Hussein kin arrested but not seen as threat

Stepson sought to enter flight school hijacker used

July 05, 2002|By Robin Wright | Robin Wright,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

WASHINGTON - The Justice Department said yesterday that the stepson of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, being held in Florida, is not believed to be connected to a 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 to marry the Iraqi leader in the early 1980s, is 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 yesterday.

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.

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," said the INS statement.

New Zealand authorities, who investigated Saffi after Sept. 11 upon 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 Sept. 11.

Saffi arrived in Miami after passing 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 an American school of any kind, INS officials say. He 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, 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 air hostess who was married to a senior official in Iraq's national airline when Hussein became enamored with her and demanded that she divorce her husband, according to Amazia Baram, an expert on Iraq and Hussein's family at the University of Haifa in Israel.

Shahbandar became Hussein's second wife. They had a son, Ali, who is 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.

Robin Wright writes for the Los Angeles Times, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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