The Algiers Connection

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

Meanwhile, local FBI agent Ken Williams noticed an unusual number of Middle Easterners had enrolled in Arizona flight schools — and that Raissi had been one of them. Williams wrote a report on his suspicions, stating that Islamic extremists might use aviation skills to hijack airplanes or wreak havoc at airports.

He sent on July 10, 2001, the now-famous "Phoenix Memo" to FBI headquarters, where it was ignored.

More than a year later, in December 2002, a Congressional report on the 9/11 attacks revealed that Raissi was almost certainly mentioned in the memo. Raissi's name remains blacked out of Williams' memo and the Congressional report, but details about travel and flight ratings match Raissi perfectly.

Martha Strachan
Martha Strachan

At the time, the report states, the FBI believed the "individual" (who is clearly Raissi) had associated and trained with Hani Hanjour since 1997.

In May 2001, agents had decided to investigate Raissi, but he had moved back to England at the end of 2000 after failing to find a job in Algeria. In late 2000, he married his longtime girlfriend, a French-Catholic dancer. All the FBI knew was that he was no longer in the country, so they blew off the investigation.

Raissi came back to Arizona in June. He and his wife stayed in Las Vegas for a week, then came to the Valley for a few weeks. While here, he kept his skills sharp on a flight simulator at Sawyer Aviation in Phoenix.

The Congressional report implies that the FBI knew it had screwed up by not placing Raissi on a watch list, which would have alerted authorities to his return. The FBI speculated that Raissi "may have returned to the United States either to evaluate Hanjour's flying skills or to provide Hanjour with his final training on the flight simulator before the September 11 attacks."

No evidence has ever been presented to back up these claims.

Records do show, though, that Hanjour, Raissi and two acquaintances of Hanjour all signed up to use Sawyer's flight simulator on the same day in June 2001, according to footnotes to the 9/11 Commission Report.

Authorities admitted the timing of Raissi's simulator usage could have been coincidence.

Raissi returned to London on July 11. Before he left, he made one last trip to the Laimeches' home to pick up some of his belongings.

"Thank God, because he had all these aviation books," Corinne Laimeche says. "So it was good that he came, but it was bad that he came."

Six days after the attacks, the FBI asked Scotland Yard to check into Raissi without alerting him, according to documents released to the British media in 2005 by one of Raissi's attorneys. Instead of following that advice, armed police burst into Raissi's apartment at 3 a.m. on September 21 and dragged him, naked, to a police car. His wife and brother were also arrested; they were released a few days later.

Raissi's arrest made international headlines. Soon after, authorities revealed that Dahmani had lived with Raissi at Wickertree Apartments in Phoenix, and that Dahmani's name and phone number at the Phoenix unit had turned up in the London apartment of Algerian al-Qaeda member Abu Doha, a suspect in the planned 1999 Los Angeles airport bombing.

It was a damning revelation. Raissi would spend the next five months in Britain's high-security Belmarsh prison, nicknamed Hellmarsh.

It was about 2:30 on the afternoon of September 25 when FBI agents William Hanchak and Kimberly Stoddard showed up at the Laimeches' home. Laimeche was in his bakery uniform and about to head to work.

"He said he was the sponge man and that he is responsible for making the first batch of bread," Hanchak would later tell a judge about that initial meeting. "So I basically asked him some questions regarding Mr. Raissi, and I had a photo album which I displayed some photos to him of the alleged 19 suspected terrorists who were responsible for the September 11 attacks."

Corinne Laimeche recalls that the encounter was intimidating, but that she and her husband had nothing to hide — nothing terrorism-related, anyway. The couple considered it a good sign that the FBI agreed to come back another day. Laimeche would have been hauled off on the spot, they felt, if the FBI suspected him of being a terrorist.

The agents came back three times over the next month. They admitted they didn't consider Laimeche a target of the terror investigation, but they pressed him for details about Raissi. Laimeche says he told them all he knew.

But during the agents' last visit, on November 2, Laimeche decided to come clean about himself. He confessed to his 1997 boat ride, to buying and using fake documents to get a job, to traveling to Algeria with Corinne in 2000.

The FBI relayed Laimeche's story to immigration officials, who sought and received an indictment in federal court here on charges of misusing his old Social Security number in the name of Marcello Scutari.

He was arrested at home on November 7 and spent a couple of days in jail. Prosecutors charged him with seven counts of Social Security fraud and making false statements. He was released on a promise to appear in court.

The crime of using a bogus Social Security number to get a job is the same one committed by countless illegal immigrants in Arizona. But Laimeche's case was shaded by suspicion of a different sort.

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