NEW YORK: In the terrorism trial of a man accused of being one of al-Qaida's early leaders, an American described being asked in 1995 by Osama bin Laden to kill Egypt's president by ramming his plane with his own in midair.
"It took me by surprise," Ihab Mohammad Ali testified recently in New York. "I responded, 'Well, wouldn't I be killing myself?'"
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 government's presentation of evidence over the past three weeks against Khaled 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. The government rested its case Thursday.
Ali testified 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, Ali said he first came to America with his family at age 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 al-Qaida leader explained they were moving operations from Pakistan to Sudan.
Bin Laden's request to attack Egypt's president came after al-Qaida paid USD 9,000 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, Ali 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 USD 9,000, 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 the Sudan. He said he headed to Oklahoma in September 1993, six months after the Feb. 26, 1993, World Trade Center bombing that killed six people and injured more than 1,000 others. He later returned to Sudan.