Diplomat Who Touched Off Bomb Scare Was on His Way to Visit Jailed Terrorist

The Qatari diplomat who caused a midair security scare when he tried to sneak a cigarette and then joked about it was on his way to Colorado to meet with a jailed Al Qaeda operative, officials told Fox News on Thursday.

The Qatar embassy said the prison visit wasn't the only purpose of the trip -- diplomat Mohammed Al-Madadi was also planning visits with college students from Qatar. The embassy, responding to questions from Fox News, said the trip was approved in advance and that such consular visits have been held monthly with the prisoner since mid-2009.

Consular officials frequently visit foreigners held in the United States to make sure they are being treated well. But the revelation about this particular meeting with Ali Al-Marri only raised more questions about Al-Madadi's behavior Wednesday night on board the United Airlines flight from Washington, D.C..

En route to meet with a notorious terror inmate, the diplomat flouted the rules routine flyers know well are in place because of the threats posed by such terror suspects.

The diplomat's behavior caused a full-blown law enforcement response. After Al-Madadi tried to sneak a cigarette on the flight and then joked that he was trying to light his shoes on fire, two F-16s were called to escort the airplane to the Denver airport. The incident lasted another hour while the plane was held on the tarmac.

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The young diplomat flew back to Washington, D.C., on Thursday and the State Department made clear he would not be staying long. One senior official said he'd probably be catching the next flight back to Doha.

"His ability to function effectively has been compromised," the official said, adding that the diplomat will probably not be returning to the United States after the incident.

It's unknown whether the scheduled visit with Al-Marri added to the tension with the State Department. Al-Marri was first arrested after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, accused of being a sleeper agent researching poisonous gasses and plotting a cyberattack.

But by the morning after the airline incident, officials were already calling for Al-Madadi to either be recalled or expelled for doing just about "everything wrong" on board the United Airlines flight. Though no explosives were found on the flight and the envoy is not expected to be criminally charged, Rep. Pete Hoekstra, R-Mich., ranking Republican on the House intelligence committee, said the diplomat should be out of the country.

"Getting on a U.S. flight, smoking a cigarette and making jokes about it is totally inappropriate and somebody from the Middle East should understand that," he told FoxNews.com.

"Even being dumb, there are consequences for it," he said. "I think an American would have the book thrown at him."

Robert MacLean, a former federal air marshal, also said expulsion was probably the proper course.

"I'm not a State Department guy, but he did everything wrong as far as what a federal air marshal expects from passengers on a plane," he told Fox News. "He was very arrogant and thought he could get away with this, probably with his diplomatic status."

Qatar's U.S. ambassador, Ali Bin Fahad Al-Hajri, earlier cautioned against a rush to judgment.

"This diplomat was traveling to Denver on official embassy business on my instructions, and he was certainly not engaged in any threatening activity," he said in a statement on his Washington, D.C., embassy's Web site. "The facts will reveal that this was a mistake."

Brown Lloyd James, a public relations firm representing the Qatar embassy, said Thursday morning that the diplomat had been released by authorities after questioning. The firm said Al-Madadi is the embassy's third secretary.

Wednesday's scare came just over three months after the attempted terror attack on Christmas Day when a Nigerian man tried to blow up a Detroit-bound airliner. Since then, law enforcement, flight crews and passengers have been on high alert for suspicious activity on airplanes. The scare exposed major holes in the country's national security and prompted immediate changes in terror-screening policies.

Two law enforcement officials said investigators were told the man was asked about the smell of smoke in the bathroom and he made a joke that he had been trying to light his shoes -- an apparent reference to the 2001 so-called "shoe bomber" Richard Reid.

Officials said air marshals aboard the flight restrained the man and he was questioned. The plane landed safely as military jets were scrambled.

The envoy was interviewed for several hours, but authorities declined to provide any details about him or his status.

An online biography on the business networking site LinkedIn shows that a Mohammed Al-Madadi has been in Washington since at least 2007, when he began studying at George Washington University's business school. The job title listed on the site is database administrator at Qatar's Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

FoxNews.com's Judson Berger, Fox News' Mike Levine and The Associated Press contributed to this report.