Evidence that an incident on an AirTran flight from Atlanta to Houston could have been a “dry run” for a possible hijacking is mounting, with analysts hinting at a coverup because of an airline gag order on employees and more witnesses coming forward to say they were afraid.

The airline, meanwhile, is sticking to its prepared statements that there was an issue with a passenger and a cell phone but the matter is considered closed.

A contrary account of the incident emerged through a viral e-mail by a purported passenger who said about a dozen Muslims caused a disturbance aboard Flight 297 on Nov. 17.

The airline affirms the incident was serious enough to warrant bringing the plane back to the gate. The e-mail said the Muslims left the plane and were questioned by law-enforcement officials but then returned, prompting the crew to refuse to fly. A replacement crew was summoned, the e-mail said.

As WND reported, another passenger, Keith Robinson, a Houston chaplain, said he originally missed the flight, then was surprised to learn it was
returning to the gate. Robinson, who occasionally works with the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, said a passenger getting off the jet told him
Arab men sang, danced and pretended to shoot the other passengers
before the plane was returned to the gate.

The author of the e-mail, Tedd Petruna of Houston, has stood by his original statement: “If this wasn’t a dry run, I don’t know what one is. The terrorists wanted to see how TSA would handle it, how the crew would handle it, and how the passengers would handle it. … The threat is real. I saw it with my own eyes.”

Get “Muslim Mafia: Inside the Secret Underworld That’s Conspiring to Islamize America.”

Charges of suppressed information now are being leveled.

“Two and a half weeks later, the incident is in high dispute, thanks to some passengers who have spoken out on the Internet about what they say is a coverup by AirTran and other transportation officials,” Marietta, Ga., columnist Laura Armstrong wrote.

Passenger Brent Brown told WSB-TV in Atlanta that the situation was “extremely intense.”

“I’ve never experienced anything like that,” Brown, a security consultant and a frequent flier, told the station.

He described how the men of “Middle Eastern” descent started walking the aisles, using their cell phones and refusing flight attendants’ instructions to sit down.

“When the pilot turned the plane around, not only was I not surprised, I was proud that he had made that effort to secure the cabin,” he said.

Brown said that back at the gate, things did not improve. When AirTran described the incident as a customer-service issue, he said they were “dead wrong.”

Another case?

Meanwhile, a second similar incident has been related to WND by an airline employee who has asked her company to investigate. She insisted on anonymity until she gets a response.

The employee described how three “Middle Eastern” men boarded a plane and loaded enough carryon luggage into an overhead bin to fill it at Row 4, even though they were sitting in the rear of the craft.

Then they rearranged their seats so they all wound up in an exit row on the jet.

The men laughed during the safety briefing and spoke Arabic, spending a long time “leaning into the aisle … and looking directly at the cockpit and at us in a menacing way.”

“I made the decision to bring out the trash bin and block the forward galley for the entire flight,” she told WND about the late October incident. “I’m sure it looked completely odd to the passengers, but the [passengers] never got out of their seats once they saw the cockpit and forward lavatory were off-limits.”

The surprise came when the flight arrived, and “we asked the gate agent for a copy of their reservation,” she said. “There were notes in the record that the passengers in question had been denied boarding by [another airline].”

Protection mode

Doug Hagmann, director of the Northeast Intelligence Network, said AirTran appears to be trying to protect itself.

“AirTran didn’t follow the specific TSA procedures for reporting incidents. The crew called in the incident as a possible safety or security problem. The airline treated it like it was a customer-service matter,” he said.

He reported a gag order on the crew members who refused to fly the jet and said AirTran confiscated two manifests from the flight.

Hagmann said his sources reported the 13 people involved in the AirTran episode were dressed in Middle Eastern clothing but had removed their head scarves and other such attire when they returned to the jet.

He said it appeared to be a test.

“This group of Muslims were also photographing airport features as well as taking pictures on the plane. They were testing the security set-up of AirTran and the Hartsfield-Jackson Airport,” he told WND.

AirTran officials, who last week referred WND to an Internet-myth “debunking” statement on their website, were no more open today. A spokesman who declined to give his name said the company already had explained the situation.

“Thirteen non-English-speaking people were asked to leave the plane. We talked to them through interpreters and determined that there was no risk to passenger safety and allowed them to reboard the plane,” the AirTran spokesman stated.

A Federal Aviation Administration official said the agency’s investigation didn’t find a problem.

“We received a report that some passengers may not have been following the regulations regarding electronic devices or the flight crew’s instructions. When the plane returned to the gate, then we initiated the investigation,” the spokesman said. “We didn’t find any violation of FAA rules and the investigation was concluded.”

He deferred to AirTran on why a crew would refuse to fly over a violation of a “regulation.”

Detailed report

Robinson’s description of the situation, e-mailed to WND, was detailed. He reported he had missed the original departure but noticed the flight was returning to the gate.

“Upon arriving at the gate, I noticed that there was a look of solemn concern on the faces of the gate attendants. I asked if I could get on Flight 297 when they returned to the gate. Their faces indicated a distinct level of stress that let everyone in the seating area knew that there was a problem on board,” he said.

“Over the next thirty minutes officials from AirTran started arriving at the gate, flashing their badges and going down to the plane. After 6-7 officials exited the door, suddenly it flew open and 12-15 people from the flight hurried off the plane. Anger and fear was etched on their faces as they jerked their carry-on and tore into their computer bags to schedule another flight out of Atlanta,” he said.

“One gentleman confronted the gate agent demanding his luggage be removed from the flight. As I spoke to him he related that when Flight 297 left the concourse the first time it began taxiing to take off when approximately 12 men of Middle Eastern appearance stood up and began dancing and singing in an Arabic dialect. They refused to be seated when directed to do so by the flight attendants. Then, the singing stopped and some of the men took out their cell phones and began taking pictures of the other individual passenger. Again, the men were ordered to be seated by the flight crew and refused while continuing to take their pictures. Next, the de-boarded passenger related that a few of the men gestured with imaginary guns as their fingers, indicating with their triggering action that they would shoot the people on the plane.”

Robinson said the flight attendants “were emotionally shaken, red-faced, in tears and were sobbing.”

He said the airline “decided that it was better to emotionally traumatize each and every one of the remaining passengers on AirTran Flight 297 for the remainder of the flight. They had a chance to remove the offenders … but didn’t.”

In her column, Armstrong told of her less-than-satisfactory experience getting answers from AirTran.

“Spokesman Christopher White, formerly with the TSA, was snide and rude when I called to inquire about the incident. He refused to answer questions and referred me to the above-mentioned website, which is not an official statement from AirTran but a public rebuking of a customer’s circulating e-mail,” she said.

Later, though, the airline said the manifest showed Petruna wasn’t on the flight. But Petruna responded, insisting he has his boarding pass.

TSA spokesman John Allen says the airline did an investigation.

“The TSA sent two inspectors to the gate area after the plane returned, talked with the passengers involved and determined that the issue was a customer-service matter between the passengers and the airline,” he said.

When asked about the reports of Muslim men shouting in Arabic, Allen repeated the TSA statement.

Mark Taylor, a private investigator and a terrorism writer for Family Security Matters, said his investigation indicates Muslim terrorists were checking out the system.

“There are three independent versions of the story that collaborate the possibility that 11 or 12 Middle Eastern men appeared to be testing AirTran’s security,” Taylor said.

“The evidence tends to show that someone was doing what is referred to as a dry run, or what one television commentator calls a ‘shark bump,’ just to see if we’re paying attention,” Taylor explained.

The disputed accounts of the incident are similar to the case of the “flying imams” in 2006.

The six Muslim clerics were booted from a US Airways Minneapolis-to-Phoenix flight after alarming both passengers and crew with their behavior. Many on board feared the imams – who prayed loudly in Arabic, refused to sit in their assigned seats, fanned out in the cabin in pairs to occupy the front, middle and rear exit rows, ordered seat-belt extenders they didn’t need, criticized the Iraq war and President Bush, talked about al-Qaida and Osama bin Laden and other disconcerting behaviors – were testing security procedures in a dry run for a future hijacking.

The imams, who insisted they were acting innocently, were detained for several hours and questioned by airport police, the FBI and Secret Service, and prevented from booking a later flight on US Airways.

They sued the airline, and the case was settled.

Nihad Awad, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, called the settlement “a clear victory for justice and civil rights over fear and the phenomenon of ‘flying while Muslim’ in the post-9/11 era.”

According to the judge, the imams had been subjected to “extreme fear and humiliation of being falsely identified as dangerous terrorists.”

But as reported in “Muslim Mafia: Inside the Secret Underworld That’s Conspiring to Islamize America,” by former federal agent P. David Gaubatz and investigative journalist Paul Sperry, there’s another, far more ominous and threatening side to the flying-imam story – and CAIR’s involvement with it – that had not been told.

“CAIR brags this is a ‘victory for civil rights.’ It’s not a victory for civil rights,” Sperry said after the settlement was announced. “It’s a victory for future hijackers. This settlement will have a chilling effect on law enforcement and security at our nation’s airports. Even pilots will now think twice about bouncing from flights any Arabs or Muslims acting suspiciously and threateningly.”

“The victims in the case are not the imams,” Sperry emphasized. “The victims are passengers who are now more vulnerable to terrorist attack – thanks to CAIR which according to documents revealed in ‘Muslim Mafia’ manipulated this whole case from the start,” he said.

According to the hot-selling book, the ringleader of the flying imams, Omar Shahin, was involved in a similar disturbance aboard another airline several years earlier, as was CAIR.

“Rewind to 1999,” says “Muslim Mafia.” “That year, two Muslim college students were removed from an America West flight to Washington from Phoenix after twice attempting to open the cockpit. The FBI later suspected it was a ‘dry run’ for the 9/11 hijackings, according the 9/11 Commission Report.”

“At the time, however, authorities didn’t have enough suspicion to hold the students. And as soon as Hamdan al-Shalawi and Muhammed al-Qudhaieen were released, they filed racial-profiling suits against America West, now part of US Airways.”

Representing the two Muslim students was none other than CAIR, which held a news conference condemning “this ugly case of racial profiling” and urging Muslims to boycott America West.

“Muhammed and Hamdan had done absolutely nothing wrong,” CAIR’s Awad insisted. “Their crime was being Arab, speaking Arabic.”

In a bizarre prequel to the flying-imam event, the two Muslims aboard the America West flight spoke loudly in Arabic despite being fluent in English, also switched their seats and roamed the plane from the tail section to the cockpit as did the six imams, all the while asking suspicious questions about the plane and its routes.

“‘Flying Imams’ ringleader Omar Shahin is familiar with such shenanigans,” reports “Muslim Mafia.” “Witnesses say he prayed loudly in Arabic before boarding his US Airways flight – which also originated from Phoenix. And once on board, he asked for a seatbelt extender even though he didn’t need one and never used the one provided him. (He and another imam left the extenders on the floor of the plane.) And he roamed the cabin and tried to switch seats with another imam.”

Shahin also knew both of the students who were kicked off the America West flight, as documented in “Muslim Mafia,” which reports that Shahin ministered to them at his former mosque in Tucson, Arizona, where they had attended college on visas from Saudi Arabia. When they were arrested, Shahin rushed to their defense – along with CAIR.

Incredibly, reveals “Muslim Mafia,” “Shahin has admitted to being a former supporter of Osama bin Laden while running the Saudi-backed Islamic Center of Tucson, which functioned as one of al-Qaida’s main hubs in North America.”

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