WASHINGTON – U.S. security officials Tuesday diverted a Washington-bound United Airlines flight and detained Yusuf Islam, formerly known as the pop singer Cat Stevens, after discovering that he had been allowed to board the plane in London even though he was on the government’s no-fly list.
Islam was questioned in Bangor, Maine, by Customs and Border Protection agents. Dennis Murphy, spokesman for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, said Islam is scheduled to be deported today on a flight to Europe. “He is being detained on national security grounds,” Murphy said. He declined to elaborate.
Islam was denied entry into Israel several years ago out of concerns that his charitable contributions had financed militant groups. He denied knowingly contributing to any such groups.
Homeland Security officials worked with the Federal Aviation Administration on Tuesday afternoon to order the United flight to land in Bangor, the closest major airport on the East Coast, after learning that Islam was on board the Boeing 747. Islam, whose name is listed as “Usef Islam,” is on several government watch lists, including the no-fly list, according to sources familiar with the event.
While the flight was over the Atlantic, Customs and Border Protection agents were routinely comparing the passenger manifest against the watch lists and realized that Islam was on board, these sources said. Airline agents conduct similar checks before flights depart; it was not clear Tuesday why Islam was not flagged before he boarded.
Transportation Security Administration spokesman Mark Hatfield said his agency made the decision to divert the flight. “We did not want that aircraft to enter the Northeast corridor airspace,” which would have taken it over New York and into Washington, Hatfield said. “We got information that led us to make a decision, based on the fact there was a confirmed individual on board.”
United Airlines declined to comment on the incident Tuesday but said that its Flight 919 eventually continued to Dulles International Airport on Tuesday evening.
Islam, who was born Stephen Georgiou, took Cat Stevens as a stage name and had a string of hits in the 1960s and ‘70s, including “Wild World” and “Morning Has Broken.” Last year he released two songs, including a re-recording of his ‘70s hit “Peace Train,” to express his opposition to the U.S.-led war in Iraq.
Islam recorded 12 albums before abandoning his singing career in the late 1980s after he converted to Islam. He drew criticism in the late 1980s after he publicly supported Ayatollah Khomeini’s death edict against author Salman Rushdie. After the terrorist attacks in 2001, Islam said he would donate profits from his CD box set to families of the victims of the attacks.