana comes across not as an angry jihadi, but rather more like the Syrian Wayne Newton.
Much more like Wayne Newton:
Anyway, this is good news. Nour Mehana's band might have acted like jerks on the plane, but it appears safe to say they were not casing Northwest Airlines for a suicidal assault, and we can quit worrying about this being a "dry run" or an aborted attack. And if Jacobsen was wondering why one man in a dark suit and sunglasses sat in first class while everyone else flew coach, well, it seems pretty clear that this was the Big Mehana himself.
Which is definitely not the same as saying Jacobsen was wrong to worry. The proven existence of this band confirms one of the last details of her story, and her story confirms some of our worst fears about airline security. The mindset of passengers, of the crew, and even of the law-enforcement personnel (Jacobsen said a flight attendant reassured her husband by pointing out that air marshals were on the flight), and decision makers higher up the ladder was reactive, not proactive.
Now, by that I certainly don't mean that the interceptors should have scrambled or the passengers should have started swinging Chardonnay bottles as soon as the oud player took too long in the john. But evidently no one even engaged these guys in a conversation, and no one, not the flight crew, and not the air marshals, challenged their egregious violations of protocols about congregating near restrooms or standing up in unison as the plane started its descent. Nothing was done to alleviate the terror Jacobsen, and probably a lot of the other passengers, felt.
Liberals will likely decry the suspicion and interrogation the musicians faced on Flight 327. And the principled Right will regret that that was necessary. If the band's English wasn't very good they might not have understood the instructions. But a polite word and some helpful gestures earlier on, rather than a guilty PC silence, might have saved them some embarrassment. In any case, the police-state parallels fade quickly: In a real police state, like, oh, Syria, you are not even allowed inside the country with an Israeli stamp in your passport.
June 29 was no ordinary day in the skies. That day, Department of Homeland Security officials issued an "unusually specific internal warning," urging customs officials to watch out for Pakistanis with physical signs of rough training in the al Qaeda training camps. The warning specifically mentioned Detroit and Los Angeles's LAX airports, the origin and terminus of NWA flight 327.
That means that our air-traffic system was expecting trouble. But rather than land the plane in Las Vegas or Omaha, it was allowed to continue on to Los Angeles without interruption, as if everything were hunky-dory on board. It certainly wasn't. If this had been the real thing, and the musicians had instead been terrorists, nothing was stopping them from taking control of the plane or assembling a bomb in the restroom. Given the information they were working with at the time, almost everyone should have reacted differently than they did.
Jacobsen's fear was quite natural under these circumstances, and she has done us a service by pointing out some egregious shortfalls in our airline security. Danke Schoen, Darling. Let's hope the right people are listening.
Clinton W. Taylor is a lawyer and a Ph.D. student in political science at Stanford. He's also news co-director and an intermittent classic-country DJ for KZSU, Stanford.