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Man removed from N.Y.-bound airliner

A derogatory e-mail from a relative led federal authorities to remove a Gambian man from a New York-bound jetliner Thursday during an unscheduled refueling stop in Puerto Rico, according to a law enforcement source.

The move underscored pressure on airline security officials since an attempted Christmas Day jetliner bombing, when authorities did not act on security concerns that had been expressed by the suspect’s father.

After the Gambian was taken off the plane, the captain said over the intercom that he had been a “serious security threat,” said passenger Joan Mower, director of development for the Voice of America, a government-funded news service.

But federal authorities are no longer convinced of that, the law enforcement source said. When contacted, the relative denied sending the e-mail to U.S. authorities and disputed that the passenger was dangerous.

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Delta Flight 215 had taken off from Abuja, Nigeria, late Wednesday and stopped in Dakar, Senegal, early Thursday en route to New York. There was no indication of a disruption during the flight, Mower said.

“The passenger was removed from the flight for further questioning and remains in … custody,” U.S. Customs and Border Protection said in a two-sentence statement, calling him “a potential person of interest.” A spokesman for the Department of Homeland Security provided no further details.

The law enforcement source, who asked not to be identified because the investigation is continuing, said officials initially planned to talk to the passenger after the plane landed at New York’s John F. Kennedy airport. But high winds forced the pilot to stop and refuel in San Juan, the Puerto Rican capital, the source said, and the man was taken off the plane at that time by Customs and Border Patrol agents.

“This all turned out to have no basis,” the source said. The source would not discuss the timing or content of the relative’s e-mail, or why the relative later disavowed it.

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Jeffrey Quinones, a spokesman for the Customs and Border Patrol in Puerto Rico, said the passenger had not been charged with any crime.

U.S. officials monitoring airline security have been under pressure since a botched bombing attempt on Christmas Day that federal officials said was carried out by Nigerian Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, who is suspected of ties to Al Qaeda.

Abdulmutallab’s father had contacted the U.S. Embassy to express concerns about his son’s extremist views. Those concerns did not lead authorities to deny him a visa or otherwise track his movements, an omission that drew criticism after officials said he attempted to blow up the Detroit-bound airplane.

Since then, the government’s no-fly list has nearly doubled, from about 3,400 people to about 6,000, the Associated Press has reported, citing government officials.

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richard.serrano@latimes.com

ken.dilanian@latimes.com


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