LONDON - An Algerian pilot arrested at his apartment near Heathrow Airport was "the lead instructor" of four pilots involved in the Sept. 11 attacks in the United States, British prosecutors said yesterday during an extradition hearing.
Lotfi Raissi, 27, who was arrested last Friday, appeared in a magistrates court to face a U.S. warrant seeking his extradition, a tortuous process that with British court appeals could involve years of hearings. Raissi's attorney said his client "adamantly denies any involvement" in the attacks.
American authorities issued a warrant alleging that Raissi made false declarations on a pilot application. But prosecutor Arvinda Sambir told the court, "We are looking at far more serious charges - we are looking at a conspiracy to murder." Raissi is wanted for allegedly providing false information to the Federal Aviation Administration on his application for a pilot's license. U.S. officials declined to comment on his importance to the broader investigation.
Sambir said: "We have sufficient evidence to show not just association with the pilots. It goes further than that. We have evidence of active conspiracy proving correspondence and telecommunications with them as well as video footage of them together. We also have proof that they traveled together."
An arrest warrant issued in Phoenix, Ariz., makes no mention of the Sept. 11 attacks, although the accompanying FBI affidavit was signed by an agent assigned to help investigate the attacks.
Raissi is accused of failing to disclose a prior knee surgery and theft conviction on an FAA certificate application he signed June 19 of this year. Raissi, under the alias of Vincent Fa Brice, was convicted of theft in England in 1993, the Phoenix affidavit said.
By not charging Raissi with any crimes directly related to the attacks, U.S. officials could be able to bring Raissi to the United States more quickly. Officials with the European Union have suggested that its members will refuse to extradite suspects to the United States if they could face the death penalty.
Without addressing Raissi's case, U.S. Attorney General John D. Ashcroft noted yesterday in Washington that the United States has not sought extradition of any individuals on charges directly related to the attacks.
"Obviously I believe that the law, which is clear in relation to capital punishment in the United States when certain factual conditions are met, is a law that we ought to be able to enforce," Ashcroft said.
Prosecutors here said Raissi qualified as a pilot in the United States in 1997 and attended the same Arizona flight school as four of the hijackers and that he "was a lead instructor of four of the pilots that were responsible for the hijackings."
"The one that we are concerned about is the one that went into the Pentagon," Sambir said, referring to the American Airlines Flight 77 from Washington to Los Angeles, which slammed into the heart of the American defense establishment. U.S. authorities believe that plane was piloted by Hani Hanjour.
Raissi made frequent trips to the United States between June and July, Sambir said. On one trip, he went to Las Vegas with his wife and on to Arizona, where some of the pilots trained.
"His job was to ensure the pilots were capable and were trained," Sambir said. "He was the lead instructor and arranged access for all the pilots."
A pilot's logbook with key pages removed and flight manuals were discovered at Raissi's apartment during a two-day police search. Sambir contended that Raissi "belonged to an organization with the ability to move its members extremely swiftly and which has considerable funds at its disposal."
During the 10-minute hearing, Raissi, wearing a white windbreaker and blue pants, spoke only once to confirm his name.
Richard Egan, Raissi's defense lawyer, said his client is "confident he'll be absolved of all involvement."
Britain has become a key point in the investigation into the attacks, with 11 of the hijackers passing through British airports on their way to America, Scotland Yard officials said yesterday. Ten of the hijackers arrived at Gatwick and Heathrow airports on flights from Dubai, United Arab Emirates, between April and June, and an 11th hijacker passed through in January.
"We are still following up these inquiries and seeking to ensure and satisfy ourselves that these people have not been resident in this country at any stage and seeking to provide whatever information we can to the FBI," said deputy assistant commissioner Alan Fry, head of the anti-terrorism branch of London's Metropolitan Police.
"We have at this time no substantial evidence of a conspiracy in this country, but we keep an open mind on that," he added.
Raissi was arrested by anti-terrorist police Sept. 21 with three others, including his wife Sonia, 25, who worked for Air France, and brother Mohamed, 29. The two were later released. A fourth man, Abu Imard, 44, was released last night.