|Jet Purchase, Bin Laden Linked
Pilot Says Extremist Wanted to Transport Missiles in 1993
By Vernon Loeb
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 15, 2001; Page A20
NEW YORK, Feb. 14 -- A commercial pilot from Texas testified in federal court today that he purchased a used T-39 jet in 1993 for Saudi extremist Osama bin Laden, who allegedly wanted to transport U.S.-made Stinger antiaircraft missiles from Pakistan to Sudan.
The CIA shipped hundreds of Stingers in the mid-1980s to mujahedin guerrillas fighting to drive Soviet troops out of Afghanistan. After the Stingers proved deadly against Soviet helicopters and helped turn the tide of the war, the CIA authorized a Stinger buyback program to try to get the missiles out of circulation.
But the testimony in a trial here of four men charged as members of bin Laden's alleged terrorist network provided the first public indication that bin Laden may have obtained some of the leftover Stingers after the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1989.
The pilot, Essam Ridi, a naturalized U.S. citizen born in Egypt, testified that one of the defendants, Wadih Hage, asked him to purchase an aircraft for bin Laden in 1993. According to Ridi, Hage specified that the jet needed to have a 2,000-mile range to transport the Stingers.
Ridi and Hage met in the early 1980s as foreign students in Louisiana. At the time he purchased the T-39 jet for bin Laden, Ridi said, he was living in Arlington, Tex., and Hage was working in Sudan as bin Laden's personal secretary.
Ridi testified that he found the mothballed jet in Tucson and helped refurbish it before personally flying it to Khartoum, Sudan, then the headquarters of bin Laden's organization, al Qaeda. Hage wired about $200,000 from bin Laden to Ridi's Texas bank for the purchase, Ridi testified.
At a dinner on the night he arrived in Khartoum, Ridi testified, "I gave the keys to the airplane to Osama bin Laden."
Ridi testified that he never actually transported the Stingers from Pakistan.
Hage, 40, the only U.S. citizen among the four defendants, is charged with plotting to kill Americans and with lying to federal grand juries. At the time of his arrest in 1998, he was managing a tire store in Texas.
The other three defendants -- Mohamed Rashed Daoud Owhali, Mohammed Saddiq Odeh and Khalfan Khamis Mohamed -- are charged with murder for participating in truck bomb attacks that destroyed the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in August 1998, killing 224 people and wounding nearly 4,600. Owhali and Mohamed could face the death penalty if convicted. Hage and Odeh face possible life sentences.
After calling a former al Qaeda operative, Jamal Ahmed Fadl, as the government's first witness last week, prosecutors put Ridi on the stand today to link Hage to bin Laden and to show that bin Laden's network possessed lethal weapons and operated on a global basis. Fadl also testified that he had been told al Qaeda needed to ship Stingers from Pakistan to Khartoum.
Ridi confirmed Fadl's account and described how bin Laden's attempt to acquire a military jet ended in failure. Hage called him in late 1993, Ridi testified, and asked him to return to Khartoum to begin flying the T-39 for commercial purposes.
Ridi said he found the jet in terrible condition and ultimately wrecked it after a test flight when its brakes failed upon landing. Since everyone in Khartoum knew it was bin Laden's plane, Ridi testified, all he wanted to do was "leave Khartoum as soon as I can."
© 2001 The Washington Post Company
Home - Last Updated: