Rayed Mohammed Abdullah Ali
On Sunday, February 26, Rayed Mohammed Abdullah Ali flew from the northern winter into Auckland’s ebbing summer for the same stated reason that draws thousands of Middle Eastern students here – to brush up on his English.
Just before 9 the following morning, the short Saudi with the receding hairline wandered into the Dilworth Building in downtown Auckland and was welcomed into the Sheffield English Language School’s premier intensive IELTS course.
His student visa, issued in Dubai a fortnight before by the New Zealand Immigration Service, allowed him to spend up to three months at Sheffield. Though Saudi-born and raised in Mecca, he travelled on a Yemeni passport, the country of his father, who did not have Saudi citizenship.
The 28-year-old already spoke good English but said he needed a high IELTS (International English Language Testing System) score so he could further his dream of becoming a commercial pilot in the Middle East. He already had his private pilot’s licence, obtained in the United States in 1998.
He was a model student and staff found him “really friendly, really nice”.
That’s not the verdict of the New Zealand Government, which deported Ali, using a cloak-and-dagger clause in the Immigration Act – section 72 – which covers national security and has no right of appeal.
In response to Herald inquiries, the Government admitted last weekend that Ali was spirited to Saudi Arabia on May 30, after 94 days in New Zealand.
Acting on advice which it refuses to disclose, the Government cited Ali’s direct association with people responsible for the September 11 terrorist attacks in the United States, his activities in the US beforehand, and his activities in New Zealand.
It directed the news media to specific mentions in the US Congress 9/11 Commission Report indicating that Ali had lived and trained with Hani Hanjour, the Saudi man believed to have flown Flight 77 into the Pentagon, killing 189 people.
Defending the decision this week, Prime Minister Helen Clark said it was “a no-brainer that someone who has been a room-mate of a 9/11 terrorist and is having pilot training is here for no particularly good purpose”.
That doesn’t explain why the Government used section 72 for just the second time. Ali maintained he flatted with Hanjour for barely a month after arriving in the US in late 1997.
The “evidence” on Ali in the 9/11 report is far from conclusive, nor is he wanted by the FBI – raising doubts about the justification for throwing him out. Is he an al Qaeda operative? Or could he be a victim of the post-September 11 times – a young Saudi tainted by association and denied his dream of becoming a commercial pilot?
Ali made no secret of his career goal while in New Zealand; nor did he hide his past. But there is much we don’t know about his time here and which of his “activities” constituted a national security threat.
He worked hard at Sheffield, attending the 20-hour-a-week course with a half-dozen fellow students for eight weeks.
“He didn’t seem intense,” says Sheffield’s director of programmes, Rachel Fitzgerald.
“You have this image of somebody who’s training to be a terrorist to be quite extreme, or anti-social. He was not like that at all.
“He would joke around. He loved chatting with people. He was definitely just a nice guy.”
Over morning tea, he would sometimes talk about his homeland and the countries he had visited.
HE already spoke English well – he needed intermediate-level English to be on the course. “He would have been at least upper-intermediate level,” says Fitzgerald.
Outside the course, Ali seems to have blended into the Auckland international student scene. If he visited any of the city’s mosques to pray, he went unnoticed. He liked Western food and music but the food halls, dairies and money exchanges near the language school have no recollection of meeting him, at least not from the grainy photocopy of his passport, the only known image of him in New Zealand.
He told one couple he met that he was boarding with a woman on the North Shore. It’s suspected that, like many foreign students, he did some under-the-counter work to boost his income. What’s certain is that he quickly set out to further his flying career.
On Sunday March 5, during his first full weekend in New Zealand, he emailed several flying schools stating that he had his private pilot’s licence and had accrued about 88 hours’ flying time. He wanted to complete his instrument training and sit his commercial pilot’s licence.
He contacted the Bay of Islands, Manawatu, Kapiti, Wellington and Queenstown aero clubs. He was concerned to know the cost and whether accommodation or any special package was available.
The following Sunday, Ali headed for the North Shore Aero Club at Dairy Flat. Philip O’Sullivan was there, taking an introductory flying lesson – a birthday present from his wife, Annette. The day had dawned wet and the airfield was quieter than usual, but it was fining up when O’Sullivan set off on the half-hour training flight.
When he returned he met Ali, a “nice guy” who had been talking to Annette.
“We sat down and had a chat. He told a good story about having a flying lesson in the United States when the door flew open and he panicked like billy-o. Afterwards we said he couldn’t be a terrorist because he was too scared. I don’t know whether it was a front or not. If he was a terrorist, I guess he would be quite skilled at blending in.”
If Ali was linked to terrorist organisations, he was not well-funded. He carried two letters signed by his parents, promising to pay his fees, on the letterhead of his father’s export-import textile business in Arar, northern Saudi Arabia.
The only difference was that one mentioned “study” while the other specified “aviation study”. He also had a covering letter from the Mecca branch of the Riyad Bank, indicating his parents had $50,000 in their account.
Philip O’Sullivan believes money worries put Ali off enrolling at North Shore.
“He was talking about the cost and stuff and about going down-country. He just said he was looking around. He planned to check out a number of flying schools and decide the best place to go.
“His English was very good. If you met him in a bar or cafe you would just have a normal conversation. He’s the sort of guy who would fade into any crowd. You wouldn’t think he was necessarily Saudi, he could be from Europe. I don’t think he had much of an accent or anything, he was very Westernised.”
The O’Sullivans even gave Ali a lift, dropping him at the Constellation Drive bus depot to spare him the taxi fare from Dairy Flat.
“He was talking about money. He said he found it quite expensive here.”
Ten days later, Ali wrote to Captain Ravindra Singh, chief flying instructor at the Manawatu Aero Club, saying he planned to visit Palmerston North on the weekend of March 25-26, hoped to do some flying, and would like to meet Singh.
“I offered him a flight and he was shocked,” says Singh. “He said ‘most people suspect me and won’t even talk to me’. I said I have no reason to suspect you.”
Singh, a former Indian Air Force pilot who says he was trained in intelligence, nevertheless was suspicious. He knew Ali had been in the US in 2001 and asked him pointed questions about his US flying experience.
Ali told him he knew Hani Hanjour, the Saudi believed to have flown Flight 77 into the Pentagon. They had both trained at the Arizona Aviation flight school in Phoenix, but not at the same time, he said. He did not say he had flatted with Hanjour, nor that he had arrived in the US the day before Hanjour, in 1997.
“He said he had done about 100 hours flying and was doing instrument training in the US before September 11 but since then everyone had treated him suspiciously.”
The publicly accessible evidence about Ali in the US is only circumstantial, but he certainly kept bad company. Under the name Rayed Mohammed Abdullah, he arrived there on November 15, 1997, to attend a flight training school in Florida, where he said he met Hanjour on arrival.
The US Congress’s 9/11 Commission report says this is not credible because Ali arrived the day before Hanjour. There’s no evidence they knew each other beforehand, but a mutual friend, Bandar al Hazmi, had suggested that Ali train in Florida. The trio later attended a language school together.
Ali and Hanjour both moved to Arizona to train; Ali obtaining his private pilot’s licence in December 1998. He then worked as a computer programmer in Arizona before resuming flight training in mid-2001.
Hanjour returned to Saudi Arabia in April 1999 with his commercial pilot’s licence. He is believed to have attended an al Qaeda training camp in Afghanistan but by early 2001 he was back in Arizona, attending his old flying school, Arizona Aviation.
Records show that Hanjour, Ali, Lotfi Raissi and Faisal Al Salmi used a flight simulator at Sawyer School of Aviation on June 23, 2001, less than 12 weeks before September 11. But the documents are inconclusive, as there are no invoices or payment records for Hanjour, while records exist for the other three. Al Salmi was later convicted of lying about his association with Hanjour immediately after September 11.
Raissi was arrested in Britain after September 11 and accused of training Hanjour and other hijackers to fly, but the case collapsed and many of the allegations against him were withdrawn. Ali was never arrested.
When Singh in Palmerston North quizzed him about September 11, Ali told him he had rung the FBI after the attacks to volunteer information.
The 9/11 report notes that the FBI interviewed Ali four days after the attacks. There were several subsequent interviews.
The report indicates the FBI had investigated him as early as May 5, 2001. It says Ali was a leader at the Islamic Cultural Centre in Phoenix and reportedly gave extremist speeches at the mosque.
But a cultural centre staff member who knew Ali says the information is wrong.
“Rayed was never a leader for the mosque and he never gave speeches at the mosque,” the staff member, who asked to not be identified, told the Weekend Herald.
“His involvement was in the prayers. He had a nice voice and recitation of the Koran so he sometimes used to lead the prayer.”
The story is corroborated by Ali’s 27-year-old brother Abdul Mohammed, who lives in the United States. Mohammed told the Weekend Herald Ali had memorised the Koran and had a good voice.
“When he went to a mosque to pray they would often push him to lead the prayer.”
The staff member said Ali never raised suspicions in the community. “He was a good person. He wanted to be a pilot. He spoke with the FBI because when he first came to the US he lived with one of the hijackers and attended the same [flying] school. After 9/11 he called the FBI and said he knew that person and lived with him for one semester.”
Unable to train or fly in the US after September 11, Ali left the country of his own accord about a year later, the staff member said. “The FBI was after him all the time but he was never arrested. He couldn’t go to school, he couldn’t work, so he decided to go back to Saudi Arabia.”
In May 2004, Phoenix FBI agent Ken Williams said the Phoenix office remained suspicious of Ali, his friend Bandar al Hazmi, and their association with Hanjour.
But the FBI this week told the Weekend Herald no federal charges had been brought against Ali.
“As is our standard procedure, we do not confirm or deny the existence of an investigation,” said Special Agent Richard Kolko, unit chief of the FBI national press office in Washington.
The footnotes to chapter seven of the 9/11 report contain a tantalising reference. “On al Qaeda directing individuals in the Phoenix area to enrol in flight training without telling them why, see FBI electronic communication, investigation of Rayed Abdullah [Ali].”
But in response to the Herald’s request, Special Agent Kolko said the FBI did not release transcripts of its internal documents. Which leaves it open to conjecture that Ali was either an al Qaeda suspect or had learned something of their plans.
Whatever the FBI’s suspicions, they were not sufficient to prevent him gaining entry to New Zealand using a Yemeni passport issued in 2002 in the name of Raed Mohammed Abdullah Ali. The missing Y in his first name is corrected inside the passport.
On Monday, Helen Clark said the addition of the surname Ali was sufficient to fool the system. “This man presented a surname he was not known by in previous reporting through the 9/11 Commission,” she said. “So that indicates a willingness to deceive.”
But Arabic experts say the name confusion is simply a cultural misunderstanding which Western authorities commonly encounter. The names Mohammed, Abdullah and Ali are those of Rayed’s father, grandfather and great-grandfather – there is no equivalent of first name and surname in the Arab world. It’s probable that the Yemeni authorities insisted on the addition of the fourth name when they issued his passport.
It would take a flying school to raise red flags around Ali’s visit, after he visited Ardmore and asked about enrolling in a course on April 12 – six weeks after entering the country.
General manager Craig Hunter says Ali wanted to gain his commercial pilot’s licence and multi-engine instrument rating, a hugely expensive process that would have taken 18 months. It involved passing 14 or 15 theory papers and accruing at least 200 hours’ flying time. “He believed he could get back to the Middle East to get a job as a pilot. He wanted to do his training here.”
Hunter believes Ali’s English was already good enough to satisfy commercial pilot training institutes and suspects he was using the IELTS training as a ruse to gain entry here.
An application for a student visa to attend a flying school would have been more rigorously scrutinised. “Effectively, he wanted to fly.”
Ali became agitated when the school refused to supply a letter of entry which would help him to extend his visa, Hunter says.
“The rules are very specific. You have to prepay your fees for the first module and reapply for your student visa.
“He did not seem to want that. Personally, I got the impression he did not have the money because he told me everything was expensive … I suspected he was more of an immigration problem than anything and we handed it on to the appropriate authorities.”
Friday, April 21 was Ali’s last day at the Sheffield language school. The school receptionist says he had talked of extending his visa and could have done so with documentation such as his attendance record and course report.
Within a few days he was back in Palmerston North. He told Singh he had inquired at Ardmore about enrolling for a course but the cost was prohibitive. He said he had missed an application deadline to sit the IELTS exam in Auckland and planned to re-enrol at a language school and build up his flying hours in Palmerston North because it was cheaper.
Singh says Ali was struggling for money. He told Singh he was doing computer work for the owner of a food hall kebab shop and Singh cautioned that this could jeopardise his student visa.
Singh put him up in a house he rents to students in Cook St while Ali awaited money from his parents in Saudi Arabia.
“It’s incorrect what the Prime Minister is saying – that he enrolled himself for a flying course. He wanted to study towards the written exams, and I said he was welcome to come and read the books here.”
Singh says Ali made five flights with five different instructors at Manawatu, paying for all flights but the last one.
But by now the clock was ticking. Aero club president Grant Hadfield said plain-clothed police turned up in early May and questioned instructors about Ali’s flying.
“It was quite a low key-visit – these guys were keeping a low profile. We weren’t given any instructions. The inference was they wanted to keep monitoring him.”
On May 29, immigration officials and police took Ali away.
It’s a safe bet that the Government and security services have more on Ali than they are prepared to disclose. But on what is known so far about Ali’s time in New Zealand, his expulsion on national security grounds was far from a no-brainer.