Terror suspect freed for lack of evidence
©Los Angeles Times
LONDON -- The Algerian pilot whom investigators named as lead trainer of the Sept. 11 suicide hijackers was freed on bail Tuesday after the U.S. government failed to produce any hard evidence linking him to the terror attacks.
Lotfi Raissi, who was arrested Sept. 21, wept in court and his family applauded from a gallery as British Judge Timothy Workman overruled prosecutors' objections, set bail at about $15,000 and allowed Raissi to walk out of a maximum-security London prison.
The judge ordered Raissi, who faces two indictments on lesser charges in Arizona, to reappear next month for an extradition hearing.
But the decision to free a man once viewed as a key suspect in the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon was a public blow to the Bush administration, which has led a worldwide campaign to round up Sept. 11 suspects and other terrorists.
Indeed, the case appeared emblematic of an investigation that has run into difficulties. Only one man, Zacarias Moussaoui, has been charged for his alleged role in the Sept. 11 plot. He was arrested for immigration violations in Minnesota in August, before the attacks occurred.
None of the more than 1,200 people detained in the United States after the attacks was charged with terrorism; 116 face unrelated criminal charges, according to Justice Department figures released in mid December, while 460 were being held for immigration violations. The others have been released.
Unlike some of the U.S. cases, most of the overseas cases have escaped public scrutiny. CIA director George Tenet told the Senate Intelligence Committee last week that "nearly 1,000 al-Qaida operatives" had been arrested in more than 60 countries, a higher figure than earlier estimates.
But a U.S. official familiar with the roundups told the Los Angeles Times that not all those arrested were al-Qaida operatives. Moreover, the official said some have been released, suggesting insufficient evidence was found to support continued detention.
U.S. officials acknowledged that they have not been able to develop concrete evidence tying Raissi to the Sept. 11 hijackers.
"If there were terrorism charges we could have brought against Mr. Raissi, we would have brought them," said Bryan Sierra, a Justice Department spokesman. "That hasn't happened yet."
But Sierra said Raissi has not been ruled out as a suspect. And he sought to downplay the significance of the British judge's ruling.
"It's nothing more than a bond hearing before a foreign government," he said. "The extradition request is still pending, and we're still seeking to have him face charges in Arizona."
Workman's ruling came after a 35-minute hearing in which Raissi's attorney blasted the FBI and U.S. prosecutors for "disgracefully" withholding evidence and ignoring witnesses' testimony in their prolonged effort to extradite Raissi to the United States.
Throughout the 20 weeks Raissi was held in London's Belmarsh Prison, defense attorney Hugo Keith argued, the FBI examined his life "from top to toe ... but nothing whatsoever has been forthcoming."
The FBI refused to discuss specific allegations leveled by Raissi's attorney.
Prosecutor James Lewis, presenting the U.S. government's case, offered no new evidence Tuesday to support terrorism charges. But he argued that Raissi remains a suspect in "an investigation into an atrocity that has shocked the civilized world."
Arguing against his release, Lewis said, "The fact that he is a suspect is a compelling reason to believe he will fail to appear" for the March 28 extradition hearing.
After 45 minutes of private deliberation, Workman said, "I'm satisfied there's no likelihood of terrorism charges being proffered against Mr. Raissi in the near future." He ordered Raissi to surrender his passport.
During the hearing, Keith tore into the allegations against Raissi, whose predawn Sept. 21 arrest along with his family at his suburban London apartment made headlines worldwide.
One FBI document, Keith said, attempted to link Raissi to Hani Hanjour, the Saudi Arabian suspected of flying a Boeing 757 into the Pentagon. It stated that Raissi and Hanjour had taken a training flight together at an Arizona flying school on March 8, 1999, along with an American instructor.
But Keith stated that Raissi's defense team has since interviewed the American pilot, who said his log books showed he and Raissi alone had flown together on March 9. Other records showed Hanjour flew with another instructor the previous day.
Keith added that the American pilot had told the FBI the same thing, but U.S. authorities had not informed the British court. And Keith quoted from a Nov. 29 FBI affidavit by an agent he identified only as Plunkett that reported "no evidence to suggest that Mr. Raissi and Mr. Hanjour had ever trained together."
After his arrest in London, Raissi was indicted by a federal grand jury in Phoenix on charges of lying on his application for a pilot's license. He was indicted again in November on additional charges, although none specifically link him to terrorism.
The first indictment alleges that Raissi, who is licensed in the United States to fly Boeing 737s, failed to tell a Federal Aviation Administration doctor that he had knee surgery for an old tennis injury. It also alleges he did not disclose a 1993 conviction for stealing a briefcase at London's Heathrow Airport.
Attorney Keith attacked those charges in court Tuesday. The FAA doctor who examined Raissi for his pilot's license had examined him for an earlier license, Keith argued, and Raissi had disclosed his surgery the first time. The FBI was aware of that, he added, yet it failed to inform the British court. The theft charge, the attorney said, was filed in Britain, and FAA rules did not compel Raissi to report it.
The second indictment alleges that Raissi conspired to file a false application for political asylum on behalf of Redouane Dahmani, an Algerian.
© 2006 • All Rights Reserved • Tampa Bay Times
490 First Avenue South St. Petersburg, FL 33701 727-893-8111