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.

Ever since, this thought has been in the back of Laimeche's mind: "Am I about to be kicked out of the country?"

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Ray Stern has worked as a newspaper reporter in Arizona for more than two decades. He's won numerous awards for his reporting, including the Arizona Press Club's Don Bolles Award for Investigative Journalism.