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Home > War On Terror

Come fly the friendly skies

4 January 2004

Who'd be a transatlantic airline passenger over the festive season? With seven flights cancelled in 10 days due to unspecified 'terrorist threats', the answer, it seems, is The Terrorists.

Or perhaps not. After disrupting the travel arrangements of 1295 people, the FBI (who requested the cancellations) has arrested a grand total of... no suspects. Not one.

According to British global security expert, Sir Timothy Garden, cancelling just one flight is "quite exceptional". "I think it means that in this particular case, the intelligence seemed so good, that the risk was so high, that it was worth taking something so public as a measure," he told the AFP news agency.

Not so, say the French Interior Ministry. On Thursday, a spokesman claimed that the first Air France flight was cancelled due to six cases of mistaken identity by the US authorities. One passenger - a child - shared a surname with a known Tunisian terrorist leader, while a second - a Welsh insurance salesman - also had a name similar to a wanted man. No reasons have been given for the other cancelled flights.

So what on earth is going on?

The answer is Orange Alert.

The last time America went to Orange Alert was in February 2003, when President Bush assured ordinary Americans that it was "primarily a signal to federal, state and local law enforcement to take additional precautions and increase security measures against potential terrorist attacks."

orange alert
Orange Alert: "A signal for us, not for you."

When Orange Alert was declared a second time on December 21st, these precautions included forcing the French, British and Mexican national carriers to suspend incoming flights; impounding a British Airways flight at Dulles Airport in Washington D.C and detaining passengers on the tarmac for three hours; demanding that carriers flying into American airports put armed 'sky marshals' on their flights despite objections from pilots unions and the airlines themselves. And, of course, questioning everyone who has a name similar to that of a suspected terrorist.

(Not that the last of those heavy-handed precautions is without precedent. In Greg Palast's book, The Best Democracy Money Can Buy, he reveals how supporters of George W. Bush (including his Governor Brother, Jeb) demanded that thousands of eligible voters were removed from the Florida electoral roll prior to the 2000 Presidential elections on the basis that they had names that were similar to those of convicted felons. In fact, the process was revealed to be less than 10% accurate, resulting in thousands of mainly African American (and so mainly Democrat) voters being unfairly refused the right to vote.

Still, when you're dealing with Democrats and terrorists, it's better to be safe than sorry. And in an election year it's better to be suspending flights due to an unclear and present threat of terrorist attack than to be concentrating on the administration's continuing failures in Iraq... but we conspiracy theorise.)

The more serious point raised by all these cases of mistaken identity is that the American intelligence community still hasn't addressed its lack of Arabic speakers.

With so few people on staff able to speak the language, it's not surprising that the security services are flummoxed by Arabic names on passenger lists. It's also no wonder that they're having so much trouble winning hearts and minds in Iraq or interrogating suspects at Guantanamo bay. But then, as a spokesman for the American Translators Association put it, "It's easier to train someone to fly an F-14 than it is to speak Arabic.''


Tim Garden's Weblog

Comment on this article: letters@thefridaything.co.uk

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