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RESPONSE TO TERROR | DEFENDANTS

Fearing Escape, Judge Bars Release of Pilot Who Knew Hijack Suspect

November 10, 2001|RICH CONNELL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A Middle Eastern pilot who has acknowledged knowing a suspected Sept. 11 hijacker is a flight risk and must remain in custody, a federal judge in Phoenix ruled.

Malek Mohamed Seif, arrested in Arizona last month for allegedly making false statements on a Social Security card application, is not accused of involvement in the terrorist plot. But in an order released Friday after a series of detention hearings, U.S. Magistrate Judge Lawrence O. Anderson expressed concern that Seif may flee, partly because he could face arrest as a material witness in the nationwide dragnet prompted by the terror attacks.

Seif left the U.S. before the East Coast attacks and was arrested shortly after his return in October.

Anderson's order offers fresh clues about the federal interest in Seif, 36, who recently lived in Tempe, Ariz., and is believed to be a Djibouti national.

After reviewing records of FBI interviews stemming from the terrorism investigation, Anderson wrote that Seif admitted knowing Hani Hanjour, a Saudi who took flight training near Phoenix and is suspected of steering an airliner into the Pentagon.

Seif said the two "frequented the same Islamic Mosque in Tempe," Anderson wrote. "He also admits to having attended a dinner party in Tempe with Mr. Hanjour and other Middle Eastern men . . . to celebrate a different individual's successful completion of his flight training.

"After initially avoiding the question, stating he could not remember and then crying, [Seif] advised the FBI that he thought he last saw Hani Hanjour in possibly March or April 2001 in the Mosque."

Anderson found that, in addition to lack of family, property and legal ties in the United States, Seif "is likely motivated to flee the United States and would not voluntarily return" out of fear he could be locked up as a witness in any conspiracy case arising from the attacks.

As part of the global effort to retrace the movements and identify associates of the suspected hijackers, investigators have paid special attention to the Phoenix area. In addition to Hanjour, Lotfi Raissi, who is being held in England, took flight training lessons there, according to confidential federal investigative records obtained by The Times. Raissi, an Algerian pilot held on a federal indictment for allegedly making false statements on pilot documents, is suspected of overseeing the training of Hanjour and three other suspected hijackers. Raissi denies involvement with the hijackers.

Seif took flight training at the same Phoenix-area school when Raissi did, according to government records. Seif's attorney, Thomas Hoidal, says his client may have had passing encounters with Hanjour and Raissi but knew little about either of them.

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