The Algiers Connection

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

Also in 1997, a 24-year-old Saudi named Hani Hanjour was taking flight lessons at a Scottsdale school, CRM Airline Training Center. The FBI would later say Hanjour, who had lived in the country on and off since 1991, was joined in Arizona for a time by at least one other known 9/11 hijacker, Nawaf Al-Hazmi.

Although Hanjour would train in 2001 at JetTech, another Deer Valley airport flight school, investigators never linked him to West Wind, where Raissi spent most of his time.

Stuck in the north Valley apartment with no job, no car (he didn't know how to drive then, anyway) and little money, Laimeche grew frustrated and bored. He packed his clothes one night and forced Raissi to drive him to the bus station. His friend finally persuaded him to go back to the apartment.

Martha Strachan
Martha Strachan

Dahmani was also from Algiers, but not from the same neighborhood as his two roommates, who called him "the Orphan." In a jailhouse interview, Dahmani would say he had purchased a friend's French passport for $900 and then had flown to Arizona, where he bought more fake documents and got jobs at the Arizona Biltmore and Scottsdale's Four Seasons Resort. Dahmani said he had met Raissi at a mosque, though neither was religious.

Dahmani had an interest in aviation, and Raissi encouraged him, taking him for impromptu lessons in a small plane.

Laimeche hates flying. He says he flew once with them to Tucson and swore he'd never do it again.

It was a good thing, too. Had he been more interested, he says, he would probably have been deported back to Algeria by now.

The three men focused their energy on getting Laimeche employed. They obtained a fake Italian passport with Laimeche's picture and the name Marcello Scutari on it. Then they went to California and bought phony Social Security and green cards in Scutari's name.

The documents "looked pretty good," Laimeche says. Dahmani was once pulled over by police with Laimeche in the car, and the papers passed inspection.

Laimeche finally got a decent job at a bakery.

One night, he and Dahmani went to eat at the 5 & Diner near 16th Street and Camelback, where Corinne Sakkas worked the graveyard shift. Laimeche took an immediate liking to her.

He barely spoke English, so he asked Dahmani to do the talking.

"[Dahmani] was like, 'If he were to ask you out, would you go with him?' " Corinne Laimeche recalls. "And I said no, I don't do that. I have a rule not to date customers."

Asked how the Algerian got her to break the rule, she pauses, noting her husband's discomfort. Sofiane interjects that he'd rather they not talk about it.

But it's clear that fortune smiled on him again.

Corinne, a native Arizonan and daughter of a Greek immigrant, discovered his real identity soon after they began dating, but she didn't care.

"Italian, Algerian — whatever," she says. By then, she was hooked. She never converted to Islam, though.

"I didn't brainwash her yet," Laimeche says.

He and Corinne were married in a Muslim ceremony six months later. The marriage was not legally recognized in Maricopa County because Sofiane was living under a false identity. It wasn't long before they had their first child.

All they needed was a way to make Sofiane a legal resident.

In 1999, Lotfi Raissi earned ratings at Deer Valley as a Boeing 737 pilot and a flight instructor. He hoped to work for an airline in his home country.

About the same time, Sofiane and Corinne talked to a lawyer and came up with their plan.

The lawyer noted that no record existed of a Sofiane Laimeche ever entering the United States.

"'Go [to Algeria], marry him there and have him come back as your husband,'" Corinne Laimeche quoted the lawyer as advising. "And that's what we did."

In April 2000, Laimeche and Raissi boarded an airliner and flew to England, then Algiers. Laimeche trashed his fake documents. He didn't know for sure if he would ever get back to Phoenix.

"Sometimes you have to take a risk and move on with your life," he says.

Seeing his relatives again made the risk almost worth it. Corinne flew to Algiers at the end of May and married her husband again. The couple walked around the city, went to the beach. The civil war had wound down by then, and none of the dozens of foreigners killed in the war had been American. She felt safe, though Laimeche wouldn't take her to the Casbah because of recent violence there.

After signing papers with Algerian authorities and at the U.S. Embassy, Corinne came home to Phoenix, hoping for the best.

Had the couple told immigration authorities that Laimeche had already been living in the United States, his case would have gone to the back of a very long line. The average backlog for similar immigration requests was five years.

They fibbed, and Laimeche was able to fly back to Phoenix within weeks. He immediately received a conditional green card in his own name and used it to get another bakery job.

Soon, he learned how to drive. The couple bought a house in Phoenix. They had another child.

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