Anoka County sheriff’s employee accused of racially profiling Palestinian men at MSP airport

Airline passengers passing through
Airline passengers passing through the renovated area at Minneapolis–Saint Paul International Airport on Nov. 9, 2023, in St. Paul.
Kerem Yücel | MPR News 2023

This story comes to you from Sahan Journal through a partnership with MPR News.

The Anoka County Sheriff’s Office is reviewing an employee’s actions at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport after accusations of racial profiling and Islamophobia against the staffer garnered millions of views on social media.

The sheriff’s office addressed the situation Wednesday night by posting on X, formerly known as Twitter. The office said it will be reviewing all data related to a Monday incident where four young men were taken off of a Delta Air Lines flight after the sheriff’s employee reported them to the flight crew for suspicious activity. While airport police found no basis for her claims, the incident left the young men, who are Palestinian, feeling like they were racially profiled.

The sheriff’s office tweets did not identify the employee by name or job title, but a report from airport police said the woman identified herself as “law enforcement.”

Create a More Connected Minnesota

MPR News is your trusted resource for the news you need. With your support, MPR News brings accessible, courageous journalism and authentic conversation to everyone - free of paywalls and barriers. Your gift makes a difference.

“When a police officer looks at you like you can’t do anything, it’s belittling,” said 24-year-old convenience store owner Louay Adley, who was one of the four men questioned by airport police. “It put me in this position that everyone at the airport, whether it be the staff, employees, the woman, the police—they see me as someone lower than them.”

Adley, who lives in the Twin Cities, and three other men were escorted off the plane by a flight attendant soon after it landed, and were questioned by police at the gate for an hour before they were allowed to leave.

The sheriff’s office’s tweets did not address the employee’s current job status, but said “our employees’ conduct must be consistent with our values & policies as we continue to protect & serve in a manner that preserves the public trust.” 

“At this time, the identity of the employee is not public information and they have not been put on administrative leave,” a sheriff’s office spokesperson told Sahan Journal in an email. “As we continue to review the data, our office will respond appropriately.”

Minnesota-based journalist Mnar Adley, founder and director of MintPress News, took to social media to recount the incident on behalf of Adley, her brother, and two cousins who landed in Minnesota after attending a wedding. The cousins live elsewhere, and were connecting to other flights at the airport.

“My brother and cousins were speaking in Arabic and English and wearing Palestine necklaces. They are all in their early 20s,” Adley wrote on X. “They were all racially profiled and treated as suspect.”

A plane is sprayed on the tarmac.
An Airbus A220 is sprayed as part of deicing training for Delta Air Lines employees in preparation for winter weather at Minneapolis-St. Paul airport on Sept. 6, 2023, in Minneapolis.
Abbie Parr | AP 2023

A spokesperson for the Minneapolis-St. Paul Airport issued an email statement noting that the passengers were not detained and could have left the area at any time. After speaking with the passengers and the complainants, police determined no law enforcement action needed to be taken. 

According to a report from airport police, an officer responded to a welfare check at around 9 p.m. on January 8 for a passenger “who felt uncomfortable with four males that were on her flight.”

“The female caller verbally identified herself as law enforcement, and was requesting police to respond, but didn’t provide any credentials,” the report said.

According to the airport police report: “She said she watched them get up multiple times to go use the bathroom, and as each one came back they would whisper with their arms around each other. She said she found their behavior odd and decided to get up and get some water. While doing so, she approached them and asked if they were on a guys [sic] trip.”

The woman told police that the passengers said they were “CIA on a secret mission,” and pointed to a black bag.

“That was a lie,” Louay Adley said.

For Adley, the conversation was very different. He said that during the flight, he and one of his cousins were waiting for the bathroom near an empty row of seats when a woman walked up to them and made small talk. She asked what they were doing in Tampa, Florida, the city they departed from. 

Adley said he jokingly responded with, “We had a wedding mission to complete.” 

He said the woman repeatedly asked about their trip, making him and his cousin uncomfortable. There was a bag sitting in the opposite row with no one around it, Adley recalled, so he asked the woman if it belonged to her. 

“She said no, and that was it,” Adley said.

Adley added that while the conversation with the woman was awkward, he didn’t think it was concerning. Adley said his cousins primarily speak Arabic, and that they had struck up a conversation with an Arabic-speaking friend of his that they ran into on the plane. The friend was taken off the flight alongside Adley and his cousins.

When the plane landed, Adley said, the flight staff made an announcement that select passengers would deplane first due to a medical emergency. A flight attendant approached the group of men, Adley said, and “screamed at all four of us—it was so random.” Adley said he was shocked by the look of fear in the pilot’s face as he walked off the plane and said, “thank you,” to the pilot.

The flight attendant escorted them off the plane and waited at the gate until airport police arrived, Adley said. When officers told the men what the woman had shared with police, they became upset.

“Why was it that every other person using the bathroom wasn’t questioned? What made this woman begin to feel suspicious?” Adley said in an interview Thursday. “We felt belittled. We were never given a voice.”

All four men had cleared TSA and Delta security checks, the police report said. The men responded by saying they wanted to press hate crime charges, Adley said. The officers told them that there was nothing they could do since no crime had been committed.

“I did state that I understand their perspective and why they are upset. But unfortunately, no report for a hate crime could be taken because we could not prove what was said by either party,” an officer wrote in the police report.

Adley said that the flight attendant that escorted them off the flight was also rude. He said the entire situation was “humiliating and belittling.”

“Delta is reaching out to our customers to understand more about what occurred. We do not condone discriminatory conduct,” a spokesperson for Delta Airlines said in an email statement.

Adley called his sister right away. Mnar Adley said she walked him through what to ask the police. She posted about the incident the following day and received more than 7 million views as of Thursday afternoon.

Mnar Adley noted that her brother’s experience is also influenced by Israel’s ongoing bombings of and military campaign in Gaza. Since Hamas’ attack on Israel on October 7, more than 23,000 Palestinians have been killed in Israel’s military operation in Gaza, according to the Gaza Ministry of Health. Mnar Adley said that media coverage of Palestinians has stoked fear among the public and that the accusations against her brother are a result of that fear.

“Our media right now is engaging in very similar post-9/11 Islamophobia, dehumanization of Palestinians and Muslims, framing us as barbaric,” Mnar Adley said in an interview. “What this does is creates an atmosphere of fear among people. So, Palestinians and Muslims—when they’re wearing the keffiyeh [traditional headdress that can also be worn as a scarf], when they’re speaking Arabic—they’re going to be looked at and treated as suspect.”

She wrote on X that the woman put her brother, cousins, and other Arabic-speaking passengers in danger. 

“Anyone on the plane could’ve reacted to her allegation and became violent, even pulled out a gun on them,” her post says.

Mnar Adley added that this is not the first time her family has dealt with Islamophobia. Nearly ten years ago, her parents were picking up Louay, then 15, from a friend’s house in Brooklyn Park when a woman held their parents at gunpoint. The woman was later charged with felony terroristic threats