The Algiers Connection
Sofiane Laimeche isn't a terrorist.
Says he never has been.
Doesn't know any, either.
True, U.S. authorities think his friend from boyhood, Lotfi Raissi, may have been a key player in the September 11, 2001, attacks.
But the terrorist accusations against Raissi, the first person in the world arrested in connection with the attacks, could be bogus. That is, there's been no evidence made public that he trained the hijacker-pilots for their mission, as the United States at one time alleged.
And, yes, in March 2002, Italian newspapers reported that Laimeche's name and address turned up in the flat of four terrorism suspects busted in Rome.
One of them, Tunisian citizen Abdelmoname Ben Khalifa Mansour, was acquitted and awarded 100,000 euros in February by a court in Rome for unfair imprisonment.
Laimeche is a family man, a devoted husband and the father of young children.
He's an Algerian who, with his tan skin and black hair, is sometimes taken for Hispanic until he speaks in his exotic French-Arabic accent. He loves watching and playing soccer. He's funny and charming. He has a winning smile and is quick to make friends.
He came to Phoenix in 1997 and has resided here since.
As an angry teenager in Algiers, he threw rocks at police cars like other youths living in an inhumane political system. In those days, he saw the aftermath of a massacre of protesters by the military, one of many that occurred in the fall of 1988.
He's a draft dodger, avoiding a military that could have ordered him to shoot civilian demonstrators.
He's a former street rat who lived by his wits and five-finger discounts for four years in Italy.
And he's an illegal immigrant in this country.
He stowed away on a cargo container ship for a month to get to the States. He moved into his buddy Raissi's apartment in Arizona, got a job with fake documents he bought from a Mexican, met a nice gal who worked at a 5 & Diner, fell in love, got married and had a kid.
He and his wife, Corinne, a native Arizonan, flew to Algeria and back in 2000 in a plan to make him legal. The United States allows its citizens to bring a foreigner into the country as a spouse, and Laimeche soon had a real (though temporary) green card.
Authorities would never have caught wind of the scheme until 19 guys Laimeche had never met including four pilots whom Raissi denies training carried out al-Qaeda's "storm of airplanes" that killed nearly 3,000 Americans.
The Laimeches, who both work to support their four children, didn't suspect the East Coast attacks would directly affect their lives. Not at first.
Like most of us, Sofiane and Corinne watched history unfold on television on the morning of September 11, 2001. Though Laimeche believes bad U.S. policies toward the Middle East encouraged the extremists to strike, he says he was sickened by the massacre and disgusted it was done in the name of Islam.
Four days later, Frank Roque of Mesa shot and killed a turban-wearing Sikh Indian who ran a convenience store.
The hate crime was troubling because Sofiane is a committed Muslim and is raising his children Muslim. Corinne's sister, who lives in the Valley, called to say her son wouldn't be visiting the Laimeche home for a while. She thought it might be targeted by another psycho racist.
Still, there was no reason to think the national crisis would become a family crisis.
Until the September 21 phone call from Raissi's mother in Algeria.
She was hysterical. Sofiane listened intently to her Arabic through her sobbing. He soon realized what she was saying:
His friend had just been arrested in London taken naked from his bedroom in a 3 a.m. police raid.
The cops were saying it was related to the attacks on the United States.
Suddenly, Raissi, a pilot rated to fly 737s, was a prime suspect in one of the most monstrous crimes in modern history.
Soon, Raissi's wife called. Then his uncle. Then his brothers. All frantic, all worried.
Laimeche didn't believe the accusations for a second. But he isn't naive. He knew their relationship meant some trouble for him, maybe even for his family.
Raissi and his wife had visited Phoenix in the summer of 2001 and had stopped by the Laimeches' house. The year before, Laimeche and Raissi had flown to Algeria together. The two friends had been roommates through the late 1990s.
Sure enough, detectives followed the trail right to the Laimeches' front door.
For the past five years, the answer to that question has been: maybe.
Laimeche has the face of a boxer, with a wide skull and ripple of scar tissue running across his jutting forehead. But he is also short and lean; he doesn't cut an intimidating figure.
He confesses to having a temper, but most of the time he's a softy. He has a good sense of humor, full of cynicism and political bite, and he shows Old World hospitality.
"Did you have breakfast?" he asks before an interview. "Coffee? We have coffee. Very expensive. We have very expensive Starbucks coffee, we do. But I don't drink it. My wife does."
When the coffee is declined, he tells his wife, "Give him some anyway. Hey, it's free. I'm just making fun here. People can read it, laugh. People can say 'What a weird Muslim.' "
Laimeche is a firebrand when talk turns to the Middle East. Sometimes he sounds militant, but with a tone more like that of the Islamic funnymen on Comedy Central's Axis of Evil Comedy Tour.
"Get the knife!" he yells to Corinne after hearing something he doesn't like during a discussion about Islam. He smiles when he says it.
He thinks America is "stupid" for supporting Israel and says that if the Jewish people need a homeland, "How about Nevada?" He likes to joke that his children are growing up to be Muslim fanatics. He gets steamed easily when discussing George W. Bush or the war in Iraq.
Despite his opposition to the Bush administration's foreign policy, Laimeche seems to love this country. He knows he's got it good.
During a 2002 federal trial in which Laimeche was charged with Social Security fraud, his lawyer told the jury, "This case is about purely working toward what we might call the American Dream."
But Laimeche represents more than that. The fact that he's still here at all says something about American tolerance for religious differences, dissidents, lawbreakers even people who may appear, in the age of the war on terror, slightly suspicious.
He was one of four Muslims in Arizona charged with various crimes after September 11 because of their suspected links to the hijackers and, in particular, to Hani Hanjour, a Saudi who once lived in the Valley and is believed to have been at the controls of the 757 that hit the Pentagon.
Laimeche was convicted of Social Security fraud and making false statements on immigration and tax-withholding forms.
The others fellow Algerian Redoune Dahmani and two Saudi Arabians, Malek Seif and Faisal Al Salmi were also charged with relatively minor crimes. They were put behind bars and later deported.
Laimeche is the only one still in the Valley.
Even in the screwed-up world of American immigration policy, Laimeche's case is a rarity. Most illegal immigrants with multiple felony convictions get tossed out of the country. He continues to work at a Phoenix bakery but he turned in his temporary green card four years ago after it expired. He hasn't been told to leave, but he hasn't been told he can stay, either.
At his 2002 sentencing hearing, assistant U.S. Attorney Peter Sexton argued that Laimeche should be incarcerated to send a message to other illegal immigrants.
"There's a very low probability, strangely enough and unfortunately, that he will be deported because of this conduct," the prosecutor told U.S. District Judge James Teilborg. "Even though he came in illegally."
Reached for this story, Sexton didn't shed light on his vague statements.
"I have no memory of the case," Sexton told New Times.
Laimeche was put on probation for three years and ordered to complete 100 hours of community service. He believes officials assumed that deporting him to Algeria would be a hardship for his family.
But that can't explain it totally. Mexicans who have American children get deported every day. That's why Mexican citizen Elvira Arellano and her 7-year-old American son have been holed up in a Chicago-area Methodist church since August, for example.
Laimeche has tried to verify his immigration status over the past few years. He and his wife say that the last time they went to the immigration office, about six months ago, they were told that no record of him existed there, so they went home.
He believes it's risky to talk to a reporter. Perhaps someone in the government won't like his criticisms and will move to get rid of him.
But he's not a fearful man. In early March, he signed a waiver with the U.S. Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement instructing the agency to release his status to New Times. When the agency hadn't replied after more than a week to the faxed form, Laimeche quipped that it was taking ICE officials a long time to cook up their explanation.
Algeria is Africa's second-largest country, an immense nation four times the size of Texas, and is home to the descendants of Barbary Coast pirates and ancient Berbers.
Shaped something like a pear, it's sandwiched between Morocco and Libya, the northern region narrowing near the Mediterranean Sea to give the country about 650 miles of coastline. Most of its population of 33 million is in the fertile northern valleys. Eighty-five percent of its area is sparsely inhabited Saharan wasteland.
It's a nation with a rich and tumultuous past. But the biggest effect on its modern history happened when the French invaded in 1830 and occupied the country. For 132 years.
The native Arabic population rose up in a bloody revolution in the late 1950s, and Algeria became an independent state in 1962. More than a million refugees, mostly French and European, fled the nation that year to avoid a feared wave of genocide.
Laimeche was born on January 1, 1973, in the capital city of Algiers, a bustling, decrepit metropolis full of densely packed apartment buildings and a mix of French and Arabic architecture. In pictures, the neighborhood he grew up in, called Babel-Oued, could pass for parts of San Francisco.
His parents, Mustafa and Hadda, still live in the first-floor apartment where he grew up, a place where you can never escape the noise of the roads, garbage trucks or neighbors. Laimeche was the third of eight children, and his parents and grandmother shared the apartment, which had a living room, kitchen and three bedrooms.
Mustafa and Hadda grew up about 80 miles from the capital and, in the 1950s, moved to the Arabic section of Algiers known as the Casbah. Back then, Arabs weren't allowed in the French quarter, Laimeche says. But whole neighborhoods were emptied after the revolution, and his father moved into the "free" apartment.
"It's what you fight for," Laimeche says. "You move in, and it's yours."
Corinne says that when she visited Algiers, Mustafa told her that the personal effects of the former inhabitants were still on the shelves when he entered the apartment; food was even on the kitchen table.
His father worked as a security guard in a factory that made Styrofoam packing material; his mother and grandmother stayed home with the kids. They were not poor by Algerian standards, but all the laundry had to be done by hand, and if one of the kids ruined a pair of shoes, he or she might go a month before getting a new pair.
The young Laimeche developed a reputation in his neighborhood. If a weak kid were being picked on, Laimeche would find a way to stop it. He was charismatic and good at soccer, the sport of choice for Algerian youth. Just for fun, he would often pick the worst player on the team and make sure the kid scored a goal.
"I don't like oppression," he says as a way of explaining his altruism.
As the couple walked around the neighborhood during their trip in 2000, Corinne was amused by how many people stopped to say hello to her husband.
"He's sort of legendary, like an urban legend or something," she says.
Lotfi Raissi came from the same neighborhood, and the two developed a strong relationship in their early teenage years.
"He's a big talker; he talks too much," Laimeche says playfully about his friend. "He's a good guy. He was easygoing with me. I like that."
As Laimeche grew into a young man, his country's political situation spiraled out of control. After achieving its goal of independence, the ruling party, known as the Front de Liberation Nationale, had become brutal and corrupt. Though the country has a wealth of natural resources, the economy barely sputtered along. Jobs became scarce. Laimeche and Raissi, like thousands of other young Algerians, lost hope.
One day in early October 1988, the unrest blew up into riots in Algiers as young people ditched school and work to take to the streets. Laimeche admits to throwing rocks at police cars.
"We always did that to show anger," he says.
The unrest from October 5 to 10 later known as "Black October" or "the Couscous Revolt" was put down violently by the army, resulting in more than 500 deaths, according to human rights groups.
Laimeche says Islamic imams, far from stirring up the trouble, preached passionately to angry youths in an attempt to exact calm. After listening to such a speech, Laimeche and his brother were walking home when they ran into a mass of people from their neighborhood demonstrating near a government building.
Laimeche says he heard later that one of the protesters may have taken a shot at the building. An army machine-gunner returned the fire, causing the crowd to flee in panic. For two hours, the brothers hid in a nearby barber shop that soon became packed with people.
"We started listening to people crying and dying," Laimeche says. One man who ducked inside the shop was trying to stem the bleeding from a bullet wound on his nose.
Firefighters came to the scene and guided people away from the area. Laimeche says he saw blood everywhere.
If he had any sense of loyalty to the Algerian government before, it was gone from that day on.
"That was big," he says. "I don't have a flag. I don't feel it anymore."
Laimeche soon dropped out of school. He played midfield and forward on a local soccer team and worked odd jobs. Three years went by.
When he turned 19, he became antsy because, by 20, all Algerian males were required to enlist in the military. That was the last thing in the world he wanted to do.
"I'm not afraid of the military itself," he says. "But put me against my own people what are you going to do, shoot them or get shot?"
An exodus of young men began. Raissi, who came from a wealthier family, went to England to live with his brother and uncle.
Laimeche made up his mind to get out, too. He knew some people who had gone to Italy and decided he would try to go there and make a life with a friend named Hady.
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.
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.
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.
"He says, 'You woke me up to tell me that?' " Laimeche recalls.
With the ship workers' help, Laimeche and Yusef sneaked aboard while the rest of the crew ate dinner. When they got to Lobo's cabin, where they would be staying, they discovered two Turkish guys already had been "stored" there for two days.
Laimeche, Yusef and the Turks agreed to pay Lobo and his helper $1,000 each after they reached America and got jobs.
The most stressful time was at the beginning because the ship didn't leave the dock for four days. Nobody wanted to get busted while still in Italy now that their hopes were high. If the crew found them at sea, it was more likely they would be released to authorities in America, where perhaps they could find a way to stay. Each day, Lobo would say, "We're going to leave today." And the ship would sit there.
Finally, tugboats pulled the ship out to sea.
About his feelings at the time, Laimeche says, "So happy, but mixed with a little sadness, because you're going you don't know where you're going."
The men made a solemn pact: If one of them died during the passage, his body would be quietly thrown overboard so the rest would still have a chance of making it.
The cabin was small, furnished with just a sink and a bed. Between the bed and a window in the bulkhead was a wooden box for sitting. With a screwdriver, Lobo could open the box to reveal a cramped storage space their secret hiding place.
Normally, the men would sit in the cabin with the door closed. But Lobo couldn't leave his cabin like that all the time. To defuse any suspicions from the crew, Lobo occasionally had to leave the door open for an hour or more. And there was the occasional inspection, which Lobo always seemed to know about beforehand.
The men hated getting inside the tight hiding space.
"When he starts pushing you in, you never know what you're going to get, which position," Laimeche says. "He'd throw pillows on us. We'd use the pillows to put in our mouths. You can't scream, you can't do anything, and you'd get cramps."
Outside, they would hear Lobo put on music and invite other crewmembers to come inside and sit down. It took hours to recover from a trip to the box.
Because the men couldn't use the community bathrooms, they took turns defecating in a black plastic bag, which was tossed out the window. Their running joke was that they had just killed a shark.
Every week or so, each man would be led at night to a shower. Because the cook was in on the scheme, the stowaways usually ate better than the crew.
Then came the day they docked in New Haven, Connecticut, for an inspection by U.S. Customs officials.
Lobo put the men in the box.
"He said, 'Guys, be careful. This is the last one between you and the States,' " Laimeche says. "We were quiet. We wished we don't get caught. We heard them in the room. They had a dog with them."
They could hear the animal's claws on top of the box. But the dog didn't bark.
When it was over, "we had some ice cream to cheer about it, because we had suffered," Laimeche says.
The ship later moved to a port in Philadelphia, where there was no inspection. They left their extra clothes behind and walked off the ship, back on solid ground again for the first time in 27 days.
It was about 6 in the morning, dark, with fog. They took a cab through a poor neighborhood. Laimeche was amazed by all the homeless people. As dawn came, he saw Philly's skyscrapers, and the reality hit home.
"You feel it," Laimeche says. "Now I'm here. This is the land of opportunity. It's up to you. My chance came."
Right away, Laimeche decided his days as a thief were finished. People he met in the States told him not to worry, he could get a job. He called his friend in Phoenix.
"Why don't you come here?" Raissi asked. "You're from Algeria, so for you, Philadelphia or Arizona, it doesn't matter."
Laimeche said goodbye to Yusef and the others. He met Raissi at the downtown Phoenix Greyhound station two and a half days later. (Yusef made his way to Canada. He sought asylum but was deported to Algeria. Laimeche says Yusef was given amnesty by the Algerian government for any alleged crimes as part of a national healing policy after the civil war.)
Laimeche moved into Raissi's unit at Wickertree Apartments near Loop 101 and 23rd Avenue, where Raissi lived with another Algerian, Redoune Dahmani.
But America turned out not to be the utopia Laimeche had imagined. Sure, there was work if you didn't have papers for $5 an hour. Laimeche went unemployed for six months while Raissi supported him with family money as he continued with flight school at West Wind. Already an experienced pilot, Raissi sometimes taught students at the school as a freelance instructor.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Before Laimeche's trial in 2002, his Phoenix lawyer told the judge, "It just hits me that the reason we're here is the 9/11 incident."
Dahmani was arrested the same day as Laimeche, but in more dramatic fashion: The police pointed guns at him and his pregnant girlfriend in the parking lot of the couple's Scottsdale apartment complex. Dahmani was charged with 33 counts of forgery, perjury and identity theft.
A few weeks later, both Dahmani and Raissi were charged in Arizona with submitting a false application for political asylum for Dahmani. Raissi, who was stewing at the prison in England, was also charged with lying on an immigration form about his 1993 arrest and failing to list an old knee injury on a Federal Aviation Administration form.
In the midst of everything, Laimeche's family experienced its greatest tragedy.
On the morning of November 10, a rainstorm pummeled the Babel-Oued district, causing severe mudslides and floods. The city was a chaotic mess after the disaster, and Baya Laimeche, Sofiane's youngest sister, in her first year of college, was missing for two days. Laimeche's father, Mustafa, found her body at the morgue.
The authorities said she had been on a bus that was hit by raging water. Pretty, petite Baya, who was 20, apparently died of a heart attack before she would have drowned.
"It was so painful," Laimeche says, losing his voice. "One of the most painful things ever, when I heard about her dying."
Yet it helped put life in perspective. His legal problems seemed trivial by comparison.
"I have no more tears," he says.
Though it could be argued that his case is an example of selective prosecution sparked by a terrorism investigation (in fact, that's exactly what Laimeche's attorney argued in court) Laimeche isn't bitter about his treatment by U.S. authorities. He's not asking for money or an apology.
He just wants to keep living here.
He would like legal status so he can visit his family and friends in Algiers with the assurance that he can return to Phoenix.
His wife is going to Algeria this month with the children. Sofiane will stay here.
The immigration agency tells New Times that Laimeche still has conditional green card status (even if he doesn't possess the actual card). He can keep working legally pending the approval of his petition for citizenship based on his marriage, says ICE spokeswoman Lauren Mack.
If he wants to leave the country, though, he'll have to get special travel documents, she says.
Probably not a good idea.
A spokeswoman for the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service, a separate agency from ICE, says Laimeche's petition (which he filed about six years ago) is pending.
Laimeche isn't surprised.
"They don't know what to do with me, I don't know what to do with them, so I just wait," he says.
Meanwhile, he wouldn't mind seeing his friend, Lotfi, absolved of any link to 9/11.
The accusations have destroyed Raissi's career as a pilot. He has been blacklisted by every airline. An arrest warrant from Arizona is, and will remain, active on the immigration and fraud charges, says Wyn Hornbuckle, spokesman for the U.S. Attorney's Office in Phoenix.
Yet Raissi's a free man in England. He's allowed to travel to and from Algeria, where his case is seen as a major injustice.
While arguing that Raissi should be extradited to the United States, British prosecutors, acting on behalf of the U.S. Department of Justice, made extraordinary accusations against Raissi in court.
"He was a lead instructor for four of the pilots that were responsible for the hijackings," British prosecutor Arvinda Sambir told a judge in a hearing attended by eight FBI agents.
That bold allegation was not brought up again. In later proceedings, prosecutors dropped references to the other three hijacker-pilots and focused on a Raissi-Hanjour connection.
Other supposed facts mentioned in court were never supported. The government alleged it had a video of Raissi in a small plane with Hani Hanjour, but the other man turned out to be Raissi's cousin. Promised phone records of "regular" contact between Raissi and Hanjour were never produced.
Though it seemed likely that Hanjour and Raissi had trained on the Sawyer simulator at roughly the same time, prosecutors couldn't be sure this meant Raissi was in on the plot.
A British judge denied extradition on the minor charges. U.S. authorities said they would present evidence to get Raissi charged with conspiracy to murder, which would have been extraditable but they never did.
The judge declared that no evidence existed that Raissi was a terrorist and freed him from Belmarsh.
Whether U.S. authorities still think Raissi had anything to do with the 9/11 attacks cannot be determined. Officials with the FBI, Justice Department, and the U.S. Attorney's Office in Arizona refused to comment on the issue.
In May 2002, the FBI's assistant director, John Collingwood, told CBS News that no one named in Williams' "Phoenix Memo" was connected to 9/11. Collingwood was responding to criticism that the agency had ignored its own warnings about an aviation-based terror attack and presumably could have been trying to save face. Collingwood didn't return calls to New Times.
The 2002 Congressional report, which showed the FBI was very suspicious of Raissi, came seven months after Collingwood's statement.
On February 22 of this year, Raissi lost a major battle in Britain's High Court when he was denied the right to seek compensation for his prison time.
Reached by telephone at his home in London, Raissi denied he trained the hijackers at all, even inadvertently. The United States should admit it was wrong about him, he says.
"I'm an innocent person," he tells New Times. "Six years after, and I'm still trying to clear my name."
Raissi says he has the utmost respect for his old friend Laimeche.
"Sofiane is a man of principle," he says. "He used to help people. If he has $10, he would give it to you."
He hopes to see Laimeche again someday.
One of Raissi's British lawyers, Jules Carey, says there is still hope that the U.S. arrest warrant will be lifted, and an appeal of the High Court's February decision is possible.
"Hopefully, it's not the end of it," Carey says.
Laimeche is having problems with his DirecTV installation. The one channel he wanted, a Spanish-language sports station, is not one of the 250 offered by the Total Choice Plus package. In fact, it doesn't appear to be offered by DirecTV at all. It's about noon, and the soccer game he wants to see starts at 12:30.
Sofiane has been home for weeks because of hernia problems.
A couple of years ago, Laimeche and his wife moved into a big, two-story house near Southern Avenue and 44th Street.
His two youngest children run amok while Baba, as they call Sofiane, deals with a reporter and the DirecTV technician while trying to straighten up after the kids.
The house has no particular Arabic or Muslim feel. A typical wooden dining room table stands on a tile floor. Toys and a pair of socks are strewn here and there. Laimeche's cleaning pace is slower than his kids' ability to tear things up.
When the kids' waterplay goes from backyard to kitchen, Laimeche orders them upstairs to their room.
Laimeche says his children are his life now. If he's to change the world, it will be through them. Of paramount importance is their Muslim faith.
"If they are not Muslim, I have failed," he says.
He says he tells his oldest child that even if she becomes a doctor, if she is not a committed Muslim, "it will mean nothing to me."
He sends his children to Muslim school four times a week. He says they aren't afraid to talk about Islam, or even to comment negatively about someone's beer purchase at the grocery store (alcohol is forbidden in Islam).
In his precarious position, Laimeche knows he has no power to really fight for his faith in this country. But he says his children will not be so weak. They will be able (and, he hopes, willing) to fight for Islam's rightful place in American society.
His little boy has returned to the kitchen and is sitting on the counter. He hugs Baba, and they stare into each other's eyes with affection.
Laimeche hands the twentysomething DirecTV guy a soda and some cookies.
Corinne's not home, but she has made bean soup for lunch for Sofiane and the kids.
Laimeche figures out that DirecTV offers another Spanish sports channel he likes. The dish is mounted in the eaves, and Laimeche signs a contract with the cable guy for a year.
It's another good day in Arizona.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Phoenix New Times' biggest stories.
- Inmates Accuse Arizona of Experimenting with Lethal-Injection Drugs
- 10 Things Arizonans Hate About Snowbirds
- Scottsdale Couple Are Pioneers in Tiny-Home Movement in Arizona