The Algiers Connection

Sofaine Laimeche's long friendship with a 9/11 suspect has put his future in America in doubt

First, he had to get the right paperwork to leave. He purchased a waiver of military service on the black market. Then he had to get a visa from the Italian embassy. Local residents sometimes stood in line for 24 hours at the embassy, paying people to hold their place if they could afford to, but Laimeche knew a friend who had a cousin who was a policeman.

"He took me in without getting in line," Laimeche says. "It's always pretty good to know people."

He obtained the visa, good for a 10-day visit to Italy. Hady found his own path to a visa. In another month, he and Hady scraped up the money for their plane tickets.

Lotfi Raissi and his wife leave a British courtroom in February.
AP/Wide World
Lotfi Raissi and his wife leave a British courtroom in February.
Redoune Dahmani, a former roomate of Lotfi Raissi and Sofaine Laimeche
Redoune Dahmani, a former roomate of Lotfi Raissi and Sofaine Laimeche

Early one morning, he knocked on his father's bedroom door and told him he was headed for the airport. It would be eight years before they saw each other again.

On the airplane, Laimeche and Hady had to make a strange deal with a passenger to complete passage: They paid the man to lend them each a bundle of cash, which had to be shown to a customs official in Italy to prove they weren't derelicts.

"They're very creative," Corinne Laimeche says of Algerians.

They heard there were jobs in the tobacco fields outside Perugia. They heard wrong and spent their first night under a plastic tarp propped up by a pole. After two months, they had worked a total of about a week. And it was starting to get cold.

So they moved into an abandoned house in Perugia with some other Algerians.

"We had to be careful," he recalls. "There was a wall you had to jump, and if you had to do it at night, better watch out who was watching, or they would call the police."

The cops woke them up in the house one night and took them to a police station for processing. The savvy Algerians had left all their identification with a friend on the farm. A few well-told lies resulted in their release.

With no prospect of employment, Laimeche says he and the other Algerians did what was necessary to survive.

"You go to the store, you take food and you get out," he says. "If you get caught, run."

They shoplifted clothes and other items and often sold the goods at swap meets. They took showers at a local university and dined in the cafeteria, blending in with the students because they were well-dressed in their stolen clothes.

Months passed, and the Algerians became restless. Some, including Hady, went to Germany. Laimeche and some of his new friends decided to move to Rome. It was no better there. They lived in cheap hotels and ripped off what they could.

"It was just crazy," he says. "It's not like you'd steal every day, but it's like, whenever you needed the money."

The craziness went on for four years.

Lotfi Raissi, whose paperwork allowed him freer travel, occasionally would fly in and hang out with Laimeche and the other Algerians. Raissi didn't need to scrounge. But he wasn't so different from his friends. He had left England in 1993 after getting caught stealing a briefcase at Heathrow Airport. And he was arrested in 1996 in Rome with false French identity papers and sent back to Algeria. Later that year, he flew to Phoenix and enrolled in classes at West Wind Aviation, a Deer Valley Airport flight-training school.

As for Laimeche, he was getting sick of life as a social parasite and was struggling with his conscience over his stealing. But at the time, Algeria was still enduring a civil war that claimed more than 100,000 lives between 1992 and 1999. Massacres of civilians were commonplace; whole villages were wiped out by both the Islamic insurgents and government security forces. Returning home wasn't an option.

Then, around March 1, 1997, he saw a woman and child waiting alone for the woman's husband on a desolate commuter train platform in Rome. Laimeche decided to miss his train home and wait with her. It turned out to be a lucky break. After the woman left with her husband, Laimeche ran into someone he knew — a man named Yusef who was on the run from Algeria, where he was wanted on terrorism charges.

But that doesn't mean he was really a terrorist, Laimeche stresses to New Times.

"When you hear a Muslim country saying, 'This one is a terrorist,' that means he isn't with them. I want people to know that. He told me he didn't kill anyone."

Laimeche says Yusef, who was in his 40s, didn't respect Algerian street rats but knew Laimeche was different.

"So this guy said, 'You want to go to the States?' " Laimeche says.

Laimeche and Yusef started laughing. But Yusef was serious.

"He said, 'Okay, get ready. Tomorrow.'"

The next day, Laimeche and Yusef took a train to Taranto, Italy, on the Adriatic coast. There, they met two men who worked aboard an Algerian cargo container ship docked in the nearby port. One was the ship's cook, the other a ship's helper whom they would come to know as Lobo. While they waited for dark to make their move, Laimeche called Raissi to tell him the news. It was the middle of the night in Phoenix, and Raissi didn't believe his old friend.

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