Suspected hijacker attended U.S. flight school
Published: Sunday, September 1, 2002 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, August 31, 2002 at 11:48 p.m.
STOCKHOLM, Sweden - A Swedish man of Tunisian origin who was arrested with a gun in his carry-on luggage at a Swedish airport once attended a U.S. flight school and has a criminal record, a top security official and his lawyer said Saturday.
The suspect's lawyer denied that his client was planning to hijack a flight to London.
The 29-year-old suspect, identified by his lawyer as Kerim Chatty, was being held on a preliminary charge of planning to hijack a plane and illegal possession of a firearm after he was detained Thursday. Police said he had been on his way to an Islamic conference in Birmingham, England.
Margareta Linderoth, the director of the national security police, said authorities were investigating possible links to terrorist groups. But she denied a report that the suspect was planning to crash the aircraft into a U.S. embassy in Europe or that they were looking for four men connected to such a plan.
"It's false information. . . . I deny it absolutely," Linderoth told The Associated Press. "We are not looking for four more men."
Chatty was detained at Vaesteraas airport in central Sweden as he prepared to board a Ryanair flight to London.
Defense attorney Nils Uggla said his client, whose father is from Tunisia and mother is from Sweden, has denied any plans to hijack the plane and can explain why he carried a gun in a toilet-articles bag. Uggla would not be more specific, citing a gag order.
"He denies that this has anything at all to do with terrorism or airplane hijacking," Uggla said. "He is deeply sorry that he caused trouble for the others who were traveling."
Several passengers already aboard the aircraft were evacuated while police searched the cabin and luggage compartment on Thursday.
The plane took off for London several hours late without the suspect and other Muslims with whom police initially believed he was traveling. The others were released after questioning.
A hearing will be held in a few days to determine if Chatty should remain in custody until prosecutors decide whether to charge him.
Uggla said his client was "was very much against violence" and was being unfairly portrayed because of his religion and the proximity of the anniversary of Sept. 11 terror attacks on the United States.
"He is Muslim, he is flying and he has a gun and it's close to 11 of September," Uggla said. "That makes people draw quick conclusions."
Although Linderoth said her agency, known as SAPO, was investigating a possible link to terrorist groups, she stressed that this was just one part of the investigation. "It's too early to say" about a motive, she said.
Linderoth said Chatty took pilot training at a school in the United States but did not complete the course and did not get a license.
Chatty, a recent convert to Islam, has previously been convicted on theft and assault charges, including one from a 1997 brawl with a group of U.S. Marines at a gym in Stockholm.
The fight followed an earlier scuffle with the Marines at a bar, Uggla said.
Uggla dismissed reports that his client was planning to crash the aircraft into a U.S. embassy and said he hadn't received any related information from prosecutors or police. "It sounds highly unlikely," he said.
A spokesman for the U.S. Embassy in Stockholm, Keith Petersen, declined to comment on the report or the scuffle with the Marines, saying the investigation was "in the hands of Swedish authorities." Other Swedish military and government officials referred questions to the security police.
The Swedish tabloid Aftonbladet reported that the suspect had attended flight school in Conway, S.C., from 1996-1997. The paper quoted Jim Trautman, an official at the North American Institute of Aviation, as saying the suspect had studied at the school.
"Unfortunately I cannot see whether he finally received a diploma or not," Trautman was quoted as saying.
James Lamb, assistant flight instructor at the school, said he can neither confirm nor deny Chatty was ever a student at the school because those records were destroyed in a fire at the school in May.
At least three of the hijackers involved in the Sept. 11 attacks attended or visited flight schools in the United States.
Uggla said he had spoken to Chatty by phone and would meet him today Sunday at a police station in Vaesteraas, 60 miles northwest of the capital, Stockholm.
Uggla also wouldn't confirm that his client was heading to an Islamic conference as police said, but did confirm that he was on his way to Birmingham.
Organizers of a conference hosted by the Salafi Bookstore and Islamic Center in Birmingham said they did not know if the suspect was to attend.
"We do not know him and nor have we had any communications with him," Abu Kahadeejah said in a statement on Friday, when the three-day meeting began.
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