|Witness Says He Helped Bin Laden
Buy Jet in U.S.
Thursday, February 15, 2001
By Gail Appleson, Law Correspondent
NEW YORK (Reuters) - Saudi dissident Osama bin Laden, accused by Washington of trying to kill Americans around the world, bought a jet in the United States with the help of an aide now on trial in New York, a witness said on Wednesday.
Essan Al-Ridi, who used to work as a flight instructor in Texas, testified that he had been asked by defendant Wadih El-Hage in 1993 if he could help to obtain a jet capable of transporting Stinger missiles.
Al-Ridi took the stand in a federal court in Manhattan as a government witness in the trial of four bin Laden followers who prosecutors say took part in a conspiracy that dated back to 1989 and included the August 1998 bombings of two U.S. embassies in Africa.
The indictment alleges bin Laden and his followers were responsible for twin blasts in Tanzania and Kenya that killed 224 people, including 12 Americans, and wounded thousands.
The defendants are also charged with killing 18 American soldiers in attacks in 1993 on U.S. military personnel in Somalia.
Lawyers for El-Hage, 40, a naturalized U.S. citizen born in Lebanon, say he had worked as a close aide to bin Laden but only in business operations. They deny allegations that he participated in conspiracies aimed at killing Americans.
El-Hage and the three other defendants are charged with being members of al Qaeda (the Base), which prosecutors term an "international terrorist group" run by bin Laden and "dedicated to opposing non-Islamic governments with force and violence."
KHARTOUM CALLED BUSINESS BASE
A former member of al Qaeda testified last week about al Qaeda's business operations, run out of the Sudanese capital of Khartoum, and said the group had received fatwas, or religious decrees, ordering the killing of Americans.
Al-Ridi, an Egyptian who became a U.S. citizen, said he attended aviation school in Texas in the early 1980s and later met El-Hage at a Muslim youth convention. The two became friendly, and Al-Ridi helped El-Hage get a telephone in Arlington, Texas, where he was living with his wife and children.
Al-Ridi said he traveled to Peshawar, Pakistan, in about 1983 to help Muslims resist the Soviet Union's occupation of Afghanistan. Al-Ridi testified that his job was to travel throughout the world obtaining items needed by fighters, including scuba-diving equipment and night vision goggles.
He returned to the United States in 1985 and worked as a flight instructor in Arlington, Texas. He stayed in touch with El-Hage and continued to provide him with items that could be used by Muslims fighting the Soviet Union.
In 1993, El-Hage, who was living in Khartoum, contacted him and said bin Laden wanted to buy a jet, Al-Ridi testified. He quoted El-Hage as saying bin Laden wanted to transport items from Peshawar to Khartoum that included Stinger missiles -- shoulder-fired, heat-seeking missiles used against aircraft.
The U.S. government gave Islamic guerrillas Stinger missiles in the 1980s to help them drive the Soviets out of Afghanistan, and Bin Laden is believed still to have supplies of the weapon.
PLANE FOUND NEAR TUCSON
El-Hage allegedly said bin Laden did not want to spend more than $250,000 on the aircraft. Al-Ridi testified he found a plane at a "boneyard" storage facility in Tucson, Arizona. He said he agreed to refurbish the jet and flew it himself from Texas to Khartoum in a trip that took about a week.
Once there, Al-Ridi said, he met bin Laden, who offered him a job as a pilot. Al-Ridi said he did not approve of bin Laden's leadership of the Muslims in Afghanistan, where his lack of military experience had caused the death of many rebel fighters, and so did not want to fly as part of the war.
He said that bin Laden assured him the job was "strictly business," with responsibilities for dusting crops and carrying cargo, but that he turned it down because the pay was too low.
A few months later, however, El-Hage again asked for help, and he agreed to fly five passengers from Khartoum to Nairobi, Al-Ridi testified. Prosecutors allege that in 1993 members of al Qaeda began to establish operations in Nairobi.
Bin Laden, living in Afghanistan under the protection of the ruling Taliban, is among a group of fugitives who are defendants in the case. The United States is offering $5 million rewards for information leading to their arrest.
Taliban rulers on Wednesday complied with a U.S. order to close their American headquarters in New York's Queens borough but may be allowed to keep personnel in the United States to liaise with the United Nations.
The closure was ordered in line with a December resolution of the U.N.
Security Council tightening sanctions against the militia in an effort
to obtain custody of bin Laden.
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