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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

"They would give the Talib's and Bin Laden's people Ariana ID cards," the Afghan air expert said. "So you would have planes going out with 20 mechanics on board. Do you think all those people were mechanics? That made them crew members. They could get into any airport they wanted to."

A frequent stop was Sharjah, one of the Emirates. Sharjah International Airport, former U.S. and Afghan officials said, became a hub for drug and arms smuggling by Al Qaeda. The emirate, 20 miles from Dubai, is run by a fundamentalist Islamic regime. Sharjah's airport is studded with numerous "fly-by-night" cargo operations willing to take on any comers, U.S. analysts said. Some allegedly flew on contracts for Al Qaeda.

The terrorists often relied on an Ariana representative stationed at the Sharjah airport. The man was a Taliban-appointed Al Qaeda operative, according to the Afghan air expert. Since the U.S. began military operations, the man has not been seen by the Afghan's Emirate contacts.

An Emirate spokesman insisted that security at UAE airports is tight. "All our airports are under strict procedures," said Abdullah Alsadoosi, a UAE diplomat in Washington. "I don't think smuggling can go through that."

But a U.S. official said Ariana planes were used to deliver cash from the Emirates to Al Qaeda operatives in Pakistan. And officials also say Ariana planes shipped out large quantities of drugs.

In August 1996, while Afghanistan still was divided among rival factions, one attempt by the Taliban to ship opium on an Ariana flight to the UAE was halted by Ahmed Shah Masoud, the Northern Alliance leader who was assassinated, presumably by Taliban or Al Qaeda operatives, just days before the Sept. 11 attacks in the U.S.

According to the former Afghan air expert, Masoud learned that Taliban officials had contracted with Ariana for a one-way charter from Jalalabad to Sharjah. Taliban officials told the airline the cargo was wood bound for construction sites in the UAE. Suspicious, Masoud led an armed band onto the Boeing 727 at the Jalalabad airport and examined the timber. Inside hollow logs, Masoud's men found bags of opium.

Those familiar with Ariana's growing abuse by Al Qaeda and the Taliban say there also are reports suggesting that the airline might have been used to train Islamic militants as pilots. According to Afghan sources, Taliban officials ordered Ariana executives in 1997 to train two of their men as Boeing 727 pilots.

The men, Afghan air force pilots experienced only in flying Russian jets, were sent to a Jordanian Airways flight school that Ariana used to train its own civilian pilots. According to the Afghan aviation expert, the two Taliban pilots were "washouts," unable to master the 727's panel and speak English--the international language of pilots.

In March 1998, when an Ariana Boeing 727 crashed into a mountain near Kabul killing 45 people, the airliner reportedly was flown by two Taliban pilots, the Afghan expert said.

A security specialist who spent time in Afghanistan also said there were reports that the Taliban tried to recruit pilots for $4,000 to $5,000 a month, tax-free, in the northern region near Uzbekistan. The payments, the specialist said, reportedly were offered by Al Qaeda.

According to a former NSC official, Ariana's domination by Al Qaeda and the Taliban was a key basis for the United Nations' decision in 2000 to impose sanctions on the Taliban.

When U.S. officials approached the U.N. about imposing sanctions, they and Russian officials detailed Ariana's cover role "so people could understand why this was needed," the former NSC aide said.

After Ariana's foreign flights were shut down, Ariana charter flights kept moving Al Qaeda cargoes and agents, former U.S. and Afghan officials said. Islamic militants often turned to a Lebanese-run charter service flying out of Sharjah. According to the Afghan aviation expert, the cargo firm provided mid-size Russian Antonov cargo jets for charter runs "when they couldn't fly on Ariana."

For years, Persian Gulf state elites hunted rare birds of prey, houbara bustards, in the bleak hills surrounding Kandahar. In the late 1990s, according to former U.S. and Afghan officials, a number of prominent Persian Gulf state officials and businessmen flew into Kandahar on state and private jets for secret hunting expeditions.

For days at a time, the hunters would roam the hills, releasing falcons trained to catch the bustards. Some satisfied hunters heaped donations on their Taliban hosts, officials said--and on Al Qaeda leaders who occasionally joined them.

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