When Qatari diplomat Mohammed al Modadi decided to light up a cigarette toward the end of United Airlines flight 663 from Washington, D.C., to Denver, Colorado, he probably did not anticipate that he would terrify the U.S. for 30 brief but harrowing minutes. The incident, falsely reported as an attempted terrorist attack, overtook the networks before being declared a "misunderstanding." Here's what happened minute-by-minute, and why Modadi's status as a diplomat made the initial reports so scary. All times are Eastern, p.m. Approximate times are indicated with a tilde.
5:19 Flight 663 departs Ronald Reagan National Airport in Washington, D.C., bound for Denver. It is a Boeing 757 carrying 157 passengers, one of whom is Qatari diplomat Mohammed al Modadi.
~8:30 Modadi enters the airplane bathroom and lights a cigarette. A flight attendant, smelling smoke, alerts an air marshal, who confronts Modadi. At this point, accounts differ. Either Modadi jokes that he was trying to light his shoe on fire, a reference to Richard Reid, who in 2001 tried to ignite explosives hidden in his shoe while on a U.S. airline flight from Paris to Miami. Or, Modadi puts the cigarette out on his shoe, causing the air marshal to fear that he, like Reid, may have had explosive in his shoe. It's possible both occur. The air marshal restrains Modadi.
~8:45 Two F-16 fighters, scrambled by the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD), intercept flight 663 and escort it to Denver.
8:54 Flight 663 lands at Denver International Airport. It is nearly half an hour early.
10:07 ABC News first reports the story as a failed terrorist attack with the headline, "Air Marshals Stop Alleged 'Shoe Bomb' Attempt On United Jet to Denver: Qatari Diplomat In Custody After Attempting to 'Light Up' His Shoes."
10:12 NBC News also reports the story as a failed shoe bomb terrorist attack. They cite "sources close to the House Homeland Security Committee," indicating that some government officials believed the incident to have been an attempted terrorist attack.
10:34 NBC News first reports that Modadi may have only been smoking and that officials are still searching for explosives. Television news stations, now giving the story blanket coverage as a terrorist incident, begin to report that the incident may have been a misunderstanding. Gradually, these reports overtake the earlier reports that it was a terrorist attack.
11:00 By now, all news accounts report the story as a misunderstanding, stating that no explosives have been found and that Modadi did not attempt an attack.
11:38 The entire plane has been swept for possible explosives and all baggage is cleared onto the tarmac for a second round of sweeping.
As of this writing, the story is still developing. While new facts could yet emerge, most reports now state fairly unequivocally that the incident was a misunderstanding resulting from Modadi's smoking and the way he reacted when confronted by air marshals. Still, it's worth considering what made the initial reports so scary. Any failed terrorist attack, especially one involving U.S. airplanes, is terrifying. But the incident on flight 663 was especially so because of Modadi's status as a foreign diplomat based in Washington, D.C. Fortunately, Modadi's only crimes appear to be impatience, addiction to cigarettes, and possibly a poor sense of humor. But had those initial reports been accurate, it would have set an alarming precedent in terrorist recruitment.
Whether self-trained or recruited by groups like al-Qaeda, anti-Western Islamic terrorists have come from a range of different backgrounds.* Some of the Sept. 11, 2001, attackers were middle-class Arab students living in Europe, for example. Some were veterans of the Bosnian or Afghan conflicts. Mohammed Sidique Khan of the 2005 London attacks was a British-born teacher of Pakistani heritage. Others involved in those attacks were poor immigrants from Eritrea or Somalia. Afghan-born Najibullah Zazi grew up in Queens and Omar Abdulmutallab comes from a well-to-do family in Nigeria. But even among such diverse company, the profile of Modadi, a diplomat and well-established government professional, would have been unprecedented. Had he truly become a terrorist, and done so under the presumably watchful eyes of U.S. and Qatari intelligence and law enforcement agencies, it would have meant that just about anyone could be recruited. So if the news commentators on your television, radio, or Twitter feed seemed especially distressed between 10:07 p.m. and 10:34 p.m. Eastern time, that's why.
* - An earlier version of this post incorrectly implied that terrorists are more likely to be recruited from poor communities than from the middle class. It was not my intention to suggest this and, as commenters have pointed out, it is flatly not true. Anti-Western Islamic terrorists defy simple categorization. This may help explain why the early reports about Modadi were received as plausible: After watching a Queens coffee cart vendor and a Colorado medical assistant arrested on terrorism charges, we are ready to believe anything -- sometimes wrongly.