LOS ANGELES — A Qatari diplomat who touched off a security scare on a Denver-bound flight when he tried to sneak a cigarette has been released without charges and will probably leave the United States, authorities said Thursday.
In another twist, a spokeswoman for the Qatar Embassy said the diplomat, Mohammed al-Madadi, was heading to Denver on official business, including a visit to Ali al-Marri, a citizen of Qatar who is serving a prison sentence after pleading guilty last year to conspiracy in connection with the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
According to officials, Madadi apparently tried to smoke a cigarette on United Airlines Flight 663, traveling from Washington to Denver with more than 160 passengers and crew aboard.
When confronted, the diplomat made a sarcastic comment about lighting his shoes, officials said. That was taken as a reference to two other incidents in which men tried to blow up airliners. In 2001, Richard Reid was caught with explosives in his shoes, and last Christmas, a Nigerian Muslim attempted to ignite a bomb hidden in his underwear.
No explosive materials were found on Madadi.
Madadi, who holds diplomatic immunity, was released without charges, said Alison Bradley of the New York public relations firm Brown Lloyd James, which represents the Qatar Embassy in Washington.
Bradley said Madadi was traveling to Denver to meet with Qatari college students as well as Marri, who is an inmate at the federal prison in Florence, Colo.
In a statement posted on the Qatar Embassy's Web site, the country's ambassador to the United States, Ali bin Fahad al-Hajri, said the diplomat didn't do anything threatening.
"He certainly wasn't involved in any activities involving a threat. This was a mistake, and we request that all parties concerned refrain from making any assumptions or judgments," the statement said.
The State Department said Qatar has indicated that Madadi will be leaving the United States.
Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano on Thursday praised federal air marshals for their handling of the Madadi incident.
"I commend the federal air marshals on board United Airlines Flight 663 last night, who swiftly responded to a potential threat to passenger safety while the plane was in flight," Napolitano said in a statement. "We always treat security-related incidents seriously until verified otherwise, and thankfully this incident posed no actual security threat."