Singer Cat Stevens and his daughter were escorted off a diverted transatlantic flight by FBI agents, it emerged today.
The pop star, who converted to Islam, was denied access to the US because his name was on a security “watch list”, government security sources said.
The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) said the singer was denied access to the US “on national security grounds” and would be returned to Britain today.
Flight 919 from London diverted 600 miles to Bangor International Airport yesterday, landing at around 7.30pm (Irish Time), after US security officials were told Stevens was aboard.
He had been allowed to board the flight after United Airlines officials initially failed to spot his name, which he has changed to Yusuf Islam – on the watch list, the TSA said.
Passengers, including British pop veterans Marillion, were at first told the diversion was due to refuelling and eventually arrived in Washington six hours late.
Stevens, who was denied access to Israel four years ago, was detained and questioned, the TSA said. His 21-year-old daughter was allowed into the US.
A spokesman for United Airlines confirmed: “The 919 was ordered to land in Bangor, Maine, by the Transportation Security Administration.”
A TSA spokeswoman said: “A passenger was discovered to be a positive match on a watch list. In London, United Airlines missed that fact.
“Customs and Border Protection (CBP) made the positive match by checking data transmitted by the airline after the flight departed from London.”
The spokeswoman said customs officers contacted the TSA, which in turn asked the Federal Aviation Administration to clear the flight to land at Bangor.
The spokeswoman said the flight was diverted “to keep the aircraft from entering the north east corridor airspace”.
At Bangor, Stevens was met by agents from CBP, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and the FBI.
“He was interviewed by the CBP officers and ICE agents and he was refused admission to the United States at Bangor, Maine,” the TSA spokeswoman said.
She said he was refused entry under the Immigration and Naturalisation Act “based on national security grounds”.
The spokeswoman added: “ICE and the FBI were notified and they did interview the subject who was travelling with his 21-year-old daughter. His daughter was admitted to the United States. He is being detained pending his return to the United Kingdom on the first available flight.”
Cat Stevens had a string of hits in the 1960s and 1970s, including Wild World and Morning Has Broken.
Last year he released two songs, including a re-recording of his 1970s hit Peace Train, to express his opposition to the war in Iraq.
He abandoned his music career in the late 1970s and changed his name after being persuaded by orthodox Mslim teachers that his lifestyle was forbidden by Islamic law.
He later became a teacher and an advocate for his religion, founding a Muslim school in London in 1983.
Speaking from Bangor, Marillion singer Steve Hogarth, 45, told PA News: “We flew today on Flight 919 to Washington Dulles en route to Mexico City where we have two shows.
“At 1453 (Eastern Time), the plane touched down. As it touched down, an announcement was made by the stewardess that we were not landing in Washington because of bad weather.
“Then there was an announcement made by the captain saying they stopped to refuel. But after another period, of about 10 minutes, the captain made another announcement saying it was, in fact, an FBI security alert.”
Mr Hogarth added: “We all had to get off the plane.”
Passengers then went through immigration and Mr Hogarth was warned not use his camera.
He said: “This was pretty peculiar and I had wanted to record it for my diary.
“I then met a security guard who said the two people escorted off the plane were Cat Stevens and his daughter.”
Mr Hogarth added: “I was really stunned. Everybody knows he converted to the Muslim faith. He is a pacifist and a great songwriter.”
He said security men were swabbing bags as they began the process to reboard.
In July 2000, Stevens was denied entry to Israel amid reports that he had donated tens of thousands of dollars to the Islamic terrorist group, Hamas.
In a statement released by his record label Universal Music at the time, he said: “I want to make sure that people are aware that I’ve never ever knowingly supported any terrorist groups – past, present or future.”