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American Airlines mechanic accused of sabotaging jet may have terrorist ties, officials say

The 60-year-old veteran airline employee told investigators he was upset that union contract negotiations had stalled.
An American Airlines Boeing 737 Max 8 aircraft approaches Miami International Airport for landing in March. [Bloomberg]
Published Sep. 19

An American Airlines mechanic accused of sabotaging a navigation system on a flight with 150 people aboard at Miami International Airport was denied bond by a federal judge on Wednesday after prosecutors suggested he may have links to a Middle East terrorist organization.

Abdul-Majeed Marouf Ahmed Alani, a 60-year-old veteran employee, told investigators after his arrest earlier this month that he disabled the system because he was upset over stalled union contract negotiations with the airline and wanted to generate some overtime for maintenance on the plane. He said he meant no harm to anyone, and the July 17 flight was aborted before takeoff after an error alert appeared on the navigation system.

But federal prosecutors revealed new information about possible motives that prompted Magistrate Judge Chris McAliley to keep Alani behind bars, ruling that he posed a danger to the community and a flight risk.

“I have evidence before me that suggests you could be sympathetic to terrorists,” McAliley said, calling his alleged tampering with the aircraft “highly reckless and unconscionable.”

His arraignment on a sabotage-related charge is scheduled for Friday; if convicted, he faces up to 20 years in prison.

At his detention hearing, prosecutors said that since his arrest investigators with the FBI-led Joint Terrorism Task Force have learned that Alani lied about taking a trip to Iraq in March to visit his brother, and that he told a fellow American Airlines employee in June that his brother had been kidnapped and was a member of the extremist Islamic group known as ISIS.

Prosecutors also said Alani allowed the FBI to search his smartphone and agents found a “disturbing” ISIS video in which a person was being shot in the head, and that he sent the video to someone with an Arabic message asking “Allah” to take revenge against non-Muslims. In addition, they said Alani sent $700 to someone in Iraq, where he was born and has family.

Prosecutor Maria Medetis told the judge that when federal investigators questioned Alani after his arrest on Sept. 5, he told them he had an “evil side” and that he “wanted to do something to delay” the plane “to get overtime” for maintenance repairs. After putting in a double shift on July 17, he actually did some overtime work on the disabled plane. On average, he made $9,400 a month as an American mechanic.

But the prosecutor also said Alani admitted to investigators that his tampering with the plane’s navigation system was dangerous. When they asked him whether he would allow himself or his own family to fly on the jet without the system, he said “no,” Medetis said.

Medetis said investigators also spoke with the American Airlines pilot of the targeted plane, and he said that without a functional navigation system “it could have resulted in a crash.” The plane’s so-called air data module is a system that reports aircraft speed, pitch and other critical flight data to pilots. Alani is accused of disabling the system that served the pilot.

But Alani’s assistant federal public defender, Christian Dunham, said the prosecutors were exaggerating the evidence. He pointed out that there was a second navigation system still working on the plane so his alleged sabotage could not have caused it to crash.

“We don’t believe he intentionally endangered the safety of people” on that flight, said Dunham, who sought a pretrial bond signed by Alani’s family members in California and Florida. “I think the government is blowing this out of proportion.”

None of the passengers and crew on the flight from Miami to Nassau were injured because his tampering with the air data module caused an error alert as the pilots powered up the plane’s engines on the runway July 17, according to a complaint affidavit.

As a result, flight No. 2834 was aborted and taken out of service for routine maintenance at American’s hangar at MIA, which is when the tampering with the ADM system was discovered during an inspection. An AA mechanic found a loosely connected tube in front of the nose gear underneath the cockpit that had been deliberately obstructed with some sort of hard foam material.

Alani is charged with “willfully damaging, destroying or disabling an aircraft.”

According to the complaint affidavit, Alani glued the foam inside the tube leading from outside the American Airlines plane to its air data module. As a result, if the plane had taken off that day from MIA, the pilots would have had to operate the aircraft manually because the ADM system would not have received any computer data.

Federal Air Marshals zeroed in on Alani, who has worked as an American Airlines mechanic since September 1988, after reviewing video footage that captured him exiting a white truck on the morning of July 17 at concourse D and approaching the plane, which had just arrived from Orlando, the affidavit says. The footage showed Alani, who walks with a limp, accessing the aircraft’s compartment where the navigation system was located in the plane, according to the affidavit, which was filed by the U.S. Attorney’s Office.

Alani, the federal charges said, spent about seven minutes doing the sabotage.

Air marshals, part of the Transportation Security Administration, conducted interviews with three other AA mechanics who were with Alani after he tampered with the plane. They helped investigators identify him from the video footage.

Before his arrest, Alani, who lived in Tracy, California, near San Francisco, regularly commuted to Miami to work as an American mechanic. In Miami, he shared a home with another American employee.

Relations have become so strained between the 12,000-employee mechanics’ union and American Airlines that the organization vowed a “bloody” battle over the course of the summer that has led to bitter legal fights in Texas, where the company is headquartered. After his arrest, the company condemned Alani’s wrongdoing and said it was cooperating with authorities.


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