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UC Berkeley Student Speaking Arabic Pulled From Southwest Airlines Flight

BERKELEY (CBS / AP) — A University of California, Berkeley student who came to the U.S. as an Iraqi refugee says he was unfairly removed from a flight at Los Angeles International Airport earlier this month because a fellow passenger was alarmed by an innocent conversation he was having in Arabic.

Southwest Airlines said in a statement Sunday that the passenger, Khairuldeen Makhzoomi, was taken off the April 9 flight from Los Angeles to Oakland for questioning. The plane departed while that was happening.

But the airline said it has not received a direct complaint from Makhzoomi, and he has not responded to several attempts to reach him.

The UC Berkeley senior is set to graduate next month, but told KPIX 5 he hasn't been able to focus or study after he was escorted off of the flight and questioned for hours by the FBI.

Meanwhile, a spokesman for Los Angeles International Airport police says officers have concluded the student broke no laws.

Officer Rob Pedregon of the Los Angeles World Airports Police Department said Monday that officers from his department and agents from the FBI both interviewed Makhzoomi after he was taken off the April 9 flight.

Makhzoomi said he made a passing reference to Islamic State while telling his uncle about a speech he had attended by United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon.

"The statement he made was not illegal, there was nothing that involved threats or anything like that so he was released," Pedregon said.

He said airport police consider the case closed.

Makhzoomi, a 26-year-old senior, said that he was calling his uncle to tell him about the speech.

"I was very excited about the event, so I called my uncle to tell him about it," Makhzoomi told the New York Times.

Makhzoomi told his uncle about asking a question on the Islamic State group at the event. He said he used the phrase "inshallah," meaning "god willing," at the end of the conversation, and those things might have led to suspicion.

He said the woman sitting in front of him on the plane began staring at him. "She turned around and was staring at me and I knew something was wrong. That is when I thought, 'Oh, I hope she is not reporting me,'" Makhzoomi said.

Makhzoomi said an Arabic-speaking Southwest employee came and escorted him off the plane and asked him why he had been speaking Arabic.

Makhzoomi said he told the employee "This is what Islamophobia got this country into." Makhzoomi said that made the man angry and that was when he was told he could not get back on the plane.

He was taken down a secured hallway to be questioned by FBI agents.

"One of the FBI agents said, 'Tell us everything about martyr.' The word martyr, which is 'shahid,'" said Makhzoomi. "She heard the wrong word because I said shahalla, not shahid. Basically, they associated that word with jihad."

Southwest said it has seen multiple media reports in which Makhzoomi confirms he openly discussed a terrorist organization on the phone minutes before departure, and that it was another Arabic-speaking passenger who reported him to the crew.

In a statement, Southwest added, "It was the content of the passenger's conversation, not the language used, that prompted the report leading to our investigation. Once the report was made, an Arabic-speaking Southwest Manager at LAX participated in the decision to request the passenger leave the aircraft and continue the conversation in the gate area. We provided the passenger an immediate refund of his unused ticket.  Federal law enforcement agents became involved and conducted their own investigation.  We would like the opportunity to speak with Mr. Makhzoomi further about his experience and have reached out to him several times.

We welcome onboard more than a hundred million Customers each year; and we aim safely to transport each, while maintaining the comfort of all. Safety is our always first focus, and our Employees are trained to make decisions to safeguard the security of our Crews and Customers on every flight. We would not remove a passenger from a flight without a collaborative decision rooted in established procedures. Southwest neither condones nor tolerates discrimination of any kind."

Makzhoomi told KPIX 5 when he was finally released he booked a flight home to the Bay Area on a different airline.

He said he is still waiting for southwest to offer him a formal apology --

"Admit you have done something wrong," said Makzhoomi. "We are a part of this country."

KPIX 5 contacted Southwest Airlines. Their spokesperson said they tried to contact Makzhoomi multiple times since the incident.

Southwest did refund Makzhoomi money for the unused ticket, but he says he wants a formal apology.


TM and © Copyright 2016 CBS Radio Inc. and its relevant subsidiaries. CBS RADIO and EYE Logo TM and Copyright 2016 CBS Broadcasting Inc. Used under license. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten. The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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