A cousin who said he was flying with the teen said his relative suffers from schizophrenia, was flying home to see his sick mother and hasn't taken his medication for three weeks.
Police arrested 19-year-old Yazeed Mohammed A. Abunayyan on Tuesday night at Portland International Airport after his Continental Airlines flight turned around after the incident.
The cousin, Fahad Alsubaie, 21, told the Medford Mail Tribune he was escorted off the plane with Abunayyan. Alsubaie said the disruption began after a flight attendant confronted the two for sitting together, because Alsubaie was in the wrong seat.
"I was going to ride back with him, just to make sure he was safe. They didn't want us to sit together," said Alsubaie, a Saudi Arabian exchange student studying English at Southern Oregon University in Ashland.
The indictment said a flight attendant asked Abunayyan to stop smoking an electronic cigarette, but he refused. He's also accused of yelling profanities and swinging his fist at the flight attendant, and also hitting or attempting to hit several passengers.
Abunayyan also spoke or sang about Osama bin Laden and his hatred of women, the indictment said.
"When they asked him to stop the cigarette ... he just went crazy, I couldn't stop him," Alsubaie told the Mail Tribune.
Passenger Mark Foster told KGW-TV that he and others aboard the flight were prepared to take action.
"You could tell buckles were off," he said. "People were already leaning toward the aisles."
Asked whether the FBI considered Abunayyan a terrorism threat, spokeswoman Beth Anne Steele noted that the indictment was on interfering charges, not terrorism.
Ashland police believe Abunayyan is the same teenager who led police on a slow-speed chase in the Southern Oregon town Sunday, ramming two police cars and nearly hitting a pedestrian. He was accused of drunken driving and assaulting an officer and was released on bail Monday.
The cousin said he was the person hanging out the driver's side window trying to pull the key out of the car's ignition while Abunayyan was driving away from police Sunday in Ashland.
"When I asked him about what he did in Ashland, he said, `Not me, other person inside me,"' Alsubaie told the newspaper. "He thinks he has a different personality."
Abunayyan appeared in court Wednesday afternoon to hear the charges and was assigned an interpreter who translated the proceedings into Arabic. His attorney, Phil Lewis, said in court that he needs more time to meet with Abunayyan before he enters a plea.
"His English is not good enough," Lewis said. "I'm unable to ascertain issues of competence."
Abunayyan started attending the Sonoma State American Language Institute at Sonoma State University, north of San Francisco, as a Saudi Arabian exchange student in September, institute director Helen Kallenbach told the Medford paper. He was studying to improve his English before beginning classes at the university, she said.
"He was very sweet, but he was a pretty disturbed young man," Kallenbach told the newspaper. "During the last week, he just started to crash and burn -- we had been concerned about him."
Alsubaie said Abunayyan heard the news about his mother about a week ago.