N E W Y O R K, Feb. 14, 2001 -- A former pilot for Osama bin Laden testified today that the alleged terrorist sought an aircraft big enough to carry Stinger missiles in his war on Americans, but settled for a cheaper model that crash-landed in Sudan.
The pilot, Essam Al-Ridi, told a jury in federal court in Manhattan that he was at the controls when bin Laden's private jet came down at an airport in Khartoum after a 1993 test flight. His first instinct was to make sure the craft's only other occupant, the co-pilot, was unharmed.
"My second thought was to leave Khartoum as soon as I could," Al-Ridi said.
Al-Ridi, an Egyptian who became a U.S. citizen, fled Sudan and later agreed to testify about bin Laden's terrorist organization, al Qaeda, at the trial of four men accused of bombing U.S. embassies in Africa in 1988.
The twin blasts in Nairobi, Kenya, and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania — which prosecutors say were orchestrated by bin Laden — killed 224 people, including 12 Americans.
Conspirators Could Face Life Sentences
Wadih El-Hage, 40, of Arlington, Texas, and Mohamed Sadeek Odeh, 35, could get life sentences if convicted of conspiracy. Mohamed Rashed Daoud Al-'Owhali, 24, and Khalfan Khamis Mohamed, 27, could face the death penalty if convicted of murder conspiracy.
Testifying in the trial's second week, Al-Ridi identified El-Hage as a key associate of bin Laden, who is believed to be in hiding in Afghanistan.
Later in the day, a second witness, Ashif Mohamed Juma, identified El-Hage as a man who came to Tanzania in 1996 to identify the body of Abu Ubaidah al Banshiri, bin Laden's alleged military commander, after he died in a ferry accident.
The first witness — who was trained at a Texas flight school — said he met El-Hage and bin Laden after deciding to join the Muslim struggle against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. While traveling the globe, he bought night-vision equipment, high-powered rifles and scuba gear for the Afghan rebels and, later, al Qaeda.
In 1993, El-Hage contacted Al-Ridi in Arlington, telling him that bin Laden would pay $350,000 for long-range private jet he could use to transport Stinger missiles from Pakistan to Sudan without refueling, the witness said. The budget was later cut to $230,000, enough to buy a smaller, used passenger jet from a Tucson, Ariz., "bone yard," he added.Pilot Accused of Buying Into Authority
Al-Ridi refurbished the aircraft and flew it to Sudan for delivery to bin Laden. When the al Qaeda leader tried to hire him as a pilot, Al-Ridi accused him of buying his way into a position of authority and of putting militant Muslims at risk in the holy war, or jihad.
"You don't have a military background," he said he told bin Laden. "I think what you have done to some of the guys is flat killing, not jihad."
Bin Laden responded that he would be flying the jet for "business, not jihad."
Al-Ridi eventually agreed to take a group of Arab men from Sudan to Kenya. Later, while living in Egypt, he was secretly summoned to Sudan to service the aircraft; he found it in "terrible condition" — flat tires, engines choked with sand and batteries dead.
The pilot managed to get the plane airborne. But when he landed, the brakes failed and the aircraft smashed into a sand dune.
Asked why he left the plane behind and immediately jumped on the first flight out of Khartoum, Al-Ridi explained that he feared being caught working for someone who was considered an outlaw in his homeland.
"It was a very explosive situation," he said. "Everybody knew it was Osama bin Laden's plane, and everybody knew I was Egyptian."
Late Wednesday afternoon, prosecutors began reading to the jury a 52-page statement issued by bin Laden in 1996 entitled "Declaration of holy war against the Americans who are occupying the land of the two holy places."