Qatar Diplomat: Airline Shoe Bomber? No: Potty Smoker

airplane-no-smoking-signA Qatari diplomat with a disregard for the rules and an odd sense of humor managed to create a major air incident — including the dispatch of a pair of F-16s — for trying to sneak a cig in the lavatory of a 757 while in flight.

ABC’s Rhonda Schwartz, Richard Esposito, and Brian Ross appear to have broken the news:

FBI agents say no explosives were found in the shoes of a Qatar diplomat who was subdued by federal air marshals on a United flight to Denver Wednesday night after allegedly telling the marshals, “I’m lighting my shoes on fire.”

Authorities say the diplomat was wrestled to the ground and two F-16 fighter jets were dispatched to accompany the 757 on the final five minutes of its flight to Denver. Flight 663 originated from Washington Reagan airport.

A US security official said, “it may have been a massive misunderstanding” and the diplomat’s statement may have been a “sarcastic” comment when he was confronted by two air marshals who had been told by flight attendants that smoke was coming from the lavatory.


The suspect was identified by authorities as a diplomat in the Qatar embassy in Washington, Mohammed al Modadi, 27. The FBI said the man had full diplomatic immunity as the 3rd secretary and vice-consul.

The plane was taken to a remote location after landing at Denver and passengers were questioned by FBI agents about the incident. A bomb squad team and explosives-sniffing dogs were still on board the plane late Wednesday night.

Poor Gabriel Malor was following this one a minute-by-minute basis as it developed.  When the punch line was delivered, he was less than thrilled.  I gather he’s annoyed at the feds for overreacting here — which was my instant reaction at seeing the headlines this morning — but it strikes me as perfectly prudent to take the word of an Arab man producing smoke in the lavatory who proclaims that he’s a shoe bomber.  I must agree, though, that scrambling fighter jets seems extreme overkill.

Josh Marshall, who was also following this late last night, wonders, “I mean, are we really to believe that this guy took his having diplomatic immunity as free rein to crack a joke about need to light his shoe bomb? I’m curious whether under international law a diplomat can be expelled from a host country simply for being a raging c@#k.”

The short answer:  Yeah.  We can expel a diplomat for any reason we want.  That goes double for some low-ranking schmo.

Diplomatic immunity is an age-old principle and one that by and large makes sense. It can be waived by the diplomat’s government but I doubt we’ll pursue that course in this case since no lives were threatened or lost.  One suspects that he’ll be quietly recalled to Doha and directed to another line of work. Unless he’s part of the royal family, of course.   I would expect that a check from the emir would be forthcoming to cover the costs of this little escapade, too.

UPDATE: DC Loser, in the comments below, and John Burgess at his own site, note that it’s exceedingly unlikely that we’d declare al Modadi persona non grata for this relatively minor incident.  After all, despite the uproar and overreaction it caused, all he did was light up a cigarette and either tell a bad joke or explain himself in inadequate English.    I agree.  I’m merely suggesting that the Qatari government might not want this buffoon representing them in Washington after this embarrassing incident.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. J.W. Hamner says:

    It seems like a reality show about “smoking places you’re not allowed: if you’re not a DIPLOMAT” has potential. As long as the don’t have to scramble any fighter jets.

  2. Brian Knapp says:

    Cigarette smoke has quite a distinct odor; this didn’t alter the course of thinking for the two law enforcement officers who took him down?

  3. James Joyner says:

    Well, we don’t know he was smoking a tobacco cigarette. And better safe than sorry. It is, I seem to have heard somewhere, a violation of federal law to smoke aboard a plane.

  4. DC Loser says:

    You don’t usually PNG (Persona Non Grata) a diplomat over something as trivial as this, as it will invite retaliation PNG of one of our dips in their country.

  5. Franklin says:

    Despite Richard Reid’s incompetence, he almost completely succeeded, especially if you look at the total productivity lost by millions of flyers per year taking their shoes off. I’m sure these F-16 flights weren’t cheap, either.

  6. Even if he had been an actual bomber, I’m not sure how F-16s would be helpful in dealing with the situation.

  7. John Burgess says:

    There’re numerous ways the Qatari government (or its ambassador acting in it stead) could deal with this guy. There’s certainly no problem for the US if the ambassador sent the guy home.

    Just what happens, though, will be determined after many factors–including his bloodline, as you noted–are juggled. Maybe he’ll only get a three-day suspension for being a jerk; maybe he’ll be transferred to Mali.

    As the guy is a grad student at GWU, though, I think his English language competence is not really at issue.

  8. JKB says:

    Okay, so they don’t throw him out of the country. But what he did does qualify him for the No Fly List.

    Plus, regardless of what the State Department does, the passengers inconvenienced should let the Qatar ambassador know that should they run across this idiot again, he will need to light his shoe to have a smoke.

  9. John Burgess says:

    I can’t think of any structural barriers to the USG’s sending a bill to the Qatari Embassy for things like the F-16s, Sky Marshals, FBI, etc.

    The passengers might have a legal cause for civil litigation, but I sort of doubt it.

  10. Triumph says:

    This guy is scum. But just like Hussein Obama did nothing when his birth-country buddy tried to blow up the plane in Denver, he is going to let this moselum liberal walk free.

    Just like Obama, Mohammed al Modadi is muslim, a smoker, and friends with terrorists.

    Hussein will probably give this guy a cabinet position.