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Hussein's Stepson Has No Links to Terrorism, U.S. Believes

Security: He's being held in Florida on visa charges. Officials want to ask him about his plans to go to the flight school a Sept. 11 hijacker attended.

July 05, 2002|ROBIN WRIGHT | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON -- The Justice Department said Thursday that the stepson of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, now being held in Florida, is not believed to be connected to any terrorist group or plot, despite his interest in a course at a Florida flight school attended by one of the participants in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

Mohammed Nour al-Din Saffi, whose mother was forced to divorce her husband and abandon her son in order to marry the Iraqi leader in the early 1980s, is now a citizen of New Zealand.

He was arrested by Immigration and Naturalization Service officials Wednesday on visa violations and remains in INS custody pending further investigation, an INS statement said Thursday.

An FBI official said federal law enforcement agencies were interested in talking to Saffi about why he came to the United States. The FBI had been aware that Saffi had entered the country and was monitoring his movements, the official added.

But at least at this stage, U.S. officials say he is not suspected of being involved in an anti-American scheme. "He is not considered part of any terrorist activity at this time," according to the INS statement.

New Zealand authorities, who investigated Saffi after Sept. 11 after learning that he was Hussein's stepson, also said he was not suspected of terrorism.

Saffi, who is employed by Air New Zealand, had planned to attend a four-day Boeing 747 recertification course at the Miami flight school, the INS said. It was the same flight school attended by Ziad Jarrah, one of the men suspected of hijacking United Flight 93, which crashed into a Pennsylvania field on Sept. 11.

Saffi is being processed for deportation, an INS spokesman in Miami told Associated Press. Saffi arrived in Miami after going through Los Angeles International Airport on a flight from New Zealand.

His status as a tourist--his New Zealand passport enabled him to enter the United States without obtaining a visa--does not allow him to enroll in a school of any kind in the United States, INS officials say.

Saffi was arrested within 24 hours of arriving in Miami. The INS has not said how agents learned of Saffi's plans to enroll in flight school.

Experts on Iraq claim that Saffi, who is 36, is a castoff of Hussein with virtually no connections to the ruler or his family.

He is the son of Samira Shahbandar, a former flight attendant who was married to a senior official in Iraq's national airline when Hussein became enamored of her and demanded that she divorce her husband, according to Amatzia Baram, an expert on Iraq and Hussein's family at the University of Haifa in Israel.

Shahbandar became Hussein's second wife. They subsequently had a son, Ali, who is now about 16. Saffi, following Muslim tradition, remained with his father after the divorce.

Saffi "was just a person with no particular connections to Saddam. He stayed with the father's side of the family and Saddam had no attachment to him," Baram said. "He was a private citizen and was never a political or security figure, since he was not family."

Baram described any fears of Saffi representing a threat to the United States as "meaningless."

"I really doubt he's connected with any plots or sabotage," he said.

Saffi's standing also would be low even if he had been connected to the Iraqi leader, since his mother has been supplanted by two other women Hussein has married over the last decade. Hussein has four wives now, Baram said.

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