The FBI is hunting for a Twitter user who targeted two Atlanta-bound flights with bomb threats Saturday, prompting the military to dispatch fighter jets to escort the planes until they landed safely.
A person using the handle @kingzortic tweeted that bombs had been planted on a Delta flight from Portland and a Southwest flight from Milwaukee, claiming they would be exploded "as part of a nationwide State agreement." The Twitter user also asserted that an airport security employee helped with the operation.
"As part of a nationwide State agreement, a bomb was placed on SWA2492," the user said in a subsequent tweet directed at Southwest. "It will be detonated at a random time of my choosing..."
F-16 jets escorted the flights to their landing Saturday afternoon, and all passengers deplaned safely, Atlanta's Channel 2 News reported. The FBI found no explosives and interrogated all the passengers, and the FBI-led Joint Terrorism Task Force continues to investigate the threats.
Part of Atlanta's Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport was closed as Delta and Southwest engaged @kingzortic on Twitter.
"Oh yes, that's it. 1156, thanks. It was smuggled through one of the back entrences [sic] because the airport didn't…I had one of the airport security help me because he's an old friend who now works for The State. No more information for you," the user said in a series of tweets. "If anything happens to me I'll make sure that more flights are targeted. I strongly suggest you don't try anything stupid."
"Due a security situation, the aircraft operating Flight 2492 was taken to a remote area of the airport where Customers and the aircraft are being rescreened," Southwest said in a statement. "Our number one priority is the Safety of our Customers and People. We cannot comment on the nature of the security situation."
Meanwhile, passengers waited on the tarmac for two hours as the FBI checked the threatened planes.
"You could look out the window and see people with machine guns and all sorts of threatening things [and] bomb-sniffing dogs," passenger Joe Larkin told Atlanta's Channel 2.
Larkin and other passengers said they received little information about what actually was happening, but other riders said they followed the events on their phones.
Toni Ellingen of San Diego, one of the passengers aboard the Southwest flight from Milwaukee, told the Atlanta Journal Constitution "nobody panicked," and that the threat seemed much less imminent once they learned the comments were posted through Twitter.
"I don't think people really took it that seriously. There are so many people doing that now," Ellingen said of the tweeted threat.
Still, she said there was a great sense of relief once passengers could leave the flight.
"Everybody was happy because we didn't blow up," she said.
The threat follows heightened security concerns at the Atlanta airport, where five people — including an airplane baggage handler — were charged last month of illegally shipping firearms on passenger jets between Atlanta and New York.
Airport security employees are not currently screened for weapons, but some officials are now pushing for such measures. The Department of Homeland Security's TSA recently visited Atlanta's airport to "to help assess potential vulnerabilities related to site security at airports nationwide behind the sterile area," spokeswoman Marsha Catron told the Washington Times.
In the past, the TSA has claimed that such screening would be too complicated, since many employees go back and forth between secure and unsecure areas.
FBI Special Agent in Charge Britt Johnson told Channel 2 that the agency is determined to find the person who sent the threatening tweets. No arrests in the case have been announced as of Sunday afternoon. Twitter has suspended the @kingzortic account.
Follow Meredith Hoffman on Twitter: @merhoffman