An American Airlines mechanic accused of sabotaging a navigation system on a Miami flight with 150 passengers aboard pleaded guilty Wednesday to attempting to destroy the aircraft in a plea agreement designed to avoid a maximum sentence up to 20 years in prison.
“I do admit the guilt,” Abdul-Majeed Marouf Ahmed Alani, 60, said through an Arabic interpreter in Miami federal court.
Alani, a veteran AA employee who had lived in California and commuted to his job at Miami International Airport, now faces up to three years in prison under a joint recommendation by the U.S. Attorney’s Office and his defense lawyer. His sentencing is set for March 4.
At his detention hearing in September after his arrest, federal prosecutors suggested that Alani may have possible links to a Middle East terrorist group, but that allegation never came up at his plea hearing before U.S. District Judge Marcia Cooke.
His defense attorney, Jonathan Meltz, made that point outside the courtroom when asked by reporters about the allegation. “This case is only about what you heard in court,” said Meltz, who added that his client “has been leading a law-abiding life for 30 years.”
After his arrest, Alani told federal investigators that he disabled the aircraft’s navigation system on the morning of July 17 because he was upset over stalled union contract negotiations with the airline. He said he wanted to generate some overtime for maintenance on the plane.
Alani also said that he meant no harm to anyone.
The Miami-Nassau flight was aborted before takeoff at Miami International Airport after an error alert appeared on the navigation system.
At Wednesday’s hearing, prosecutor Randy Hummel summarized the evidence against Alani, stressing that the AA flight’s navigation system was “deliberately obstructed” with foam by Alani and that the “aircraft was deemed not airworthy.”
Alani was accused of tampering with the plane’s so-called air data module, a system that reports aircraft speed, pitch and other critical flight data to pilots.
Alani was not charged with a terrorism-related offense. However, prosecutors said at his detention hearing in September that FBI investigators learned Alani lied about taking a trip to Iraq in March to visit his brother. They also found out 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 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.
At the detention hearing, prosecutor Maria Medetis told a magistrate 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.”
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 air data module 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.
According to the complaint affidavit, Alani glued the foam in 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 had 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.
In response to the news of Alani’s guilty plea, his former employer, American Airlines, issued a statement: “We are grateful for the work of the FBI, the U.S. Attorney’s Office and other officials in resolving this matter.
“American Airlines has fully cooperated throughout the investigation. After we learned about the allegations, we inspected aircraft that Mr. Alani had worked on to ensure that they were safe.”
© 2019 Miami Herald
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