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Cockpit Break-In Suspect On SFO Flight Deemed ‘Significant Threat’

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A courtroom sketch of SFO flight cockpit storming suspect Rageh al-Murisi (Joan Lynch/CBS)

A courtroom sketch of SFO flight cockpit storming suspect Rageh al-Murisi (Joan Lynch/CBS)

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SAN FRANCISCO (CBS 5) — A Yemeni man accused of trying to storm the cockpit of a San Francisco-bound American Airlines flight was called a “significant threat” by federal prosecutors and a judge agreed, ordering Rageh al-Murisi held without bail.

At his first appearance in U.S. District Court on Tuesday, al-Murisi, 28, was charged in a federal criminal complaint with interfering with flight crew members on an American Flight 1561 from Chicago to San Francisco as it was preparing to land on Sunday night.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Elise Becker called him a dangerous and erratic passenger who did not carry any luggage and yelled “God is great” in Arabic as “he attempted to enter the cockpit right before a critical part of the flight.”

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.

Al-Murisi allegedly walked from the back to the front of the plane and tried to open the locked cockpit door by moving the door handles, according to an affidavit by Federal Air Marshal Paul Howard filed with the complaint.

The chief flight attendant initially thought al-Murisi was looking for the restroom and twice told him the lavatory was on the left. But al-Murisi then made eye contact with the attendant and began ramming the door with his shoulder, the affidavit said.

KCBS’ Bob Melrose Reports:

After the flight attendant called for help, al-Murisi was subdued and placed in plastic handcuffs by flight attendants and passengers, including a retired U.S. Secret Service officer and a retired San Mateo police officer.

That retired officer, 54-year-old Larry Wright, said he quickly got out of his seat as al-Murisi started screaming “Allahu Akbar” and advanced toward the cockpit.

“I decided to go ahead and try and use a control hold on him. I was able to accomplish that,” Wright said. “I found that when I touched him, my hand actually slipped off because his skin was very clammy.”

Wright recounted his role in the incident to reporters after Tuesday’s court hearing.

Although he said he doesn’t consider himself a hero, Wright said he believed al-Murisi was trying to take on the flight crew and possibly crash the plane.

KCBS’ Chris Filippi Reports:

Becker, in asking for custody without bail, reiterated to U.S. Magistrate James Larson that al-Murisi was heard to say “Allahu Akbar,” or “God is great,” as he moved toward the cockpit door.

She noted that an al-Qaeda terrorist who participated in the hijacking of Flight 93 on Sept. 11, 2001, was heard on a voice recorder to have said the same phrase as that plane plummeted to a field in Shanksville, Pennsylvania.

She added that the same phrase was uttered by a Nigerian man who allegedly tried to detonate explosives in his underwear on a Detroit, Michigan-bound flight on Christmas 2009.

Becker said al-Murisi had no luggage and was carrying two checks totaling $13,000 on the flight. She said that al-Murisi, who holds a Yemeni passport, had identification showing addresses in New York City and Vallejo.

Outside of court, relatives said al-Murisi had been a math teacher in Yemen and had lived in Vallejo for a time before moving to New York.

Ahmed Almoraissi, 25, of Vallejo, described his cousin as just “a normal guy.”

“He has no intention of hurting anyone. It doesn’t make sense,” the cousin said of al-Murisi. “I don’t know what happened on the plane.”

Another cousin, Rageh Almoraissi said al-Murisi did not show an interest in politics and was not intensely religious.

Authorities have said al-Murisi has no clear or known ties to terrorism and investigators have not established a possible motive. 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.

Tuesday’s court session was al-Murisi’s initial appearance, at which he was informed of the charges against him. The crime of interfering with flight crew members and attendants carries a potential sentence of up to 20 years in prison upon conviction.

Larson scheduled a further detention hearing for Friday.

Al-Murisi’s lawyer, Assistant Federal Public Defender Elizabeth Falk, said she would ask for bail on Friday and planned to talk to al-Murisi’s relatives in Vallejo to determine whether they could post a bond.

(Copyright 2011 by CBS San Francisco. All Rights Reserved. Wire services may have contributed to this report.)

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