FBI failed to give evidence against 'terror instructor'

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Lofti Raissi was arrested as the climate of anger and disbelief that sprang from the 11 September terrorist attacks in the United States was most intense.

Almost immediately, the Algerian pilot – the first British resident to be accused of direct involvement in the suicide attacks – came to represent the calculating evil which carried out such atrocities.

With the might of the United States judicial system and the outrage of the Western world ranged against him, few thought he would walk the streets of Britain as a free man again. The only real question appeared to be whether the Government would extradite someone to another country without obtaining guarantees that he would not face the death penalty.

Yet yesterday, the 27-year-old emerged from five months inside the maximum security Belmarsh prison into the arms of his wife, Sonia.

The United States – which once claimed it had sufficient evidence of his association with the terrorist pilots and of "active conspiracy" – said it was unlikely to bring terrorist charges against him, leaving only the technical matters of allegedly making false statements on his pilot's licence application.

His release raises the questions of whether the US authorities, in their haste to convict suspected members of the al-Qa'ida network, had failed to collate the evidence properly, or whether there had never been any in the first place.

In the early hours of 21 September last year, Mr Raissi and his wife were pulled from their bed at their flat in Colnbrook, Slough, Berkshire, and arrested in connection with the World Trade Centre and Pentagon attacks. They protested their innocence from the start. Sonia Raissi and his brother Mohammed, 29, were held by police but released without charge.

Few noted with any emphasis that his wife was a French Catholic and a former cabaret dancer, that his family seemed very westernised and had a history of opposition to terrorists.

Beneath banner headlines proclaiming him as "The Terror Instructor", Mr Raissi was described as the "mastermind" who had taught four of the 11 September terrorists to fly. He was, for many, evidence of an "alarming" British connection.

On 28 September, a day when ministers warned the public of a serious threat of attacks in the UK, Mr Raissi made his first appearance in court.

"We have sufficient evidence to show not just association with the pilots – it goes further than that. We have evidence of active conspiracy-proving correspondence and telecommunications with them, as well as video footage of them together. We also have proof that they travelled together," said the British prosecutor Arvinda Sambei, representing the US government at Bow Street magistrates' court in London.

While the warrant related to allegedly providing false information to obtain a pilot's licence – failing to disclose a conviction for theft and a knee injury – the Americans made no secret of the fact that they wanted him for conspiracy to murder.

Mr Raissi had dreamt of being a pilot from boyhood. He qualified in Phoenix, Arizona, in 1997 and later became an instructor. He left the United States three years later.

In October 2000, he came to the UK to begin a course to transfer his American qualifications to a European standard.

The US investigators said he was associated with Hani Hanjour, who flew into the Pentagon. They said that Mr Raissi and Hanjour took flight simulator training at Sawyer Aviation in Arizona together, though they have yet to prove this was anything more than a coincidence.

Video footage of Mr Raissi and Hanjour in Arizona turned out to be, according to his lawyer Richard Egan, a poor-quality webcam image of him with his cousin.

Prosecutors said Mr Raissi and Hanjour had often been in phone contact, but have yet to provide proof. Claims he had contacted a suspected al-Qaida leader proved to be unfounded.

While the FBI said Mr Raissi and Hanjour flew in the same aircraft on 8 March 1999, his defence team insisted logbooks could prove otherwise.

The FBI, which once described him of "crucial importance", told The Washington Post recently that he was now a "maybe or maybe not".

The Americans' refusal to provide more evidence began to wear thin on District Judge Workman, who said that if the US was "unable to give the assurances that further charges of terrorist offences are to be offered, I have to assume that they won't".

The Americans insist that Mr Raissi remains a suspect. His family are equally adamant that he has been the victim, in the words of his lawyer Hugo Keith, of "sensationalism and extraordinary innuendo" – of allegations which consist of a "jigsaw forced together to paint a sinister portrait".