Embassy bombing defendant linked to bin Laden
NEW YORK (CNN) -- Two witnesses on Wednesday linked Wadih el Hage, one of four defendants standing trial for the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Tanzania and Kenya, to Osama bin Laden, pegged by federal prosecutors as the mastermind of the deadly attacks and leader of a decade-long conspiracy to kill Americans.
The first witness placed el Hage at the center of bin Laden's effort to buy a private plane to ship Stinger anti-aircraft missiles from Pakistan to his Sudan headquarters in the early 1990s. The missiles are the same kind the United States provided to anti-Soviet Muslim fighters in Afghanistan during the 1980s. Bin Laden and many of his followers were veterans of that conflict.
The witness, Essam Al-Ridi, a naturalized U.S. citizen born in Egypt, said he met bin Laden and el Hage in the early 1980s in Peshawar, a Pakistani border town where the resistance fighters, called mujahadeen, trained.
Al-Ridi testified by the time bin Laden moved his headquarters to Khartoum, Sudan, in the 1990s, el Hage represented the leader in a number of business dealings. Al-Ridi, a certified flight instructor, said el Hage contacted him in 1993, saying bin Laden wanted to buy a plane because they had "goods they wanted to ship from Peshawar to Khartoum," Sudan's capital.
Those goods included the missiles, but Al-Ridi said he warned el Hage they needed proper documents to ship them because in the event they needed to make an emergency landing, Al-Ridi said, "We would be exposed. It would be absolute chaos." The missiles were never shipped.
Al-Ridi told the court he purchased a used jet for $230,000 for bin Laden and flew it from Dallas, Texas, where he was living, to Khartoum. He said he shuttled passengers at least once for bin Laden to Nairobi in 1993, which is around the time bin Laden allegedly established a terrorist cell in the Kenyan capital.
Al-Ridi said he had supported the mujahedeen with shipments of night-vision goggles and .50-caliber rifles while living in Texas in the 1980s.
After spending several years in Peshawar during the Afghan-Soviet war, Al-Ridi testified, the euphoria of the rebel movement wore off and he grew disillusioned with bin Laden's leadership of Muslims fighting in Afghanistan.
"I do oppose that you, a rich man, are trying to be a decision maker," Al-Ridi said he later told bin Laden. "You have no military experience, and what you have done to many guys is flat-out killing," he said, referring to the mujahadeen.
Nevertheless, the two men continued their business relationship, Al-Ridi testified, but the plane he provided eventually fell into disrepair. During a 1994 test flight, the brakes went out with Al-Ridi in the cockpit and he accidentally crash-landed the plane at Kartoum's airport. He abruptly left Sudan and has not had any contact with bin Laden for seven years.
El Hage, a 40-year-old naturalized American from Lebanon, is not charged with direct participation in the embassy bombings, which killed 224 people and injured thousands. The three other men on trial are: Mohamed Odeh, a 35-year-old Jordanian, Mohamed al-'Owhali a 24-year-old Saudi, and Khalfan Mohamed, a 27-year-old Tanzanian.
All four are charged with participating in a decade-long conspiracy to kill Americans and destroy U.S. government property.
Prosecutors called a a second witness in a bid to bolster perjury charges faced only by el Hage.
Ashif Mohamed Juma, a 35-year-old Tanzanian, described a trip taken by el Hage after a 1996 ferry accident on Africa's Lake Victoria. The accident killed about 1,000 people, including the man prosecutors described as bin Laden's former military commander, Abu Ubaidah al Banhsiri. That man was also Juma's brother-in-law.
Juma, one of the accident's 114 survivors, told the court that el Hage came to Tanzania to search for the military chief's body and find out what happened. El Hage specifically denied this in previous grand jury testimony; Prosecutors say that is one of 22 false statements in the case against him.
Juma said el Hage was joined on this trip by Fazul Abdullah Mohamed, the alleged ground leader of the Kenya embassy bombing, who has so far eluded capture.
The trial resumes with testimony from new witnesses on Thursday.
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