Lotfi Raissi: Life after 9/11

In 2001 Lotfi Raissi was accused of plotting the 9/11 attacks and thrown into Belmarsh prison. Despite being exonerated, today he is penniless, unemployable - and still battling to clear his name. Ed Caesar reports
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Do you remember Lotfi Raissi? For a few months in the aftermath of the 11 September terrorist atrocities, this Algerian pilot was considered by many to be the most notorious criminal in the world, the man who had trained the al-Qa'ida hijackers.

Twelve days after the attacks on New York and Washington, DC, Raissi was arrested at his flat near Heathrow Airport, with his wife and brother. He was then rearrested and imprisoned a week later when the US authorities launched extradition proceedings against him on terrorism charges that carried the death penalty.

Five months later, the case against Raissi collapsed, and he was released from Belmarsh high-security prison in south-east London.

But he is still not a free man. It is now over four years since his arrest, and Raissi has never received an apology from either the American or British governments. He and his wife, a former Air France employee, are still blacklisted by every airline in the world. And the Home Secretary has denied any claim to compensation or an official apology - a decision his lawyers will challenge in the High Court tomorrow.

"It's strange," says Raissi, a well-built, expressive 32-year-old. "It's an experience you don't choose. It just comes. And when it comes it doesn't stop. I didn't ask for any of this. I was 27 when I was arrested. I'm almost 32 now. I have no career, no life. I used to believe in democracy and human rights. But my own rights have been destroyed - I have become a scapegoat."

Shortly before his arrest, Raissi had moved to Britain from the United States and was living with his wife, Sonia, in Berkshire while he retrained to convert his American commercial pilot's licence into a European one.

He had always wanted to be a pilot and left his family home in Algeria to pursue his dream in the US. By the time he and Sonia, a French Catholic, arrived in Britain, they had set their hearts on starting a family in the UK. But those dreams were ruptured when Raissi was arrested.

"I was inspired by Charles Lindbergh crossing the Atlantic," he says, his frown softening. "I had always wanted to be a pilot. And now.... It's not that I cannot fly. I am still able to fly. But I have been blacklisted from any airline job. Which means that I have been banned by the American and British governments. It's as simple as that."

It is hard to believe that this nightmarish history belongs to the smart, amiable man who joins me at a café in west London. He has wide eyes and a solemn demeanour that occasionally gives way to a toothy grin.

Apart from his fidgety nature and an understandable testiness when it comes to trawling over the details of his experiences, Raissi looks and sounds like any other café-dweller. You believe him when he says that the cafés and restaurants of this Francophile area where he has settled suit him.

He begins an unemotional account of his release from Belmarsh in February 2002. "My first thought was not relief," he recalls. "I realised, when I was in prison, that my life, my name and my career had all been destroyed. All I wanted to do was to try and prove that the media had made a mistake, and that they should apologise."

Raissi says he was particularly wounded by the fact that, at the time of his arrest in September 2001, the media printed every allegation against him as fact. But he would soon redress this injustice when he won a court action against the Mail on Sunday, which alleged that Raissi had trained the 11 September hijackers and stolen the identity of a 74-year-old, too.

He won an apology, and "substantial" damages in the High Court in October 2003. But did it feel like a victory? "No, it was not a big moment for me," he says. "I was just doing what was right. I didn't want money as much as I wanted an apology. They said a lot of horrible things. The most important thing is that people acknowledge their mistakes."

Raissi wants the British government to acknowledge its mistakes, too, because until they do, he says, "I have no life." Money is extremely short for the Raissis, and maintaining a legal battle is a struggle.

"I don't like living on benefits," he says. "But I have been pushed into living on them. Luckily, I have my parents' support. They have, God bless them, tried to help me in every way they can. But my father is sick now, because of this case."

Raissi prefers not to talk about his parents, who have watched his troubles from afar. He does say, however, that even though "they have many troubles in respect of this case", they have still managed to stir a groundswell of support for Raissi's case in Algeria.

Our conversation progresses to terrorism and Islamic fundamentalism, and one gets a sense of how difficult this topic is for Raissi. The nervous eyes of fellow customers shoot over in our direction. This is, after all, a man who has been accused of being an al- Qa'ida operative.

"My immediate reaction to 11 September was devastation," says Raissi, who taught aviation at a number of flying schools in Phoenix, Arizona. "It was shocking. I have a lot of friends in America and I felt very sorry for [the victims]."

His reaction to the 7 July attack on London was one of equal disgust, he says. And Raissi balked when he was suddenly flooded with requests to talk about the London bombings in the media. A role as "terrorism expert" was one Raissi has never sought, and he declined all requests for interview.

It is experiences such as these that remind Raissi his life can never return completely to normal. And the psychological pressure of his unsolicited connection with terrorism has taken its toll. It comes as no surprise to find that Raissi, his wife, and his brother all see a psychiatrist, with Raissi classified as "a suicide risk". He is, too, still haunted by his experiences in Belmarsh, where he spent 23 hours a day, for four and a half months, in a tiny cell.

"They should rename it Hell Marsh," he says. "Everyone who comes out of Belmarsh has to either go and see a psychiatrist or they commit suicide. They treated me like I was Bin Laden. The guards became my judge and jury. My life was put at risk twice. I was at risk was from other inmates, but the guards knew what they were doing.

"One guard said to me, 'We're going to feed you to the dogs.' They were going to give me to criminals who would treat me worse than they would treat paedophiles in there. It was shocking and I will never, ever forgive them."

Raissi says what particularly shocked him was the Islamophobic abuse. "If you are a guard at Belmarsh," he explains, "you have to obey the law. You don't have to take my Koran and put it in the toilet.

"My family lives only for this case," he says. "The best thing that can happen is that I will receive an apology. They will say in public that they made a mistake. My life will start again. I won't be on any blacklist, and I can have my job back. I can stay in the UK and build a life here."

But Raissi knows that notoriety will never completely leave him. His name and face are still recognised, particularly on his occasional trips to his native Algeria, and he hates it. He has discovered that powerful states can perform great injustices. What he will begin to discover tomorrow is whether they are capable of reversing them.