In Case of Algerian Pilot, Much Uncertainty

By Joe Stephens and David B. Ottaway
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, December 18, 2001

LONDON -- Authorities are retreating from dramatic early claims that Lotfi Raissi, an Algerian native imprisoned here for three months, trained all four suspected suicide pilots in the Sept. 11 attacks, court proceedings and a confidential FBI report show.

Recent hearings have included no mention of Raissi's purported ties to three of the alleged hijackers. An FBI affidavit summarizing the investigation acknowledges that Raissi's ties to the Phoenix flight school attended by the fourth pilot might be "coincidence."

"It has not yet been determined whether [suspected hijacker Hani] Hanjour and Raissi actually trained together" on the school's flight simulator, the report says.

The Raissi case is important because it is being closely watched in Europe, where extradition requests are at stake and criticism of the worldwide effort to round up suspects in the Sept. 11 attacks is stronger than in the United States. In addition, there is potential embarrassment for U.S. and British authorities: The strong early allegations against Raissi made headlines around the world.

Finally, the case shows the difficulty of evaluating seemingly innocent actions that may or may not be part of a terrorist conspiracy.

Privately, the FBI acknowledges today that it wants Raissi returned to the United States for questioning but is unsure what role -- if any -- he played in planning the hijackings. Authorities continue to hold Raissi on charges unrelated to terrorism, including his failure to disclose a knee injury on a pilots' application.

That is a striking departure from claims leveled during Raissi's initial hearing in September, at which a British prosecutor depicted Raissi as a key conspirator in the attacks on Washington and New York. She told a judge that authorities might eventually charge Raissi, 27, with conspiracy to commit murder.

Raissi was the first person accused in open court of participating in the attacks. At the time of his arrest, he was the most prominent of hundreds of suspects detained overseas at the request of the United States.

If allegations against Raissi dissipate, that could portend trouble for U.S. efforts to win cooperation overseas.

"It's a problem," said Bruce Zagaris, a Washington lawyer who specializes in international criminal law. "These extraordinary legal measures certainly are being watched.

"It will be important for the United States to substantiate its cooperation requests [to other nations] or suffer an undermining of those requests," he said.

There is growing concern abroad, as there is in the United States, that an overzealous U.S. Department of Justice is abandoning legal caution and infringing on detainees' civil rights as it struggles to unravel al Qaeda's global network.

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