Posted Sept. 5, 2002
By Kenneth R. Timmerman
(Stockholm) - Swedish police have arrested a Swedish Muslim of Middle Eastern origin at a small regional airport west of Stockholm less than two weeks before the anniversary of September 11, on suspicions that he was planning to hijack an aircraft and crash it into a U.S. Embassy in Europe.
Karim Sadok Chatti, 29, born in Sweden to a Swedish mother and Tunisian father, was boarding Ryan Air flight 685 on Thursday, Aug. 29, when a security officer at Vasteras airport noticed he was carrying a loaded handgun in his hand luggage. Chatti was traveling to Britain along with 20 other Swedish Muslims to attend an Islamic conference in Birmingham.
Swedish police initially dismissed the incident as an accident. Chati had a long police record and had been convicted many times for violent crimes, including assault with a deadly weapon against a Marine Corps guard working at the U.S. Embassy in 1999.
Referring to Chatti and the known gang members he had befriended, a Swedish police spokesman told reporters: "These people are hooked on weapon, and are often armed. So perhaps it wasn't so strange that the revolver slipped into his baggage." Police let the flight depart for London after an eight hour delay, during which they interrogated other passengers headed for the Islamic conference. They held Chatti over the weekend while deciding whether or not to charge him of a crime.
On Sunday, Reuters quoted Swedish intelligence officials as saying that Chatti had intended to hijack one and possibly several commercial airliners after arriving in Britain and crash them on US Embassies in Europe. Top on the target list were the embassies in Moscow, Paris, and London. But almost immediately, Margareta Linderoth, the spokesperson for the Swedish security police, SAPO, claimed the information was "completely made of thin air."
The next day, a spokesman for Swedish prime minister Goran Persson, up for re-election in two weeks, used the identical phrase to dismiss the seriousness of the allegations against Chatti. Persson, a Socialist, has a narrow lead in the polls but could face an electoral upset if Swedes perceive him as weak on terror.
Justice Minister Thomas Bodstrom initially told reporters he felt the case "can be serious because we have a person who is suspected of hijacking." Once the Prime Minister's office issued its statement, however, Bodstrom called Chatti "just a nutcase." Nevertheless, the Swedes officially arrested Chatti on Monday and accused him of "serious crimes," including "planning a hijack," "aviation sabotage," and weapons offences.
British media reported that Scotlard Yard had sent investigators to Sweden, but this, too, was denied by Ms. Linderoth, the SAPO spokesperson. Other sources said Chatti had been on an FBI watchlist, because he had attended flight school in Conway, SC. Like many of the September 11 hijackers, Chatti showed no interest in actually learning how to take off and land and airplane. He was kicked out of the school after three months and his student visa was revoked.
A 36-year former prison inmate, who befriended Chatti at a Swedish high security prison, said he tutored Chatti in Islamic studies. "I taught him to pray," the unnamed former inmate told the Swedish newspaper Expressen, which identified him as "Bin Laden's man" and "in touch with Al Qaeda," now living in a Stockholm suburb. He added that he was happy that Chatti had recently gone to Saudi Arabia.
Expressen also revealed that Chatti's 36-year old friend "has been accused by the American authorities of having set up a terrorist camp in the United States and to be one of Bin Laden's hired murderers." In the U.S. camp, Expressen reported, he taught his pupils how to quietly slit someone's throat, and in discussions with the Swedish paper's reporters prided himself in the number of people he had killed in Afghanistan.
[Chatti's friend was subsequently identified as Osama Kassir, a Lebanese Palestinian who has lived in Sweden for two decades. He was jailed in 1997 for making threats against the police. In an interview with the Washington Post, he denied any involvement in an alleged terrorist training camp in Oregon.].
Chatti reportedly told Swedish investigators that he was carrying to gun to protect himself at the islamic conference in Birmingham because he "felt threatened."
"If I had wanted to hijack the plane I wouldn't have brought a weapon in my carry-on luggage," he told SAPO, according to transcripts obtained by Expressen. "I would have done it differently."
Kenneth R. Timmerman is a senior writer for Insight magazine.