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RESPONSE TO TERROR

Egyptian Accused of Lying to FBI

Charges: Student had an air-band radio in a hotel room overlooking the trade center on Sept. 11. He initially denied owning the device.

January 12, 2002|JOHN J. GOLDMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

NEW YORK — Federal prosecutors on Friday charged an Egyptian graduate student with lying to investigators about possessing a radio capable of communicating with pilots while he stayed in a hotel room overlooking the World Trade Center on Sept. 11.

Magistrate Judge Frank Maas, citing what he said appeared to be "a very strong case of false statements," held Abdallah Higazy, 30, without bail in U.S. District Court in Manhattan.

"There is the reality this is a very important investigation the government is conducting, and he might have a substantial incentive to flee," Maas said.

At the same time, he said that Higazy, a computer science student at Polytechnic University in Brooklyn, was placed at the Millennium Hilton Hotel by the Institute of International Education while he looked for permanent housing.

"The fact IIE put him in the hotel suggests this may not be a terrorist case," Maas said.

The complaint said Higazy, who checked into the hotel Aug. 27 and was scheduled to leave Sept. 25, stated during an interview that he had served in the Egyptian Air Corps and had "some expertise in communications and communications devices."

In court, his lawyer, Robert S. Dunn, said Higazy didn't know how the radio got into his room. "It is not his radio," Dunn said outside the courtroom, stressing that anything could have happened after the hotel was evacuated during the Sept. 11 attack on the World Trade Center.

However, Assistant U.S. Atty. Dan Himmelfarb told the judge Friday that Higazy agreed during a third interview that the radio belonged to him but told three conflicting stories about how he got it.

An FBI affidavit said the hand-held radio, marketed for use by pilots, was discovered by a hotel security officer who helped inventory property that guests left behind when they fled the hotel Sept. 11.

Higazy's corner room was on the 51st floor, overlooking the twin towers, on the day they were hit by two hijacked airplanes. In early October, the security officer entered the room and found that the safe used by guests was locked.

"The security officer opened the safe using an override key available only to hotel security personnel," the affidavit said.

Inside, along with Higazy's Egyptian passport, a book and other items, was an air-band transceiver, the security officer told the FBI.

The radio can be used for air-to-air and air-to-ground communication with someone possessing a similar radio, including the pilot of a commercial plane. It also can be used to monitor transmissions.

Court papers said that when Higazy arrived at the hotel to retrieve his possessions Dec. 17, he was shown the radio by FBI agents. He stated that he had never seen it before and that it did not belong to him. He also said he never had visitors in his room, aside from the hotel's housekeeping staff.

He was then arrested as a material witness in the terrorist attacks.

Questioned a second time, he said one of his duties in the Egyptian Air Corps was to repair radios used by pilots to communicate with people on the ground. He repeated he had no knowledge of the transceiver. Higazy also said he did not give the safe's combination, which he had created, to anyone during his stay at the hotel.

Higazy, dressed in a blue prison uniform, sat quietly in court Friday while his bail was argued. A U.S. marshal towered over the slight, dark-haired defendant.

Himmelfarb told the judge that, while Higazy was being charged with one count of making false statements, additional charges could be filed.

Arguing against bail, he cited Higazy's lack of community ties and alleged: "He first denied ownership of the radio, then admitted possession and told three different versions [of] how he got possession of it."

"The crime that was being investigated when the false statements were made is perhaps the most serious in the country's history," he said. "A radio that can be used for air-to-air and air-to-ground communication is a significant part of that investigation.

"The defendant is interfering with that investigation in a fundamental way," he said.

Dunn said Higazy attended college in Cairo and Europe, and elementary and junior high school in the Washington area. He said Higazy's father had worked for a time at the Egyptian Embassy in Washington but added no further details.

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