NEW YORK – A Sudanese air force pilot who may have planned to hijack an airliner and smash it into the White House has been taken into custody, U.S. government sources told Fox News on Friday.
The pilot has ties to Al Qaeda and was trained in a terrorist training camp in Afghanistan, sources said.
Fox News in North Carolina has confirmed that the pilot was arrested in North Carolina and is being held at the Forsyth County Jail in Winston-Salem. He is being held there on an immigration charge until he is due to appear in U.S. District Court on Monday at 2:30 EST.
The suspect, Mekki Hamed Mekki, a 30-year-old taxi driver who was in the country legally, is charged with making false statements while applying for a visa. But authorities picked him up because they believe that he "may represent a possible threat," and could have been planning to fly a hijacked jet into a U.S. target.
He has been living in Greensboro, where friends and people who work with him say he's a decent man caught up in mistaken identity.
The Washington Times reported Friday that U.S. intelligence agencies were looking for a missing Sudanese air force pilot who they believed was planning to hijack an airliner and fly it into the White House. An intelligence report, sent to U.S. lawmakers, said the pilot had entered Canada last week and was preparing for the attack.
By later Friday afternoon, however, administration official disputed the reports that the pilot was planning to strike the White House and were telling reporters to steer away from the information in that story.
One official also said that the pilot has been in U.S. custody for several days. The official clarified that he was captured by U.S. authorities, not by the Canadians.
Commenting on the Times story, the official said, "The people who leaked to Gertz must be a little behind in their reading," referring to Bill Gertz, the author of the story.
The official said the pilot is no longer a member of the Sudanese Air Force, and that he either a former member, a deserter, or absent without leave.
The pilot apparently was picked up along with a group of Sudanese nationals.
At this point, authorities "don’t know his intentions," said an administration official.
Sudan is on the U.S. State Department's list of seven state sponsors of terrorism, along with Cuba, Iran, Iraq, Libya, North Korea and Syria. Usama bin Laden is known to have sympathizers there.
"International terrorist organizations with Islamic ties, including al-Qaida and Lebanese Hizballah, have a presence in Africa and continue to exploit Africa's permissive operating environment -- porous borders, conflict, lax financial systems, and the wide availability of weapons -- to expand and strengthen their networks," says a State Department terrorism report released in May.
"Further, these groups are able to flourish in 'failed states' or those with weak governments that are unable to monitor the activities of terrorists and their supporters within their borders."
The State Department report says that of the seven identified terrorist sponsors, Sudan and Libya have made the most strides in trying to get out of the terrorism business.
Sudan's capital, Khartoum, condemned the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and pledged to cooperate with the United States in fighting terrorism. Sudanese authorities have investigated and apprehended extremists suspected of involvement in terrorist activities.
In late September 2001, the United Nations recognized Sudan's actions by removing U.N. sanctions.
However, "a number of international terrorist groups including al-Qaida, the Egyptian Islamic Jihad, Egyptian al-Gama'a al-Islamiyya, the Palestine Islamic Jihad, and HAMAS continued to use Sudan as a safe-haven, primarily for conducting logistics and other support activities," the State report says. "Press speculation about the extent of Sudan's cooperation with the United States probably has led some terrorist elements to depart the country."
The United States still has sanctions against Sudan.