American Airlines mechanic accused of trying to sabotage plane denied bond

The American Airlines mechanic accused of trying to sabotage a commercial airliner before takeoff was denied bond and will be held in custody until trial, a judge ruled. CNN's Brian Todd reports.

Posted: Sep 20, 2019 12:30 AM
Updated: Sep 20, 2019 12:30 AM

The American Airlines mechanic accused of trying to sabotage a commercial airliner before takeoff will be held in custody until trial, a judge ruled Wednesday after saying the man may have sympathy for terrorists.

Ahmed Alani allegedly tried to damage or disable an aircraft's air data module (ADM) system, which reports aircraft speed, pitch and other critical data, on July 17. The plane was set to fly from Miami to the Bahamas with 150 people on board, but the takeoff was aborted when pilots noticed an error related to the ADM system. No one was injured.

Alani has been charged with "willfully damaging, destroying, disabling, or wrecking an aircraft, and attempting to do so," according to a criminal complaint filed in federal court earlier this month.

No terror-related charges have been filed.

During the bond hearing, US Attorney Maria Medetis said Alani had downloaded an ISIS video on his phone and sent it to an unnamed individual. Prosecutors said Alani also wrote, "Allah we ask you to use all your might and power against non-Muslims."

Medetis also said Alani had traveled to Iraq this year and that he sent a $700 payment to someone in Iraq around July of this year.

Medetis told the court that Alani told a fellow employee that he traveled to Iraq to visit his brother, who he said was a member of ISIS. Alani's roommate had told prosecutors that Alani traveled to Iraq because his brother had been kidnapped, Medetis said.

The defendant also received a news article from an unknown sender referencing the Lion Air crash that had specific references to the plane's Air Data Module system. This is the same system Alani is suspected of dismantling on the American Airlines flight.

Public defender Christian Dunham said Alani never intended to harm anyone and that if he had ties to ISIS, he should have been on a no-fly or watch list.

In denying bond, Magistrate Judge Chris McAliley cited several factors, including the fact Alani was likely to be incarcerated if convicted.

She said Alani's alleged attempted sabotage "was highly reckless and unconscionable as someone who has worked to keep aircraft safe."

"For you to take this step is shocking and unconscionable," he said. "This was not a momentary, compulsive act. You had time to think about it. This was a crazy idea that you deliberated and went through with it. That's of great concern. If you're capable of that, I have to ask if you'd follow bond orders."

McAliley told the suspect she worries he "may be very sympathetic to terrorists."

American Airlines said Alani has been fired and that the company is cooperating with the investigation.

Suspect said he wanted overtime pay

In an interview with investigators, Alani "admitted that he accessed the ADM" and that he "inserted a piece of foam into the ADM's inlet where the line connects and that he applied super glue to the foam so as to prevent the foam from coming off," the complaint says.

"Alani stated that his intention was not to cause harm to the aircraft or its passengers," investigators say in the complaint.

Alani told investigators that he was upset over a contract dispute between union workers and the airlines, and the dispute had cost him money, according to court documents. He allegedly explained that he tampered with the aircraft so he could get overtime working on the plane.

As the plane went down the runway and pilots increased power to the engines, there was an error related to the ADM system and the takeoff was aborted. The aircraft returned to the concourse and no one on board was injured, the complaint says.

American Airlines mechanics immediately inspected the aircraft and "discovered a loosely connected pitot tube, which connects directly to the ADM" and determined "the ADM appeared to have been deliberately obstructed with what appeared to be a dark Styrofoam-type material," according to the complaint.

Authorities used surveillance video to identify Alani, the document says.

American Airlines said in a statement earlier this month that it is taking the matter seriously.

"At the time of the incident, the aircraft was taken out of service, maintenance was performed and after a inspection to ensure it was safe the aircraft was returned to service. American immediately notified federal law enforcement who took over the investigation with our full cooperation."

Alani previously worked for Alaska Airlines.

A spokesman for the airline said Alani "was an avionics technician and line avionics technician for the company. He worked for Alaska from January to August 1990, and then again from June 1998 to July 2008. Alaska does not comment on specific personnel matters of past and present employees."

In a lawsuit Alani filed in 2010, he acknowledged he was fired from Alaska.

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