An American man has told a US court that he was asked by Osama bin Laden in 1995 to kill Egypt’s president by ramming his plane with his own in mid-air.
Ihab Mohammad Ali testified in the trial in New York of Khaled al-Fawwaz, who is accused of being one of al Qaida’s early leaders.
He said: “It took me by surprise. I responded, ’Well, wouldn’t I be killing myself?”’
Mr Ali, 52, said bin Laden answered: “Well, then you would be a martyr.”
The glimpse into the early days of al-Qaida when bin Laden had a private jet and was barely known to law enforcement officials came amid the US government’s presentation of evidence over the past three weeks against al-Fawwaz, a man portrayed by prosecutors as a key player in the terror group when it was in its infancy.
Al-Fawwaz has pleaded not guilty to conspiring to kill Americans in the 1998 bombings of two US embassies in Africa. The attacks in Kenya and Tanzania killed 224 people, including a dozen Americans.
Mr Ali said he met bin Laden 25 years ago at an al Qaida guest house in Pakistan, around the time he pledged allegiance to al Qaida. He said he also met al-Fawwaz, whom he identified in court as a member of al Qaida.
Born in Alexandria, Egypt, Mr Ali said he first came to America with his family aged 11, living in New York before moving to Florida, where he underwent 13 hours of flight training while in high school. He said he attended American College for the Applied Arts in Los Angeles in 1987, when he began attending a mosque and developing an interest in fighting the Soviet Union in Afghanistan.
He said he went to Pakistan in 1988 – by then he was a US citizen – and underwent al Qaida training in 1990. He described several encounters with bin Laden, including when he was among over two dozen al Qaida members in a room when the leader explained they were moving operations from Pakistan to Sudan.
Bin Laden’s request to attack Egypt’s president came after al Qaida paid 9,000 US dollars to fund his pilot training in 1993 and thousands more in 1994 in the Oklahoma cities of Ardmore and Norman and at another school in Los Angeles, he said.
The funding came after he tried to learn to fly at Nairobi Airport in Kenya, but found the instruction too slow, he recalled.
He said he discussed training in America with bin Laden, who “agreed with it”.
Of the 9,000 US dollars he said: “I don’t recall if I received it directly from bin Laden.”
But he said he communicated with bin Laden several times and even went on a camping trip with him when they were both in Sudan. He said he headed to Oklahoma in September 1993, six months after the February 26 1993, World Trade Centre bombing that killed six people and injured more than 1,000 others. He later returned to Sudan.
Mr Ali told jurors that bin Laden, who let him fly his private jet in Khartoum, told him that the king of Saudi Arabia was very ill and that then-Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak was likely to fly to the kingdom to attend the king’s funeral if he died.
“He said if I had the chance, to ram his plane with mine mid-air,” Mr Ali said.
He said bin Laden’s personal jet had bad brakes, and said he crashed it at the end of the runway at Khartoum Airport in 1995 when he was still training to use it. He said bin Laden asked him to try to fix it and he checked with a US company to have it repaired, but the more than 1 million dollar price tag was too high.
Mr Ali said he left Sudan in late 1995 and received 2,400 dollars in “severance” when he quit the organisation and returned to the United States in June 1996.
After the embassy bombings, he was approached by FBI agents in May 1999 in Orlando, Florida, where he was living in an apartment complex. He said he told the FBI that he had never been to Sudan, and he denied knowing bin Laden when he testified before a New York grand jury in May 1999. He was then taken into custody.
In March 2001, he pleaded guilty to perjury, criminal contempt and conspiring to kill US nationals and agreed to cooperate with the prosecution. At a May 2009 sentencing, he received time served after spending a decade in prison.
Ali said his children are US residents and his wife is working to acquire permanent residency. He has worked as a transportation dispatcher and as a waiter at a restaurant since his release from prison.