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RESPONSE TO TERROR | SUNDAY REPORT

Long Before Sept. 11, Bin Laden Aircraft Flew Under the Radar

November 18, 2001|STEPHEN BRAUN and JUDY PASTERNAK | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Ridi was a fast learner. Just weeks after he finished training, he flew the plane from Van Nuys to Texas. He then set out in January 1993--not for Cairo, but to the Sudanese capital of Khartoum. There, in a secluded guest house, he turned over the plane's keys to its real owner, Bin Laden, at a dinner attended by men armed with AK47s, according to Ridi's testimony in a recent federal trial.

Bin Laden was familiar with airplanes. His father, Sheik Mohammad bin Laden, was the first Saudi permitted by King Faisal to buy his own plane--a twin-engine Beechcraft; he died in a jet crash in September 1967.

When Bin Laden went to Afghanistan to fight the Soviet invaders in the 1980s, he paid for charter jets to fly in arms for the moujahedeen and for construction and demolition equipment. After he was forced to move his budding Al Qaeda organization to Sudan in 1991, he again used charter flights to move troops and materiel.

According to Ridi, Bin Laden wanted his own T-39 to fly U.S.-built, shoulder-fired Stinger missiles from Pakistan to Sudan. Ridi provided his account of the T-39 sale in February, during testimony as a federal witness in the trial of four Al Qaeda terrorists convicted in the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.

Air Force officials said they were amazed when they learned that one of their surplus jets ended up in Bin Laden's hands. Officials at the U.S. Air Force Museum at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Fairborn, Ohio--the last government facility to own the T-39--said they will tighten monitoring of future sales and trades.

"I'm sure we're going to be changing our way of doing business," museum spokesman Christopher McGee said.

The museum already had toughened its safeguards on aircraft transactions in 1997, requiring traders to undergo a "security control check" and win a clearance certificate by the Defense Logistics Agency. The rules also required the new owners to notify future buyers that they would have to obtain an export license to fly the plane out of the country.

In fact, the museum was scrupulous in its 1989 trade of the T-39 to a California aircraft broker who later sold the jet to Ridi. McGee said the transaction was cleared with an assistant secretary of the Air Force. In a Jan. 12, 1990, deal, broker Ascher Ward was to receive six T-39s in exchange for a Rapide DH-89A aircraft. The T-39s were delivered to Ward in March 1990.

Ward sold one of the craft to Ridi in 1992. Ridi later testified that he paid $210,000--money relayed to him by one of Bin Laden's aides--but Ward said he received less than $100,000.

Government officials and aviation workers involved in Bin Laden's secret purchase of the T-39 say that FBI agents recently have interviewed them and scanned their records. So far, authorities have found no evidence that Ridi's purchase of the T-39 violated U.S. law.

"On an unprecedented scale, we are examining and reexamining a multitude of areas; looking for suspicious patterns or activities," FBI Assistant Director John Collingwood said. "Even legitimate prior activities that can be predictive are being examined."

Ridi was able to evade the informal honor system that governs aircraft sales in the U.S.

"The system just isn't built to check out every sale of an aircraft," said Bill Gardner, president of the Meridian Aerospace Group, a major commercial jet broker in Winston-Salem, N.C. "There's really not much preventing somebody from buying a big old jet transport and flying it into anything they want to take out."

The FAA typically registers military aircraft purchased for civil use as "experimental" until they comply with FAA requirements for airworthiness, agency spokesman Paul Turk said. Under that status, planes cannot be used to haul cargo or passengers for hire. Tom Poborezny, who heads the Experimental Aircraft Assn., said that under international air policy, such experimental aircraft also cannot be flown out of the U.S. without obtaining diplomatic clearances to land at foreign airports.

Several Americans who saw Bin Laden's T-39 in Van Nuys said it was being refitted as a civilian craft. Roy Silva, who installed new radios in the cockpit, recalled that before the T-39 was outfitted with new leather seats and repainted, the word "experimental" was visible inside the jet's door.

Several weeks later, the insignia was painted over and "Sabreliner" was stitched into the bulkhead. Painting out the word "experimental" for a plane designated as that status is an FAA violation. But "it's not exactly a capital crime," Turk said. "There is no task force out there looking for people who obscure the markings, but if you were caught, you'd be told to fix it or else."

According to Barrie Towey, an editor at Air-Britain News, a British plane spotter saw the T-39 in Luton, England, on Jan. 16, 1993. Ridi flew the T-39 from Fort Worth to Sault Ste. Marie and Frobisher Bay, Canada; Iceland; Rome and Cairo before landing in Khartoum.

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