The commander of U.S. military forces in North America defended Wednesday the response by his units and civilian law enforcement organizations to the recent spate of incidents on U.S. airliners. General Gene Renuart said although the recent incidents were not serious, there is a serious threat that officials must continue to deal with appropriately.
General Renuart said there is good coordination between law enforcement agencies and the military, which sometimes sends fighter jets to fly alongside aircraft with incidents on board. One of Renuart's commands is the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD), which is a joint operation with Canada. And he says it was Canadian fighter jets that were put on alert during an incident Tuesday in which a passenger made threats aboard an American airliner in Canadian airspace enroute from Paris to Atlanta, Georgia, in the southeastern United States.
The flight was diverted to the northeastern state of Maine, and a former member of the U.S. Air Force has been charged with threatening to blow up the plane, even though no bomb was found on board. He could face 25 years in jail for the false threat, which a federal prosecutor called a serious crime that will not be tolerated.
On Saturday, a domestic American flight was diverted when a passenger tried to open a door. And early this month a diplomat from Qatar caused jet fighters to be launched when he illegally smoked a cigarette in an aircraft lavatory and then joked to air marshals that he was trying to set his shoes on fire. Such jokes are taken seriously, particularly after an American member of the al-Qaida terrorist group tried to ignite a bomb in one of his shoes during a flight just three months after the September 11th attacks in 2001.
Although the recent incidents have turned out to be just scares, not real threats, General Renuart says they proved that security and communications systems work well, and he says even such minor events need to be taken seriously. "Terrorist organizations haven't gone away. And the use of transportation as a means for potentially threatening us is one they continue to focus on. We've been successful over the last eight years at thwarting many of these attempts, but it hasn't diminished the intent of many of these organizations. And so we need to keep our guard up. We need to not become complacent," he said.
General Renuart also said that even though most of the recent incidents involved Americans on American flights, they could still have been real threats. "There are many circumstances where people, young people in some cases, can be radicalized to some degree. We see, if you will, wanabes (people who want to be) in a variety of areas. I think this is just the reality that there are many forces out there looking to create activists on the part of extremism, and we just have to keep our guard up across a broad variety of elements," he said.
Indeed, the shoe bomber Richard Reid is an American, as are several people arrested recently for planning al-Qaida-inspired attacks in the United States. General Renuart said law enforcement authorities have recently broken several small "home-grown" terrorist cells that were planning such attacks.