WASHINGTON - A Qatari diplomat was on his way to an official visit with an imprisoned al-Qaida sleeper agent when he touched off a bomb scare by slipping into an airline bathroom for a smoke, officials said yesterday as the diplomat prepared to leave the United States.
The diplomat, Mohammed Al-Madadi, was going to pay a consular visit to the prisoner, said Alison Bradley, a public relations executive hired to speak for the Qatari Embassy, and a State Department official.
The prisoner, Ali Al-Marri, a citizen of Qatar, is serving 8 years after pleading guilty last year to conspiring to support terrorism. Al-Marri was arrested after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, accused of being a sleeper agent researching poisonous gasses and plotting a cyberattack.
Bradley said Qatari diplomats have made multiple visits to Al-Marri in prison since he pleaded guilty. The right to such visits is guaranteed by international agreements, and the U.S. Bureau of Prisons had approved this visit by Al-Madadi in advance, Bradley added.
Questions remained about why a diplomat on an official trip, like Al-Madadi, would apparently flout airline security rules. Law enforcement officials said Al-Madadi joked later that he had been trying to light his shoe, an apparent reference to the 2001 so-called shoe bomber, Richard Reid.
No explosives were found on the plane and authorities said they don't think Al-Madadi was trying to hurt anyone during Wednesday's scare. He enjoys diplomatic immunity from U.S. prosecution and will not be criminally charged, authorities said.
The State Department official said Qatar had not yet informed the administration how it will handle the case but has assured the United States that Al-Madadi will leave the country. U.S. officials expected that to happen last night or today.