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INS Detains Flight Student Named in Pre-Sept. 11 FBI Memo

Inquiry: The alleged Mideast extremist came under suspicion during Arizona pilot training.

June 05, 2002|GREG KRIKORIAN and RICH CONNELL | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

One of the eight alleged Middle East extremists named in the FBI "Phoenix memo" has been taken into custody by federal anti-terrorism agents in Arizona for alleged violation of immigration laws.

Zakaria Soubra, a longtime flight school student who came to the attention of FBI agents in Phoenix more than a year before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, is being held at the Immigration and Naturalization Service's detention facility in Florence, outside Phoenix.

An INS official refused to say how long Soubra has been in custody or whether he was being held without bail.

A lawyer representing Soubra declined to comment.

One federal law enforcement source said the 25-year-old Lebanese national was taken into custody hours after Phoenix-based FBI Agent Kenneth Williams testified on May 23 before a U.S. Senate intelligence panel. In his five-page memo written last July, Williams warned that Islamic extremists were attending U.S. flight schools and could have terrorist ties. Soubra was one of the flight school students mentioned in the memo to FBI headquarters.

The same federal source said Soubra was being held without bond after being taken into custody by INS agents assigned to a Joint Terrorism Task Force in Phoenix.

Records and interviews show FBI agents have been interested since at least early 2000 in Soubra's attendance at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Prescott, Ariz., as well as his membership in Al Muhajiroun, a hard-line anti-American group that some intelligence agents suspect is linked to Osama bin Laden's terrorist network, Al Qaeda.

It was partly the concern about the London-based Al Muhajiroun and connections to flight schools that prompted Williams' memo.

Authorities have not alleged any links between Soubra and September's hijackers. But investigators long ago established that one of the 19 terrorists, Hani Hanjour, first came to Arizona in the mid-1990s and trained at local flight schools.

Soubra has acknowledged stirring political controversy in Arizona. He organized a Tempe street demonstration protesting Russia's war in Chechnya, arranged a critical discussion of the U.S. presence in Yemen at Embry-Riddle and was asked to leave a mosque after criticizing members for supporting non-Islamic governments in the U.S. and elsewhere.

In an interview last fall with The Times, Soubra said, "We are promised by the prophet that Islam will rule the whole world." The U.S. and other Western governments must be removed using intellectual and political means, he said. But Soubra condemned the attacks of Sept. 11 as a violation of Islamic law because they targeted civilians.

"There are a lot of interesting aspects to him," said the federal law enforcement source. "He wasn't being investigated for violating his student visa, that's for sure."

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