Osama bin Laden built a shadow air force to support his terrorist activities, using Afghanistan's national airline, a surplus U.S. Air Force jet and clandestine charters.
Long before suicide teams crashed hijacked airliners into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on Sept. 11, sympathetic foreign officials and wealthy supporters gave Bin Laden access to planes to help him forge, arm and transport his terrorist network.
Interviews with more than 50 U.S. diplomatic and security aides, law enforcement agents, former Afghan civil air officials, pilots and aviation executives provide a wealth of new details about how Bin Laden cobbled together an unconventional air capability.
Through an operative, he bought and refurbished the Air Force passenger jet in 1992 and had it transported to Sudan, where he was then based. He shipped men and materiel on Afghanistan's Ariana Airways after the Taliban took control of the country in 1996. And when international sanctions hobbled the airline last year, he turned to covert charters to keep his terrorist network airborne.
In recent weeks, U.S. bombers pounded a western Afghanistan airfield where four Ariana airliners were believed to be stored. The attack was an attempt to deny Bin Laden mobility and prevent his escape from Afghanistan.
U.S. officials expressed concern that he might have other aircraft assets concealed in the country. Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld said Bin Laden might try to flee aboard a "well-hidden helicopter." A former Afghan civil air official said Taliban leaders had given Bin Laden regular access to a Russian-made MI-17 helicopter in recent years.
With the Taliban's blessing, Bin Laden effectively had hijacked Ariana, the national civilian airline of Afghanistan. For four years, according to former U.S. aides and exiled Afghan officials, Ariana's passenger and charter flights ferried Islamic militants, arms, cash and opium through the United Arab Emirates and Pakistan. Members of Bin Laden's Al Qaeda terrorist network were provided false Ariana identification that gave them free run of airports in the Middle East.
"One airline was servicing Afghanistan at the time, and that was Ariana," said Steve Simon, a former senior director for transnational threats at the National Security Council. "Al Qaeda moved drugs out, money in and people around on Ariana."
Taliban authorities also opened the country's airstrips to high-ranking Persian Gulf state officials who routinely flew in for lavish hunting parties. Sometimes joined by Bin Laden and Taliban leaders, the dignitaries, who included several high-ranking officials from Saudi Arabia and the Emirates--left behind money, vehicles and equipment with their hosts, according to U.S. and Afghan accounts.
In buying and renovating the Air Force jet, Bin Laden and Al Qaeda easily evaded rules governing the sale of U.S. planes.
The jet, overhauled at Van Nuys Airport in 1992, later was used to ferry Al Qaeda commanders to East Africa, where they trained Somali tribesmen for attacks on U.S. peacekeeping forces. It later crashed on a runway in Sudan.
Bin Laden's secret purchase capitalized on lax government oversight and the unwitting aid of Americans who helped disguise the plane as a civilian jet.
The FBI is reexamining the episode. Concerned that other terrorists may have attempted to buy planes, investigators have been looking at several unusual attempts earlier this year to obtain commercial aircraft, though they have yet to find any credible links to terrorists.
"Our sensitivities are so much more finely tuned now," explained Clive G. Medland, a vice president of a New York aviation firm whose executives were questioned by the FBI about an attempt by three Pakistanis to lease a transport jet earlier this year. "Everyone's on guard."
An Eager Student Flies the T-39
In mid-December 1992, John Lowrey, a veteran pilot operating out of a small airfield in Lancaster, took a client up in a surplus Air Force T-39A jet.
Lowrey's new student was Essam al Ridi, an Egyptian emigre who showed up in a crisp Northwest Airlink pilot's uniform. Ridi told Lowrey he was eager to learn to fly the T-39A because he had just bought a similar jet and planned to fly it for a family in Cairo.
The T-39s, military versions of the twin-engine Sabreliner built by North American Rockwell, had been used by the Air Force since the late 1950s to transport generals and VIPs. The jet Ridi purchased was being overhauled at Van Nuys airport, so Lowrey trained the Egyptian in a borrowed T-39.
Ridi bought the plane from a Southern California broker, using funds from Al Qaeda to pay for the aircraft and the repairs. Ridi told Lowrey and Americans working on the T-39 that he planned to pilot the craft for wealthy Egyptians.