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Flight from London raised terror fears

| Friday, Aug. 20, 2004

About 150 passengers aboard a flight from London got a taste of what a "heightened state of alert" really means when they were held on their airplane at Pittsburgh International Airport for more than an hour Thursday for what turned out to be graffiti in one of the plane's restrooms.

At some point on US Airways' Flight 941 from London's Gatwick Airport, someone discovered what he thought was Arabic writing scrawled in one of the plane's lavatories, said Ann Davis, spokeswoman for the federal Transportation Security Administration.

The flight landed at Pittsburgh International -- its scheduled destination -- about 4 p.m., at which point FBI, Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials boarded the plane to investigate the writing and interview passengers, Davis said.

US Airways spokeswoman Amy Kudwa said the writing was not Arabic and turned out to be unintelligible graffiti.

"It was nonsense," she said of the writing.

All passengers were allowed to leave the plane around 5:30 p.m., Davis said.

Airplane restrooms have been the subject of extra scrutiny -- particularly on transatlantic flights -- for months. A leaked FBI memo said suicide terrorists were plotting to smuggle "ready to build" bomb kits past airport security and assemble the explosives in airplane restrooms, the Washington Times reported in January.

Passengers are not supposed to congregate in groups on airliners, according to a government advisory issued in December.

Those concerns were rekindled last month following a writer's account of the odd actions of 14 Middle Eastern men aboard a Detroit-to-Los Angeles flight.

Traveling together on the Northwest flight, the men lingered near the restroom, congregated in the aisles and signaled one another during the trip, according to the account. Passengers and the crew feared the men planned a hijacking, said the writer, Annie Jacobsen.

The men were met by agents of the FBI, the Los Angeles Police Department and the Transportation Security Administration when Flight 327 landed on June 29.

Government officials confirmed Jacobsen's account of the flight and the arrival scene. But they said none of the men posed a threat. In fact, they were members of a backup band for a singer, Nour Mehanna, who is described as "the Syrian Wayne Newton," and were heading to a show near San Diego.

However, the online story created a furor.

Jacobsen was interviewed on network television and by newspapers. She received dozens of e-mails from flight attendants and pilots who said they had experienced similar incidents. Members of Congress asked Homeland Security Department and FBI officials to brief their staffs about the incident.

In Pittsburgh, FBI Special Agent Jeff Killeen described yesterday's incident as "no big deal."

"Somebody reported some suspicious activity," he said. " We responded and checked it out. There was no terrorism."

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