Mystification of Identity: You Say Yusuf, I Say Youssouf...

Bill Stewart bill.stewart at
Mon Sep 27 17:53:15 PDT 2004

At 06:03 PM 9/25/2004, R. A. Hettinga wrote:
>Gilmore, et al., are right, as always.
>If you've been all-but cavity-searched -- okay, virtually
>cavity-searched, given the state of modern X-Ray airport passenger
>scanning technology -- and you don't have a weapon, exactly *how* is
>knowing *who* you are going to affect your ability to hijack an airplane?

Of course it doesn't.   However, if there are known potential hijackers
who travel under their True Names or Known Aliases,
and if there's a list of them that can be checked against,
knowing the name you're using can validate whether you might be one of them,
and preventing you from flying means you can't carry out your
Clever New Hijacking Plan, such as converting that small guitar
into a set of six piano-wire garrotes or mixing that
liquid oxygen shoe sole with rum to form an explosive,
and it prevents you from using previously undetected explosives
in your luggage or whatever.

There are several reasons you might divert a plane in this environment -
- to spank the airline for not being careful enough
         about checking the list, independent of any hijacking risk.
- to cover the ass of the person who put the wrong spelling on the list,
         even though the US Enemies Airline Blacklist supposedly has
         the passport numbers of Official US Enemies and therefore should
         have been able to get the spelling from Yousouff's UK passport.
- to prevent a potential hijacker from hijacking the plane during the
         descent phase of the flight, in case they're planning to
         crash it into Washington instead of London, or to reduce the time
         that the plane is in the air, in case there's a timed-release bomb
         in the luggage.  (Ideally you'd like to prevent them and their
         luggage from getting on at all, but it was too late for that,
         and if there's a pressure-triggered luggage bomb you've already lost.)
- to maintain the pretense that the people on the list are
         potential hijackers or airplane suicide bombers,
         as opposed to people who might sing politically inconvenient music
         or give talks that encourage other potential US Enemies
         or give the money to hire other people to do the dangerous bits.
- to be extremely conservatively overcautious because you've
         discovered that you mistakenly let someone on the plane
         and the version of the Enemies List that you have access to
         doesn't indicate which people are actively dangerous passengers
         of the potential hijacker/bomber type,
         as opposed to political Enemies who you could arrange to
         harass at Customs after they've arrived,
         and you don't have the time to find out why they're there
         before landing (hey, it took Teddy Kennedy three tries),
         so you throw the Better Safe Than Sorry dice and decide
         you can spin the PR Fearmongering if you're oversensitive.

I'd guess that the working-level decision was the latter conservative 
though the decision-makers preferred to think of it as the third case.
Conservatism is easier when _you're_ not going to have to
pay for the extra airplane costs or deal with the other passengers who
miss their airline connections because you stuck them in Bangor,
which are somebody else's problem.

The entertaining questions are when they figured out that he was
the well-known Cat Stevens and not just the generic-Moslem-sounding Mr. Islam,
and whether there are pre-defined policies about landing them in Bangor
when they ostensibly had enough advance notice to land them in
Newfoundland or Labrador instead, which aren't US territory.

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