Saudi student pilot in the wrong place at the wrong time

By Geoff Cumming

Arizona may seem as unlikely a magnet as New Zealand for Muslim students aiming to study overseas. Yet well before New Zealand climbed on the international education bandwagon in the late 1990s, Arizona had established a niche with students from the Middle East.

It would emerge only after September 11, 2001 that among the thousands drawn to the Grand Canyon state's desert climate, universities and many flying schools were members of an al Qaeda cell.

Two months before the attacks on New York and Washington, the FBI's Phoenix office alerted head office that "an inordinate number" of Middle Eastern students were training as pilots at Arizona flight schools. One was a Saudi Arabian who attracted little attention - Rayed Mohammed Abdullah Ali, the English language student thrown out of New Zealand in May as a threat to national security.

Ali's goal, then as now, was to become a commercial airline pilot. His burden in the post-September 11 climate is convincing authorities that he has no other intent.

Whatever drew him to Arizona, shortly after arriving in the United States as a 20-year-old in November 1997, it was a move that continues to haunt him. On May 30, he became only the second person New Zealand has deported using the national security provision of the Immigration Act, which gave him no right of appeal.

As Ali languishes in prison in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, documents obtained by the Weekend Herald under the Official Information Act cast a little more light on the Government's decision.

Though some information is still withheld, the available evidence adds to suspicion that the Government erred on the side of caution in using the Immigration Act's most draconian clause to get rid of Ali. In the post-September 11 era, guilt by association may be enough for a country anxious to be seen as playing its part in what Immigration Minister David Cunliffe calls the global response to combating terrorism.

Cunliffe has cited Ali's direct association with "persons responsible" for the September 11 attacks on New York and Washington. He pointed the media to the US Government's 9/11 Commission Report, which said Ali lived and trained with Hani Hanjour, who flew American Airlines Flight 77 into the Pentagon, killing 189.

The Weekend Herald has since been told that Ali roomed only briefly with Hanjour when he first arrived in the US and, after initial flight training in Phoenix, had little subsequent contact with the highly mobile Hanjour. Another claim in the 9/11 Report - that Ali gave extremist speeches at a Phoenix mosque - has been refuted by the mosque and his American-based brother.

The papers which helped to guide the Government include American news reports, FBI statements, website biographies, excerpts from the 9/11 Commission Report, academic "social network" analyses connecting the hijackers, intelligence reports on al Qaeda tactics and information about New Zealand pilot licensing, flying clubs and language schools.

The most intriguing is an analysis for the Government of "open source" reports including "substitute testimony" used in the trial of Zacarias Moussaoui, the Moroccan sentenced in May to life imprisonment for involvement in the Twin Towers attacks. The "testimony" comes from the interrogation of Khalid Sheik Mohammed, a high-ranking al Qaeda member captured in March 2003. While it names a number of those who supported the September 11 hijackers, there is no mention of Ali.

But the analysis mentions a "direct association" between Ali and Nawaf al-Hazmi, a "muscle hijacker" who accompanied Hanjour on Flight 77. Al-Hazmi was one of the first suicide-hijackers nominated by Osama bin Laden, according to Khalid Mohammed. Says the analysis: "Given the direct association identified between [Ali] and Nawaf al-Hazmi in another (not yet disclosed) source, this further heightens interest in the position of [Ali]."

The Weekend Herald has found no link between Ali and al-Hazmi in the 9/11 Commission Report or in news or internet reports on September 11 planning.

What is known is that al-Hazmi arrived in the US in late 1999 and asked directions for Florida. He appears to have moved in and out of the country but spent most time in San Diego with fellow-Flight 77 hijacker Khalid al-Mihdhar and, from late-2000, Hanjour.

In February and March 2001, Hanjour and al-Hazmi trained on a Boeing 737 flight simulator in Phoenix before heading for the east coast.

In contrast to the highly mobile Hanjour - who had limitless funds although he never worked in the US - Rayed Ali stayed largely in Phoenix and worked to further his aviation studies. He was heavily dependent on money from his parents in Mecca. His brother, Abdul Mohammed, told the Herald that Ali at one point ran out of money and left Arizona to work in a fast-food restaurant in Michigan. But he soon returned to Phoenix and obtained his private pilot's licence at Arizona Aviation in December 1998.

He married in early 1999 and continued instrumentation and navigation training in Phoenix while working as a computer programmer and an inventory clerk. He resumed flight training in mid-2001.

Hanjour displayed no such dedication; he was a poor student pilot who enrolled and re-enrolled in at least four schools. Instructors felt he lacked motivation to become a commercial pilot but somehow, in April 1999, he got his commercial licence. He spent part of 2000 at an al Qaeda training camp in Afghanistan and, when he returned to the US, it was to San Diego to meet up with Nawaf al Hazmi - all of which supports Ali's contention that he saw little of Hanjour after mid 1998.

The Sawyer School of Aviation in Phoenix has a record of Hanjour training on a flight simulator in June 2001 on the same day as Ali, Algerian flight instructor Lotfi Raissi and Faisal Al Salmi. But there are no invoices or payment records for Hanjour, whereas there are for the other three. After September 11, Al Salmi was deported for lying about his association with Hanjour; Ali volunteered information to the FBI.

The New Zealand analysis also dwells on Khalid Sheik Mohammed's claim that, until the success of Sept 11, al Qaeda was training pilots and hijackers for a second wave of airborne strikes. But Ali is considered an unlikely candidate because al Qaeda anticipated it would be much more difficult for Middle-Eastern passport holders to operate after the attacks.

Mohammed's testimony and other reports emphasise the tightness of al Qaeda's security and its success in limiting knowledge of the operation to a handful of people. "It is likely that [Ali] could claim no knowledge of the 9/11 plot and be essentially truthful in that claim," says the analysis.

But here's the Kafka clause: Mohammed's testimony also suggests that "lack of knowledge of the 9/11 plot would not of itself demonstrate that an individual had no association with [al Qaeda]."

Other documents include an academic's "social network analysis" which places Ali on the periphery of a possible support network of more than 60 people. It scores him lowly for access to others and control over the information flow in the network. He gets a below-average score for activity in the network.

Unlike other suspected cell members, there's a dearth of documentation on Ali such as banking records. He appears to have been as anonymous in Arizona as he was in his three months in New Zealand.


Hani Hanjour

Devout Muslim thought to have piloted Flight 77 into the Pentagon. Ali is introduced to Hanjour by mutual friend Bandar al-Hazmi on arrival in Melbourne, Florida, in November 1997. Hanjour and al-Hazmi are flatmates learning English at the Florida Institutue of Technology. In December, the three shift to Phoenix, Arizona, where Hanjour has previously studied and attended flight schools. Hanjour and Bandar rent, briefly, an apartment in North Phoenix and the three enrol at a North Phoenix flight school. But Hanjour doesn't turn up and is constantly on the move, living in several Phoenix apartments and flying to New York, Dubai and Ontario in Canada. He spends time in Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia in 1999 and 2000. In December 2000 he links up in San Diego with fellow hijacker Nawaf al-Hazmi. The two train on a Boeing simulator in Phoenix in February and March 2001 before moving to the east coast.

Bandar al-Hazmi

Encourages his old school friend Ali to begin pilot training in Florida. Introduces him to Hanjour and the three flat together in November and December 1997 before moving to Phoenix. Trains with Ali at Arizona Aviation with intermittent trips home to Saudi Arabia before leaving for good in January 2000. In January 2002, the FBI investigates Bandar to see if there is a family relationship with Flight 77 hijackers Nawaf and Salem al-Hazmi, but finds none.

Faisal al-Salmi

Student pilot deported after September 11 for lying about his association with Hanjour and denying any knowledge of the FBI's September 15 interview with Rayed Ali. Lived in Tempe, east of Phoenix. The 9/11 Commission Report says al-Salmi did flight training with Ali. "When polygraphed on whether he had taken flight training at the behest of an organisation, al Salmi's negative response was deemed deceptive."

Lotfi Raissi

Algerian flight instructor accused of training some of the September 11 pilots. Uses flight simulator with Ali, Al Salmi and possibly Hanjour in June 2001. Raissi is arrested in Britain after September 11 but the case collapses in February 2003 and many of the allegations are withdrawn. He later sues the FBI.

Nawaf al-Hazmi

Ali's association with him is "not yet in discloseable form". Like Ali, he was born in Mecca. Said to be one of the first hijackers chosen by Osama bin Laden. He first entered the United States in late 1999 and appears to have spent most time in San Diego with another Flight 77 hijacker, Khalid al-Mihdhar, and later with Hani Hanjour. In March 2001 al-Hazmi and Hanjour move to the eastern seaboard where they are joined by the other Flight 77 hijackers.


Click on the link below to read an Immigration Service analysis for the New Zealand Government suggesting possible grounds for deporting Saudi student Rayed Mohammed Abdullah Ali.

Mr Ali was allowed into New Zealand on a student visa on February 26 to attend an English language course in Auckland. On May 30, he was deported as a threat to national security under section 72 of the Immigration Act, which gives no right of appeal.

The analysis was released to the Weekend Herald after an Official Information Act request. It focuses largely on an examination of records of the interrogation of high-ranking Al Qaeda member Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, suspected mastermind of the September 11 attacks on New York and Washington.

Sheikh Mohammed was captured in Pakistan in 2003 and handed to the US. Records of his interrogation were tabled as "substitute testimony" during the trial of Zacarius Moussaoui. They provide insight into Al Qaeda tactics and preparations for September 11.

The analysis also draws on other publicly available material on the 19 hijackers.

In the report, Ali is referred to throughout as C/N 37337065. KSM stands for Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. AQ stands for Al Qaeda.

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