N E W Y O R K, Feb. 14, 2001 -- A former pilot for Osama bin Laden testifiedtoday that the alleged terrorist sought an aircraft big enoughto carry Stinger missiles in his war on Americans, but settled fora cheaper model that crash-landed in Sudan.
The pilot, Essam Al-Ridi, told a jury in federal court inManhattan that he was at the controls when bin Laden's private jetcame down at an airport in Khartoum after a 1993 test flight. Hisfirst 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 andlater 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 224people, 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. MohamedRashed Daoud Al-'Owhali, 24, and Khalfan Khamis Mohamed, 27, couldface the death penalty if convicted of murder conspiracy.
Testifying in the trial's second week, Al-Ridi identifiedEl-Hage as a key associate of bin Laden, who is believed to be inhiding in Afghanistan.
Later in the day, a second witness, Ashif Mohamed Juma,identified El-Hage as a man who came to Tanzania in 1996 toidentify the body of Abu Ubaidah al Banshiri, bin Laden's allegedmilitary 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 Muslimstruggle against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. While travelingthe globe, he bought night-vision equipment, high-powered riflesand scuba gear for the Afghan rebels and, later, al Qaeda.
In 1993, El-Hage contacted Al-Ridi in Arlington, telling himthat bin Laden would pay $350,000 for long-range private jet hecould use to transport Stinger missiles from Pakistan to Sudanwithout refueling, the witness said. The budget was later cut to$230,000, enough to buy a smaller, used passenger jet from aTucson, Ariz., "bone yard," he added.Pilot Accused of Buying Into Authority
Al-Ridi refurbished the aircraft and flew it to Sudan fordelivery to bin Laden. When the al Qaeda leader tried to hire himas a pilot, Al-Ridi accused him of buying his way into a positionof authority and of putting militant Muslims at risk in the holywar, or jihad.
"You don't have a military background," he said he told binLaden. "I think what you have done to some of the guys is flatkilling, 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 secretlysummoned to Sudan to service the aircraft; he found it in"terrible condition" — flat tires, engines choked with sand andbatteries 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 thefirst flight out of Khartoum, Al-Ridi explained that he fearedbeing caught working for someone who was considered an outlaw inhis homeland.
"It was a very explosive situation," he said. "Everybody knewit was Osama bin Laden's plane, and everybody knew I wasEgyptian."
Late Wednesday afternoon, prosecutors began reading to the jurya 52-page statement issued by bin Laden in 1996 entitled"Declaration of holy war against the Americans who are occupyingthe land of the two holy places."