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Yemeni man yelled ‘Allahu Akbar’ as he tried to break into cockpit, prosecutors say

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SAN FRANCISCO >> A Yemen native who disrupted a San Francisco-bound flight was portrayed by prosecutors Tuesday as a dangerous and erratic passenger who tried to barge into the cockpit twice, did not carry any luggage and yelled “God is great” in Arabic.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Elise Becker said Rageh Al-Murisi, 28, was carrying several valid and expired forms of identification from New York and California, $47 in cash and two postdated checks totaling $13,000 in his wallet. One check was made out to himself, she said, but did not specify where the other was from. 

She also said he didn’t tell his relatives in California that he was traveling there.

Al-Murisi faces one count of interfering with flight crew members and attendants as pilots on American Airlines Flight 1561 were preparing to land in San Francisco on Sunday, one week after the death of Osama bin Laden at the hands of the U.S. military that has raised fears of a possible retaliation.

“He attempted to enter the cockpit right before a critical part of the flight,” Becker said in prosecution arguments to withhold bail for Al-Murisi.

In the court affidavit filed Monday, air marshal Paul Howard said after being told the cockpit door wasn’t the restroom, Al-Murisi made eye contact with a crew member, lowered his shoulder and rammed the door. The crew member told Howard he then got between Al-Murisi and the door, but Al-Murisi kept yelling and pushing forward in an attempt to open it, according to the affidavit.

Court documents say Al-Murisi repeatedly yelled “Allahu Akbar,” or Arabic for “God is great,” and tried twice to open the cockpit door before being subdued by a crew member and several passengers, including a former Secret Service agent and retired San Mateo police officer Larry Wright. The flight landed safely at San Francisco International Airport, but not without frightening passengers who became alarmed as he yelled unintelligibly and tried to rush the cockpit.

Becker said that the same Arabic phrase was uttered by the hijackers of Flight 93 as they took over the plane that eventually went down in Shanksville, Pa., on Sept. 11, 2001, and by a Nigerian man who allegedly tried to detonate explosives in his underwear on a Detroit-bound flight on Christmas 2009.

Wright said Tuesday that he jumped out of his seat after he heard a scream and Al-Murisi trotted past him yelling “Allahu Akbar.” The man was tackled, and Wright put Al-Murisi in a “control hold” as others tied his arms and legs in plastic handcuffs, he said. 

“I felt he was trying to take on the flight crew and possibly try to crash the airplane,” he said. 

The man screamed “Allahu Akbar” at least 30 times while in custody, he added.

Al-Murisi’s lawyer, Assistant Federal Public Defender Elizabeth Falk, argued that her client was not a public danger, but Judge James Larson disagreed and denied bail. He planned to revisit the issue on Friday. 

Authorities have said Al-Murisi has no clear or known ties to terrorism and investigators have not established a possible motive. He was not on any terror watch list, according to a U.S. official briefed on the investigation who spoke on condition of anonymity because the probe is ongoing. 

Yemen, a nation at the southern tip of the Arabian peninsula, has been a focus of U.S. officials because one of the most active branches of al-Qaida operates in the remote part of the country. Al-Murisi’s wife and children live in Yemen, Becker said.

His cousin, Ahmed Almoraissi, described the passenger as a “normal guy” who taught math in Yemen. 

“He has no intention of hurting nobody,” he said. “I don’t know what happened on the plane. It doesn’t make sense.”

Officials say he had been living in the San Francisco suburb of Vallejo until moving recently to join his brother in New York. He was unable to find work in Vallejo, a town of 100,000 across the bay from San Francisco hit hard by the real estate bust, said another cousin of Al-Murisi.

Rageh Almoraissi said his cousin did not show an interest in politics and was not intensely religious.

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