Pilot arrested in Britain 'had trained the hijackers'

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The Independent Online

An Algerian pilot arrested in Britain was the "lead instructor" for four of the hijackers who carried out the terror attacks in America, including the man who flew a jet into the Pentagon, a court heard yesterday.

Lotfi Raissi, 27, who was arrested eight days ago with his wife, Sonia, at their home in the village of Colnbrook, Berkshire, is said to have travelled to the US several times to oversee the training of the men.

Meanwhile, the Pentagon has confirmed for the first time, that US and British special force units have been operating inside Afghanistan, helping prepare the way for a military offensive against the suspected terrorist mastermind Osama bin Laden and his followers.

The officials were commenting on reports in the USA Today newspaper that three to five-man units from the US Army and Navy special forces, as well as from Britain's SAS were in Afghanistan.

Yesterday, as a last-ditch effort by Pakistani clerics failed to persuade Afghanistan's Taliban regime to hand over Mr bin Laden, the FBI began extradition proceedings against Mr Raissi to face charges in America and to question him about his possible role in the attacks.

Bow Street Magistrates Court in London was told that Mr Raissi helped train several members of the five-man team that crashed American Airlines Flight 77 into the Pentagon, killing 189 people.

Investigators will also examine whether Mr Raissi met with Mohamed Atta, who is thought to be one of the terror plot's key organisers and the man believed to have piloted another hijacked plane into the north tower of the World Trade Centre on 11 September. The two men are said to have been in Las Vegas at the same time this summer. Yesterday it was revealed that Atta had left behind a five-page hand-written document that includes prayers, instructions for the final night of life and an exhortation to ensure that "no one if following you".

The court heard the FBI had obtained video footage and recorded telephone calls of Mr Raissi and the hijacker who piloted AA Flight 77 – believed to be Hani Hanjoura, a Saudi Arabian – showing them travelling together and at a flying school in Arizona.

Mr Raissi was arrested while training at a flying school near Heathrow Airport where he was trying to obtain a licence to fly in Europe. His lawyer yesterday pleaded his innocence.

In a packed courtroom, containing eight FBI agents, Arvinda Sambir, prosecuting on behalf of the US government, said Mr Raissi had presided over the training of the pilots and ensured they could gain access to US flying schools. She applied for extradition on the grounds that he obtained his commercial pilot's license after providing false information to the US authorities.

She added: "It is no secret we are looking at firmer or more substantial charges, namely conspiracy to murder. We say he was the lead instructor for the four pilots involved in the hijacking of the planes in the US. The one we are concerned about in particular is the one which flew into the Pentagon."

She said Mr Raissi visited the US on a number of occasions between June and July this year. On 23 June he visited Las Vegas with his wife and then flew to Arizona with the pilot involved in the Pentagon attack, she said.

"Between 10 June and 11 July this year he made frequent trips to the US. On 23 June this year he flew to Las Vegas with his wife then, on to the Nevada flying school, Arizona, on the same day the Pentagon pilot was there. He had the Pentagon pilot with him at the flying school and Raissi was there to ensure the pilots were capable and trained for their purpose," she claimed.

The court was told that between 1999 and 2000 Mr Raissi attended a number of flying schools in America along with several of the alleged hijackers. "He was there in the background to train and to facilitate the training of these pilots," Mrs Sambir said.

"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."

Police found a pilot's log at Mr Raissi's house with a "whole chunk" of pages missing covering the period when he was allegedly training the pilots.