(CBS/AP) A Qatari diplomat who sparked a bomb scare after sneaking a smoke in an airplane bathroom was traveling for a consular visit to see an imprisoned al Qaeda sleeper agent.
The Qatari embassys confirms that Mohammed Al-Madadi was going to meet Ali Al-Marri for an official visit. Consular officials frequently visit foreigners held in the United States to make sure they are being treated well. He also planned to meet with Qatari college students.
An administration official tells CBS News State Department reporter Charles Wolfson that Al-Marri, an al Qaeda member picked up after 9/11, is the only enemy combatant not being held at Guantanamo Bay because he was arrested in the United States. The U.S. government cut a plea agreement with him, which involved jail time, and he is now in prison in Colorado.
Officials say the diplomat will be sent home or transferred to another country for touching off the bomb scare.
Officials from various agencies were involved in internal discussions as well as talks with Qatar's embassy about how to deal with Al-Madadi.
A senior State Department official told Wolfson the department understands that Al-Madadi "will be withdrawn" from his post.
Authorities say the diplomat grabbed a surreptitious smoke in a jetliner's bathroom and he made a joke when confronted by federal air marshals that he had been trying to light his shoes - an apparent reference to the 2001 so-called "shoe bomber" Richard Reid.
The diplomat then walked past the flight attendant and returned to his seat, reports CBS News correspondent Bob Orr.
She followed and asked him if he had a lighter? He said, he did have a lighter but refused to hand it over. At that point the two federal air marshals joined the discussion and sat with the diplomat for the duration of the flight.
The incident prompted a widespread alert that sent jet fighters scrambling to intercept the flight.
No explosives were found and authorities speaking on condition of anonymity said they don't think he was trying to hurt anyone during Wednesday's scare and he will not be criminally charged.
Al-Madidi was released from custody on Thursday and headed back to Washington.
Qatar's action will affect how the administration responds to the incident, according to a State Department official and others who spoke on condition of anonymity due to the unresolved nature and sensitivity of the matter.
Under international protocol - the 1961 Vienna Conventions on Diplomatic Relations - diplomats in foreign countries enjoy broad immunity from prosecution. That immunity can only be waived by a diplomat's home government, something that is rarely requested and even more rarely granted.
What some people find incredulous is the idea that the diplomat would make a joke about terrorism while flying to visit a convicted terrorist, reports CBS News correspondent Sharyl Attkisson. Al-Madadi is expected to return to Qatar tonight, which would end any diplomatic standoff over how to hold him accountable.
Qatar, about the size of Connecticut and Rhode Island combined and with a population of about 1.4 million people, is an oil-rich Middle East nation and key U.S. ally. It is situated on the Arabian peninsula and surrounded by three sides by the Persian Gulf and to the south by Saudi Arabia. The country hosts the forward headquarters of the U.S. Central Command, which runs the wars in both Afghanistan and Iraq, and is major supporter of operations deemed critical to both campaigns.
Qatar's U.S. ambassador, Ali Bin Fahad Al-Hajri, 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 embassy's Web site. "The facts will reveal that this was a mistake."
Al-Madadi is the embassy's third secretary, a relatively junior position, although diplomatic assignments in Washington are considered plum posts in most countries' diplomatic corps.
Wednesday's scare came 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.
Officials said air marshals aboard the flight restrained the man and he was questioned. The plane landed safely as military jets were scrambled.
The Boeing 757 was carrying 157 passengers and six crew members, United Airlines spokesman Michael Trevino said.
The flight crew radioed air traffic control to ask that the flight be met on the ground by law enforcement, Trevino said.
Tim Burney said there was no visible commotion on the flight and that everything seemed normal.
"It didn't become apparent that there was a problem at least not to me until we had landed and that we'd pulled off the runway and everything started to go pretty fast and then I realized that there was a problem," passenger Tim Burney told CBS' "The Early Show" Thursday.
Burney was seated near the marshals and the suspect and said the situation remained under control.
"I heard the air marshal behind me indicate to the passenger to tell the truth and just relax. And they appeared to have everything under control. You could tell there was a heightened sense of awareness, but it certainly appeared they had everything under control," he said.
"I look back on it and certainly it was almost surreal, but they handled it so well, I think they helped us all remain calm as passengers."
The Transportation Security Administration confirmed that federal air marshals responded to a passenger "causing a disturbance onboard the aircraft," but didn't elaborate.
"Law enforcement and TSA responded to the scene and the passenger is currently being interviewed by law enforcement," TSA said late Wednesday in a statement. "All steps are being taken to ensure the safety of the traveling public."
Passengers say they were kept on the plane for nearly an hour after it landed and then were questioned by officials. Many were still trickling into the baggage area five hours after the plane landed.
Melissa Nitsch of Washington, D.C., said everyone aboard was questioned by the FBI before being released. Agents asked if they'd witnessed anything and for basic personal information.
"Everyone is pretty happy this situation is over," Nitsch said. "If you have to be stuck in a situation like this, it pretty much went perfectly."
President Barack Obama was briefed about the incident while on his way to Prague aboard Air Force One, said a White House official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss an ongoing investigation.