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

RESPONSE TO TERROR | SUNDAY REPORT

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

There, he was invited to dinner with Bin Laden and his terrorist commanders. The next day, Bin Laden offered Ridi a job as his personal pilot. The Egyptian turned him down after he learned his pay would be only $1,200 a month.

In late 1993, Ridi later testified, he flew the T-39 to Nairobi, Kenya, dropping off five Al Qaeda commanders. They were on their way to Somalia to stir up tribal insurgents against U.S. peacekeeping troops there. Another federal witness testified that one of the passengers was Mohammed Atef, Bin Laden's senior commander who reportedly was killed in an airstrike last week.

The T-39's third flight was its last. Returning to Khartoum in 1995, Ridi found the jet sagging in disuse, its tires melted in the desert heat, vents stuffed with sand. He overhauled the engine and took it for a test run, but the jet skidded, crashing into a dune. Panicked, Ridi fled.

A high-ranking federal official said that six years later Bin Laden's jet still is in Khartoum, disabled and landlocked.

Ridi, who has disappeared into the federal witness protection program, still is listed as the plane's owner in FAA files.

Overdue, 727 Returns With Surprise Cargo

In October 1996, a month after the Islamic militant Taliban seized control of Afghanistan, Ariana officials in the capital of Kabul grew alarmed about a missing Boeing 727 cargo plane.

The jet had been chartered for a round trip from Jalalabad to Khartoum by two Sudanese diplomats. It was to fly to the UAE, then on to Khartoum carrying a load of fruit and rugs. It was to return a few days later with a humanitarian cargo of food and medicine.

It took a week before the 727 returned. When the weary flight crew showed up in Ariana's home office in Kabul, according to former Afghan civil air officials familiar with the incident, they offered a strange tale.

In Khartoum, the crew waited three days in a hotel until Sudanese authorities were ready to load the plane. Back at the airport, they were stunned to find no cargo but 90 passengers waiting to board. The Sudanese had installed 100 seats in the 727, then herded the passengers aboard--women veiled in burkas, men in desert robes, excited children. No travel documents were checked.

Flying into Jalalabad just after midnight, the passengers were greeted by a dusty convoy of jeeps, vans and trucks. Many of the drivers carried weapons. Within minutes, the passengers piled into the vehicles, then disappeared into the desert night.

According to the crew, the Arab passengers and their Afghan welcomers worked for Bin Laden.

The ease with which Bin Laden's operatives boarded the 727 was soon replicated on a daily basis. Bin Laden and his Taliban hosts commandeered the 35-year-old national air company as their private charter service.

Bin Laden himself had flown out of Khartoum that May. He disappeared into Afghanistan, making his way first to Jalalabad, then to Kandahar, the mountainous southern region home to Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar and the staging ground for jihad, or holy war, training camps.

Ariana Airlines became a "key node in Al Qaeda's infrastructure," a former NSC official said. "The network used Ariana to move everything that was useful--money, personnel and materiel."

Schedules previously tightly hewed to by Ariana pilots suddenly collapsed. Passenger routes to Paris and Beijing shriveled, replaced by an explosion of cargo runs. Many of the freight shipments flew in and out of Pakistan and UAE.

"The planes would come back from the UAE loaded with weapons," said Julie Sirrs, an Afghanistan specialist at the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency during the Clinton administration. "It was mostly Soviet weapons, small arms--Kalashnikovs [rifles] and RPG-7s [shoulder-fired antitank rocket launchers]."

Ariana's schedule became "something of a hit-and-miss proposition," said Simon, the former NSC official who now is assistant director of the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London. "They would take off 30 minutes before schedule. They canceled flights. It gave them the flexibility they needed" to move illicit cargo.

U.S. Knew of Al Qaeda Travels

U.S. security officials were aware that Al Qaeda terrorists flew on Ariana "to the UAE and other points in the [Persian] Gulf," Simon added.

According to Sirrs, one Yemeni Al Qaeda operative held prisoner in northern Afghanistan by the Northern Alliance described flying from Yemen to Afghanistan on Ariana planes in 1997 and 1998.

Some went disguised as Ariana employees. According to an Afghan civil air expert familiar with Ariana's operations, Taliban officials set up a false document mill in 1997 "right at the airport" in Kabul. The station churned out reams of phony documents, allowing Islamic militants to travel out of the country posing as Ariana pilots, flight attendants, mechanics and clerks.

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