A man who had close links to one of the Sept. 11, 2001, hijackers was deported from New Zealand last month after officials discovered his true identity and learned he had been taking pilot lessons in the country, the government said yesterday.
Rayed Mohammed Abdullah Ali, a Yemeni, was deported to Saudi Arabia on May 30 because his presence in New Zealand posed a security threat, Immigration Minister David Cunliffe said.
He declined to give details, but said authorities did not have any evidence of any specific plans for a terrorist attack.
The US congressional probe into the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in the US said Rayed Abdullah was a friend of Saudi Arabian Hani Hanjour, one of the terrorists aboard American Airlines flight 77 that was flown into the Pentagon, and attended a flight school in Arizona, where Hanjour also received training.
"He was directly associated with persons responsible for the terrorist attacks in the United States on Sept. 11, 2001," Cunliffe said in a statement.
Rayed Abdullah was deported one day after he was arrested in Palmerston North on New Zealand's North Island, where he was taking pilot training lessons.
"He was building up his flying hours flying with an instructor. He'd previously trained as a pilot in the United States," Cunliffe said.
Rayed Abdullah had used "a variation of his name in applying for entry to New Zealand" and his real identity had only become known after he arrived in the country, Cunliffe said.
He didn't say what had led to the discovery of his real name.
"Once his real identity became known, he was identified as having close connections to people involved with the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in the United States, and had been named in the 9/11 Commission Report," Cunliffe said.
The US Embassy in the capital, Wellington, "is not providing any comment at this time," spokeswoman Janine Burns said.
Rayed Abdullah entered New Zealand in February, telling immigration officials he was coming to the country to study English, and took up residency in Auckland, where he began taking language classes.
He then moved to Palmerston North, 540km south of the city, where he joined a pilot training program at the Manawatu Aero Club, Cunliffe said.
He said the nature of Rayed Abdullah's activities in New Zealand was part of the reason for his deportation. The minister declined to give details.
"What I will say is that we don't have any evidence of a specific terrorist threat by the gentleman in New Zealand nor are we saying he was undertaking terrorist activities," Cunliffe told National Radio.
Manawatu Districts Aero Club president Grant Hadfield said Rayed Abdullah had flown light trainer airplanes with an instructor at the club for five or six hours.
He said the man's background had been checked by the club's chief instructor, who found no reason to believe he posed any threat. The student had 79 hours of flying time on his US flight log book, Hadfield said.
"We had no reason to suggest there was anything to suspect" about the man, Hadfield said. "He was always polite, courteous and confident as a person and a pilot."
The Sept. 11 Commission report said that Rayed Abdullah entered the US in late 1997 and obtained his private pilot's license in December 1998 after training in Arizona. He then went to work as a computer programmer before resuming flight training in mid-2001, it said.