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RESPONSE TO TERROR | THE INVESTIGATION

Britain Says Jailed Pilot Aided in Plot

Inquiry: Algerian oversaw training of four of the hijackers, prosecutors allege. He is arrested on a minor perjury charge while investigators gather more evidence.

September 29, 2001|MARJORIE MILLER and ERIC LICHTBLAU | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

LONDON — An Algerian pilot arrested in Britain oversaw flight training for four of the hijackers involved in the suicide attacks in the U.S., including the man believed to have flown an airliner into the Pentagon, prosecutors alleged Friday.

At an extradition hearing, a British prosecutor portrayed Lotfi Raissi, 27, as a kind of overseer or enforcer for the operation who made arrangements for the hijackers. But authorities gave few specifics.

"We say he was there to ensure that pilots were capable and trained for this purpose," prosecutor Arvinda Sambir said.

The prosecutor said Raissi was the "lead instructor" for four of the 19 hijackers and was closely involved with those on the plane that crashed into the Pentagon.

In a worldwide investigation in which hundreds of people have been detained, Raissi is one of just three formally accused of helping the hijackers prepare the Sept. 11 attacks. Last week, German authorities issued arrest warrants for two men charged with providing unspecified criminal assistance to the hijackers. Those men, alleged members of a terrorist cell in Hamburg, remain at large.

Raissi, who was detained last week under a British anti-terrorism law, was formally arrested on an international warrant issued in the U.S. Officials have 60 days to make a case for extradition.

Sambir said Raissi was wanted in the United States for perjury for giving false information in an application for a pilot's medical certificate. The prosecutor acknowledged that this was a "holding charge" while investigators gather evidence for more serious charges, including conspiracy to commit murder.

Raissi qualified as a U.S. pilot in 1997 after attending several flight schools, including at least one in Arizona. According to Federal Aviation Administration records, he was also licensed as a ground instructor, someone who can teach in a classroom setting but not in the air.

U.S. officials have identified a 29-year-old man who used the name Hani Hanjour as the hijacker who steered American Airlines Flight 77 into the Pentagon. He attended CRM Airline Training Center in Scottsdale, Ariz., and, according to the British prosecutor, was videotaped traveling with Raissi.

The other four hijackers on that flight have been identified as Majed Moqed, 24; Khalid Almihdhar, 26; Salem Alhazmi, 20; and Nawaf Alhazmi.

Raissi appeared in a London magistrate's court dressed in a white track suit top and blue trousers. He spoke only to confirm his name during the 10-minute hearing.

Afterward, attorney Richard Egan said Raissi "adamantly denies any involvement in the recent appalling tragedies and is confident that he will be absolved of all involvement."

Sambir, the prosecutor, said Raissi, who lives in London with his wife, visited the U.S. several times in June and July. On June 23, he traveled to Las Vegas with his wife before flying on to Arizona with Hanjour, Sambir said.

Las Vegas was a meeting point for some of the hijackers over the summer. Mohamed Atta, the apparent leader of the hijack teams, stayed in a low-cost motel in the city in June and again in August, hotel records show. Federal investigators say Hanjour and a third suspect were also with Atta in Las Vegas at some point.

Raissi and his wife, Sonia, 25, were detained Sept. 21 at their apartment in Colnbrook, about two miles from Heathrow Airport. She was later released, as was Raissi's brother, Mohammed, who was taken into custody in West London the same day.

A fourth person detained that day in Birmingham, England, Omar al-Bayoumi, also known as Abu Imard, was released Friday without being charged.

A man with an almost identical name lived at a San Diego apartment complex at the same time that two of the alleged Flight 77 hijackers lived there, records show.

Omar A. Al Bayoumi lived at the Parkwood Apartments from September 1999 to November 2000. Before that, he lived across the street at the Balboa Apartments.

Alleged Flight 77 hijackers Nawaf Alhazmi and Almihdhar also lived at the Parkwood Apartments.

Earlier this week, members of San Diego's Islamic community said Al Bayoumi brought Alhazmi and Almihdhar to San Diego from Los Angeles in 1999.

"He introduced them as students at the Islamic Center and helped them get established in the community," said one person, who asked not to be named.

Al Bayoumi left for Birmingham three to six months ago, he added.

After Raissi's arrest in Britain, police searched his two-bedroom home and confiscated a log book with pages torn out of it--pages that may relate to flights in the United States, officials said.

British newspapers said telephone records had linked Raissi to the hijackers.

Before he was taken into custody, Raissi was contacted by British journalists.

"It's gone crazy," the Sunday Times of London quoted him as saying. "I'm an airline pilot in Algeria, but over here I'm just a student. I've been living here for nine months training for my European conversion" license.

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