Pilot with 9/11 links found in NZ

By Geoff Cumming

EXCLUSIVE - A Saudi Arabian linked to one of the September 11 hijackers spent four months in New Zealand before being expelled as a national security risk.

The United States-qualified pilot, Rayed Mohammed Abdullah Ali, was admitted to New Zealand in February on a student visa, saying his dream was to become a commercial airline pilot and that he needed an English language qualification to assist.

Today the Weekend Herald reveals that on May 29 police and immigration officials raided Ali's Palmerston North home and deported him.

The 28-year-old had recently moved there from Auckland, partly to fly at the Manawatu Aero Club.

A Government statement to be released this morning will confirm that Ali was deported because he "posed a threat to national security".

The Government claimed last night that Ali had lived and trained in Phoenix, Arizona, with fellow Saudi Hani Hanjour in the months before Hanjour is believed to have piloted American Airlines Flight 77 into the Pentagon building.

It is only the second time that section 72 of the Immigration Act has been used to deport someone. Its use requires the consent of the Governor-General, and there is no right of appeal.

Police seized Ali's flight logbook from the aero club, where he had flown several times in Cessna aircraft accompanied by instructors. He was sent back to Saudi Arabia under escort.

Immigration Minister David Cunliffe said last night Ali was considered a threat to national security because of his direct association with those responsible for the 2001 terrorist attacks, the nature of his activities in the US before then and the nature of his activities in New Zealand.

The Weekend Herald has learned he spent most of his time in Auckland attending an English language course but shifted to Palmerston North early last month, planning to enrol in another English course and increase his flying hours.

The case raises questions about New Zealand's security intelligence and border control mechanisms.

Mr Cunliffe said Ali's true identity became apparent only after he arrived in New Zealand - "he used a variation of his name in applying for entry".

But the Weekend Herald has been told the only variation on his passport was the use of the initial A for Abdullah, and that was corrected in a note inside the passport.

The minister referred the Weekend Herald to excerpts from the US Government's 9-11 Commission Report on the attacks regarding "Rayed Abdullah".

The report says Abdullah lived and trained in Phoenix with Hani Hanjour, the Saudi Arabian believed to have piloted Flight 77 into the Pentagon. Abdullah was a leader at the Islamic Cultural Centre in Phoenix where, the FBI says, he "reportedly gave extremist speeches at the mosque".

A website sourced to the 9-11 report says Abdullah attended the same Phoenix flight school as Hanjour and the pair used a flight simulator together on June 23, 2001.

A 2004 report in the Arizona Daily Star names him as Rayed Mohammed Abdullah. But the Rayed Mohammed Abdullah Ali who wandered into the Manawatu Aero Club in March gave no suggestion of fundamentalism.

The short, clean-cut Muslim told the club's chief flying officer, Captain Ravindra Singh, he had obtained his private pilot's licence in the US and spent several years there before returning to Saudi Arabia to work in his father's textile business.

He wanted to pass the International English Language Testing System (IELTS) exam so he could return home to train for his commercial pilot's licence.

He wore a baseball cap, smart shirts and baggy trousers and favoured burgers over halal food.

Captain Singh, a former Indian Air Force officer trained in intelligence, says Ali had a Yemeni passport and he was naturally suspicious at first.

"At the time of September 11 he would have been in the US. I asked him some very direct questions about his US flying experience and found he was quite intelligent and a moderate person. He was not at all fundamentalist - he was against those people."

He and other instructors accompanied Ali on several flights in a Cessna 152 aircraft.

"I found his standard to be very good," Captain Singh said.

"He wanted to fly in Saudi Arabia or the [Arab] Emirates and was doing instrument training in the US before September 11 but said that since then everyone had treated him suspiciously. I'm 99 per cent sure he was genuine."

Ali told Captain Singh he was born and raised in Saudi Arabia but travelled on a Yemeni passport because his father was from Yemen and Saudi Arabia had refused to give him citizenship.

When he returned to Palmerston North, he told Captain Singh he had missed an application deadline and been unable to sit the IELTS exam in Auckland.

He planned to re-enrol in Palmerston North, where it was cheaper to fly than in Auckland.

Mr Cunliffe said he could not comment on what happened after Ali returned to Saudi Arabia.

Nor could he comment on what specific information the Government had on him or where it came from. "We're satisfied he is the right man."

The other time section 72 was used was for the 1991 deportation of Soviet spy Anvar Kadyrov.Additional reporting: Mike Houlahan

* Have you had any contact with Rayed Mohammed Abdullah Ali?
Please email the Herald news desk.

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