Qatari diplomat in flight scare is released

A Qatari diplomat, who touched off a security scare on a Denver-bound flight when he tried to sneak a cigarette, has been released without charges and will probably leave the United States, authorities said Thursday.

In another twist, a spokeswoman for the Qatar Embassy said that the diplomat, Mohammed Madadi, was heading to Denver on official business, including a visit to Ali Marri, a citizen of Qatar who is serving a prison sentence after pleading guilty last year to conspiracy in connection with the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

According to officials, Madadi apparently tried to smoke a cigarette on United Airlines Flight 663, traveling from Washington to Denver with more than 160 passengers and crew aboard.

When confronted, the diplomat made a sarcastic comment about lighting his shoes, officials said. That was taken as a reference to two other suspected bomb plots. In 2001, Richard Reid was caught with explosives in his shoes, and last Christmas, a Nigerian Muslim attempted to ignite a bomb hidden in his underwear, authorities say.

No explosive materials were found on Madadi.

Madadi, who holds diplomatic immunity, was released without charges, said Alison Bradley of the New York public relations firm Brown Lloyd James, which represents the Qatar Embassy in Washington.

Bradley said Madadi was traveling to Denver to meet with Qatari college students as well as Marri, who is jailed at the federal prison in Florence, Colo.

Such consular visits are routine and have occurred about monthly since mid-2009, she said.

Marri was originally charged by a federal grand jury in Illinois with two counts of conspiracy to provide material support to terrorism. He pleaded guilty to one count and was sentenced to 8 years and 4 months in prison.

He began serving his sentence in Marion, Ill., but was moved to Colorado last month. The visit with Madadi would have been the first at the Colorado prison.

In a statement posted on the Qatar Embassy’s website, the country’s ambassador to the U.S., Ali Bin Fahad al-Hajri, said the diplomat didn’t do anything threatening.

“He certainly wasn’t involved in any threatening activity. . . . This was a mistake, and we urge all concerned parties to avoid reckless judgments or speculation,” the statement said.

The State Department said Qatar has indicated Madadi will be leaving the United States.

Wednesday’s scare came three months after Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab set himself on fire while trying to detonate explosives hidden in his underwear during a Northwest Airlines flight from Amsterdam to Detroit on Christmas Day. He is currently in custody and facing criminal charges.

The incident sparked a host of complaints, including whether officials had properly investigated Abdulmutallab after his father, a prominent banker, had notified authorities that his son was becoming radicalized and could be a terrorist threat.

Sharply criticized over the Christmas Day airline terror attempt, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano on Thursday praised federal air marshals for their handling of the Madadi incident.

“I commend the federal air marshals on board United Airlines Flight 663 last night, who swiftly responded to a potential threat to passenger safety while the plane was in flight,” Napolitano said in a statement.

“We always treat security-related incidents seriously until verified otherwise, and thankfully this incident posed no actual security threat,” Napolitano said.