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 U.S. embassies in Africa. The attacks killed 224 people, including a dozen Americans. The government rested Thursday.
Ali testified he met bin Laden 25 years ago at an al-Qaida guest hour 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 and 1988, 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 U.S. 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 $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 $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.
Ali told jurors that bin Laden, who let Ali 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 midair," Ali said.
Ali said he later provided instructions about reading flight maps and listening to air traffic control radio communications to members of Al-Jihad, an extremist group that fought Mubarak's regime in the 1990s with a wave of bombings and other attacks that also targeted foreign tourists.
Ali 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 U.S. company to have it repaired, but the more than $1 million price tag was too high.
Ali said he left Sudan in late 1995 and received $2,400 in "severance" when he quit the organization and returned to the United States in June 1996.
After the embassy bombings, Ali 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 the Sudan, and he denied knowing bin Laden when he testified before a New York grand jury in May 1999. He was taken into custody that day.
In March 2001, he pleaded guilty to perjury, criminal contempt and conspiring to kill U.S. nationals and agreed to cooperate with the prosecution. At a May 2009 sentencing, he received time served after spending a decade in prison.
In his testimony, he acknowledged that he stayed in touch with al-Qaida before his arrest and that bin Laden even asked him to train to fly helicopters in 1996 or 1997.
He said he used code words to communicate with others in al-Qaida, including using "Sam" or "Osam" for bin Laden and "Food and Beverage Industry" for the FBI.
In one letter, he said, he wrote: "Lastly, again give my regards to Sam and tell him to take extra precautions because business competition is very fierce."
He said he was trying to convey the message to bin Laden to take precautions because he might be arrested.
Ali said his children are U.S. 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.
Associated Press writer Tom Hays contributed to this report.