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U.S.: Man Who Knew Bin Laden Now Just Wants Normal Life

Osama bin Laden pictured in Afghanistan in October 2001 (epa) PRAGUE, September 10, 2006 -- Few people have made their names by meeting one of the world's most-wanted men, but Essam al-Ridi is one.

His association with Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden began in Pakistan in the 1980s, and ended a decade later when he crashed the Al-Qaeda leader's plane in Africa.

In 1982, the Eqyptian-born Essam al-Ridi left his adopted home in the United States for Pakistan. He wanted to help the mujahedin fight Soviet occupation in Afghanistan.

Soon his language skills and contacts were being put to use. Al-Ridi bought and shipped equipment to the mujahedin, such as night-vision goggles. And he also acted as interpreter and guide for rich visitors -- among them, Osama bin Laden.

"To us he was a rich, religious person," al-Ridi says. "That's all. We didn't know anything of what his plans were. In fact, I don't think he had any plan yet. He was very quiet; he listened a lot; he hardly talked. He was very generous to the people around him. That was my first impression."

Al-Ridi says bin Laden came to trust him and his abilities.

But over time, al-Ridi says he became disillusioned. In particular, he didn't like how wealthy men without any military experience such as bin Laden began to give battlefield orders.

Leaving Afghanistan

The final straw was a battle that cost the lives of many mujahedin, but which was declared a great victory.

"My judgment as a person living here, not in the hereafter, is that this is pure killing," al-Ridi says. "If you don't know what you're doing, you are killing your people. So I became more angry and more opposing what's happening in Afghanistan and what's happening to Osama and how he became a leader of his own."

Al-Ridi soon left Pakistan to build up a career as a pilot and flight instructor.

A Plane For Osama

But in 1993 some of bin Laden's people got in touch from Sudan with a request -- would al-Ridi get them a plane?

Al-Ridi found one that fit their requirements -- an old, surplus U.S. Air Force jet -- and flew it to Sudan.

"I pulled it out of the boonies in Arizona, and did the reconditioning, did the upgrades, did the new electronic equipment, new paint, new interiors, just a complete refurbishment of the airplane and delivered it to them over there," al-Ridi remembers. "That was the third time I saw him [bin Laden] in person. And, of course, I made that deal as a business deal. He's selling and dealing and having business with everybody -- why can't he have business with me?"

"To us [bin Laden] was a rich, religious person," al-Ridi says. "That's all. We didn't know anything of what his plans were. In fact, I don't think he had any plan yet."

Al-Ridi flew five people working for bin Laden from Sudan to Kenya. But he turned down an offer from bin Laden to be his personal pilot. And on a later visit to check out the plane, he crashed it at Khartoum airport and quickly left the country.

10-15 Years Later

The business connection to bin Laden was brief -- but one Al-Ridi now regrets.

Bin Laden near Jalalabad, Afghanistan, in 1989 (epa)

"I do regret that, of course," al-Ridi says. "I thought, 'it's a business deal and it's going to disappear.' No one could predict that 10-15 years later this would be an issue. But looking backwards now, if [I had known] anything of this that's going to happen, I wouldn't have done it."

After the bombings of two U.S. embassies in East Africa in 1998, U.S. officials found out about al-Ridi's connection to one of their suspects.

The officials got in touch with al-Ridi. Would he testify as a government witness at the trial?

Al-Ridi did, and in 2001 four Al-Qaeda operatives were convicted of involvement in the embassy bombings.

"I have always been in the business of helping the right side, be it Islam, my country, or this country, my second country," al-Ridi says. "I told them I have interest in helping you because I think Osama has ruined the reputation of Muslims."

But al-Ridi says it's been at a heavy personal cost. Despite what he says is a two-decade clean flight record, he can't get a job as a pilot and is now on the U.S. no-fly list.

He now works as a long-distance truck driver, disillusioned and bitter at his treatment by U.S. authorities, though U.S. officials have said in the past they did all they could to help him.

Al-Ridi says he'll always be linked to bin Laden. But he has no doubt, he adds, that one day he will fly again.

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