In Carlos Ghosn’s Escape, Plotters Exploited an Airport Security Hole
Nick Kostov, Mark Maremont, Rory Jones
The terminal for private jets was quieter than those at most other airports and essentially empty, unless there was a flight coming in, this person said. What’s more, oversize luggage was too big to fit in the airport scanners.
The security hole proved crucial in Mr. Ghosn’s cinema-worthy escape from Japan, where he was out on bail facing charges of financial crimes. He has denied the charges and has previously said he would fight them in court.
The escape involved a 300-mile sprint across Japan, from Mr. Ghosn’s court-monitored home in Tokyo to the Osaka airport. He was then smuggled inside a large black box, generally used for concert equipment, with breathing holes drilled in the bottom, into a waiting private jet, as previously reported by The Wall Street Journal.
The plan brought Mr. Ghosn through Turkey, where he changed planes in a predawn rainstorm, and on to Lebanon, where he holds citizenship. Lebanon doesn’t extradite its citizens.
On board the plane in Osaka were two U.S. security operatives. One, Michael L. Taylor, is an ex-Green Beret with a history of rescuing hostages.
People familiar with Mr. Ghosn’s thinking said he made his own, final decision to go through with the plan only late last month, after signs his trial might drag on for years, and amid the court’s refusal for him to have contact with his wife during the holidays.
But work on a detailed plan to extract Mr. Ghosn started months beforehand, according to people familiar with the matter. The planning involved a team of between 10 and 15 people of different nationalities, one of these people said.
In all, the team took more than 20 trips to Japan and visited at least 10 Japanese airports before selecting the Osaka airport as a weak link, this person said.
A spokesman for the airport’s operator said its security is no different from other airports in Japan. He said all luggage too large for X-ray scanning is supposed to be opened by security staff, but an airport-security expert said they don’t necessarily do so for private-jet travelers as they are considered a lower terrorism risk. Unlike in the U.S., where security is handled by the government, in Japan airlines are responsible for security and use private security companies, the expert said.
Japanese officials said an investigation was under way to determine how Mr. Ghosn fled. Over the weekend, Japan’s justice minister said departure checks would be strengthened.
Mr. Ghosn has previously said he arranged his travel to Lebanon on his own, without help from his family.
Arrested in November 2018 on charges of financial crimes related to his time leading Nissan Motor Co., Mr. Ghosn spent months in a small cell in Tokyo undergoing regular interrogation by prosecutors without a lawyer present.
Since being released on bail for the second time in April, he has had severe restrictions on contact with his wife and complained bitterly about a Japanese justice system that he felt was stacked against him. Japanese officials defended their system and said he would have received a fair trial.
The escape plan cost in the millions of dollars, according to the person familiar with the matter. In similar rescue missions, the exfiltration team typically would be paid expenses and then a hefty reward upon successful completion, security professionals said.
Also on the private-jet flight from Osaka was George Zayek, a Lebanese-born U.S. citizen who previously worked with Mr. Taylor’s Boston-based security company.
Mr. Zayek is the brother of Elias Zayek, one of the founders of the Lebanese Forces militia. Elias Zayek was assassinated in 1990 a few months before the end of the Lebanese civil war. George Zayek was injured in fighting in Lebanon in the 1970s, leaving him with a limp, according to some relatives in Lebanon.
He left for the U.S. in the early 1980s, according to the relatives, and when his brother was killed he spent more time there, eventually becoming a U.S. citizen. He worked in private security with U.S. forces in Afghanistan and Iraq, these relatives said.
The 59-year-old Mr. Taylor’s former Boston-based security company was hired by the New York Times to help rescue reporter David Rohde from Taliban captivity in Afghanistan in 2009.
Mr. Taylor recently has told friends he strongly empathized with Mr. Ghosn’s legal plight following his own experience with the U.S. criminal-justice system that resulted in prison time.
Mr. Taylor was indicted in 2012 in two criminal cases related to a federal bid-rigging investigation into $54 million in Defense Department contracts. He disputed the charges, and spent 14 months in a local Utah jail under what he considered harsh conditions while awaiting trial. He eventually pleaded guilty to two counts and spent a total of 19 months behind bars.
After learning about Mr. Ghosn’s case, Mr. Taylor referred to the embattled auto executive as a “hostage,” said one person who knows him.
Mr. Taylor has also worked with the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the State Department to rescue overseas kidnapping victims, and in the late 1980s worked four years undercover helping the U.S. government on a drug and money-laundering investigation, according to a sentencing memo by his attorney in his criminal case.
He has strong connections to Lebanon. He was deployed there as a Green Beret in the early 1980s, where he met his wife, and as a private contractor he later trained Lebanese Christian militias, the sentencing memo says. He speaks Arabic.
In 2012, Mr. Taylor was in Lebanon working on a classified case with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration when he was indicted. He flew back to the U.S. and was arrested on arrival in Utah, where the case was prosecuted.
“Mr. Taylor was the key player and critical link in one of the most important DEA operations in history,” his lawyer wrote in the later sentencing memo. All but a few words about that operation were redacted in that memo.
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