DETROIT — An Ohio woman who is half-Jewish and half-Arab says that she and two Indian Americans were detained Sunday by armed officers on an airplane at Detroit Metro Airport and then jailed and strip-searched — an incident that civil rights leaders say was one of many cases of law enforcement targeting minorities on the 10th anniversary of 9/11.
But federal officials say they were told that some passengers on board were acting suspiciously, and responded accordingly.
After landing in Detroit, the woman, Shoshana Hebshi of Toledo, wrote on a blog that has received national attention that she and the men were handcuffed, jailed, strip-searched and interrogated because of their ethnicities.
“They needed to make sure all my orifices were free and clear,” Hebshi wrote.
And she said an FBI agent told her there were “50 other similar incidents across the country that day,” raising questions about whether law enforcement targeted certain groups on Sept. 11 because of their appearance.
FBI Special Agent in Charge of Detroit Andy Arena told the Detroit Free Press that the FBI did interview the woman and the men, but said: “We treated her well.”
“The FBI did not arrest anybody or direct anyone to be arrested,” Arena said Tuesday. After determining “there was no criminal or terrorist activity they were released.” Arena said there were other reports of suspicious activity across the U.S. on Sept 11; he added that the FBI does not profile.
The suspicious activity prompted authorities to scramble F-16 jets to tail the plane while it was in the air. Upon landing, it was ordered to a remote area.
Then, “all of a sudden, a SWAT team went through saying, ’Please place your hands on the seat in front of you,’ " said passenger Belinda Duggan, of Troy, Mich.
In an email, Wayne County Airport Authority spokesman Scott Wintner said airport police “responded appropriately by following protocol and treating everyone involved with respect and dignity.”
Hebshi said that finally, after being fingerprinted and allowed to call her husband, she was told she and the men were being released and that nothing suspicious was found on the plane. She said an official apologized and thanked her for understanding and cooperating.
Hebshi said she received another call of apology from an FBI agent Monday, before she wrote her blog post.
“I can understand they were just doing their job,” she told the news service. “My beef is with these laws and regulations that are so hypersensitive. ... Even if you’re an innocent bystander, you have no rights.”
The anniversary of Sept. 11 brought a renewed focus on terrorism, a focus that ended up scapegoating some innocent people, say Muslim leaders. On Twitter and blogs, many expressed concern about the way Hebshi and the men were treated.
The incident came after a decade in which Arab Americans, Muslims and South Asians say they’ve been increasingly harassed and humiliated by law enforcement.
A spokesman for Frontier Airlines, Peter Kowalchuk, did not comment about whether the three passengers were singled out for their ethnic appearance, saying Frontier was “following security protocols and in response to concerns expressed by passengers on the aircraft and our flight attendants” about “the suspicious activity of two gentlemen.” He did not explain what the suspicious activity was. A spokesman for Wayne County Airport Police, who helped detain the three passengers, did not return calls seeking comment.
Hebshi is a freelance writer, editor and stay-at-home mother of twin 6-year-old boys who lives in a Toledo suburb. She said in the blog that she and two men she happened to be seated next to were detained and jailed without explanation.
“Armed officers stormed my plane, threw me in handcuffs and locked me up,” she wrote, saying that what happened to her was an example of how “in the name of patriotism we lost a lot of our liberty, especially those who look like me.”
Civil rights advocates say the incident — and others like it across the U.S. on Sept 11 — indicate that federal law enforcement might have profiled and questioned minorities on the 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks.
“It’s obvious that the FBI detained and questioned so-called suspicious-looking persons due to the anniversary of 9/11,” said Dawud Walid, head of the state branch of the Council of American-Islamic Relations.
“More than 300 people were questioned by the FBI over an 'unconfirmed’ threat that there would be an attack on the anniversary. Of course, all were cleared. The search of that innocent woman, who is half Arab, and her Indian travel companions was a case of flying while ethnic-looking on 9/ 11.”
Hebshi, who describes herself as a “dark-skinned woman of Arab/Jewish heritage,” said:
“I feel violated, humiliated and sure that I was taken from the plane simply because of my appearance.”
She added: “I was forced into a situation where I was stripped of my freedom and liberty that so many of my fellow Americans purport are the foundations of this country and should be protected at any cost.”
Hebshi posted her essay on a blog that she says tells “the stories of everyday life.”
A Detroit FBI spokeswoman, Special Agent Sandra Berchtold, said the FBI received a report of “suspicious activity” on the flight, but would not say what that activity was.
A spokesman for the Transportation Security Administration, Jim Fotenos, did not comment on the allegations of profiling. He said the TSA “was notified of passengers allegedly behaving suspiciously.”
“Out of an abundance of caution,” the North American Aerospace Defense Command, or NORAD, “scrambled F-16 jets to shadow the flight until it landed safely,” he said. Fotenos also did not explain the suspicious behavior.
After landing, Hebshi said that cops surrounded the plane and proceeded to arrest them without any explanation.
One officer grabbed her arm hard, and then “he slapped metal cuffs on my wrists and pushed me off the plane. The three of us, two Indian men living in the Detroit metro area, and me, a half-Arab, half-Jewish housewife living in suburban Ohio, were being detained.”
“The cops brought us to a parked squad car next to the plane, had us spread our legs and arms.”
Hebshi said she has never had any trouble with the law and while on the plane, “I never left my seat, spoke to anyone on the flight or tinkered with any 'suspicious’ device.”