Witness says he bought plane, made shipments for bin Laden
NEW YORK (CNN) -- Suspected terrorist Osama bin Laden wanted to ship Stinger anti-aircraft missiles to Sudan -- buying a private plane in 1993 to do the job, a government witness said Wednesday.
Essam Al-Ridi testified that the go-between in the purchase of the plane was a former friend whom prosecutors said was bin Laden's personal secretary, Wadih el Hage. El Hage is one of four defendants standing trial for the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Tanzania and Kenya.
Al-Ridi, a naturalized U.S. citizen born in Egypt, testified that el Hage represented bin Laden in a number of business dealings, including buying the plane.
Al-Ridi testified he met el Hage and bin Laden, indicted by the United States for the 1998 attacks, in the early 1980s in Peshawar, a Pakistani border town where Muslim volunteers trained during the Soviet Union's intervention in the Afghan civil war. El Hage told him bin Laden wanted to buy a plane because they had "goods they wanted to ship from Peshawar to Khartoum" in Sudan.
Those goods included Stinger ground-to-air missiles, which the United States stopped providing to rebels in 1991 after the Soviets withdrew from Afghanistan.
Al-Ridi warned el Hage they needed the proper documents to ship the Stinger missiles because in the event they needed to make an emergency landing, al Ridi said, "We would be exposed. It would be absolute chaos." The missiles were not shipped.
While he was living in Texas in the 1980s, Al-Ridi said he made shipments to the mujahedeen, the rebel resistance, including night-vision goggles and .50-caliber rifles.
Al-Ridi told the court he purchased a used jet for bin Laden for $230,000 in 1993, around the time bin Laden and his group, al Qaeda, were based in Khartoum. A professional flight instructor, Al-Ridi said he piloted the plane from Dallas, Texas, where he was living, to Khartoum.
He said he shuttled passengers at least once to Nairobi in 1993 at al Qaeda's request. That is also around the time bin Laden established a terrorist cell in the Kenyan capital, according to federal prosecutors.
After spending several years in Peshawar during the Soviet Union's decade-long involvement in the Afghan war, Al-Ridi testified, the euphoria of the rebel movement wore off, and he grew disillusioned with bin Laden and his rebel causes. Though not critical of bin Laden, Al-Ridi testified, he disagreed with the Saudi exile's leadership of Muslims fighting in Afghanistan.
"I do oppose that you, a rich man, are trying to be a decision maker," Al-Ridi said he told bin Laden. "You have no military experience, and what you have done to many guys is flat-out killing." Al-Ridi was referring to rebel fighters.
He said he told bin Laden he opposed "any rich individual" coming to Afghanistan to lead the cause. Nevertheless, the two men continued their business relationship, Al-Ridi testified.
The plane eventually fell into disrepair. In 1994, Al-Ridi accidentally crash-landed the plane on a test flight in Sudan and fled. Al-Ridi said his native Egypt considers it a crime to train militarily in another country -- and that Egypt had jailed many people identified as Islamic militants -- and he did not want to be prosecuted.
Federal prosecutors said they would try to see that any charges Al-Ridi faces in Egypt would be dropped.
The embassy bombings, allegedly carried out by al Qaeda, killed 224 people and injured thousands.
El Hage and three other men are standing trial for direct participation in those attacks, which are the main part of a 308-page indictment naming 21 individuals for participating in an alleged decade-long conspiracy to kill Americans and destroy U.S. government property.
Bin Laden allegedly headed that conspiracy. He is not being tried at this time and is believed to be living in Afghanistan.
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