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Terrorism Case Stuns an All-American Town

Legal: In Lackawanna, N.Y., family and friends react with disbelief and anger over allegations that the five arrested were linked to Al Qaeda.

September 16, 2002|THOMAS S. MULLIGAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

LACKAWANNA, N.Y. — It says something about the contradictions abounding in this small city that an alleged Al Qaeda terrorist cell here would include a local youth counselor, an auto salesman, former high school athletes, sons of steelworkers.

Family and friends of the five men accused of lending support to Osama bin Laden's terrorist network reacted with disbelief and anger Sunday as camera crews from the media patrolled their gritty neighborhood on the Lake Erie shore just south of Buffalo.

It's an all-American enclave--with basketball hoops above many garage doors, children riding bicycles in the streets and teens cruising with car stereos at full blast. Yet the narrow streets also have a strongly Middle Eastern flavor. Many women and girls dress in chadors, their heads covered, and the local Islamic mosque is perhaps the central gathering point.

More than 100 people gathered at a social club Sunday afternoon to discuss the case that some feared would lead to ostracism or discrimination against the local Yemeni community, which numbers about 2,000 and dates to the 1930s. Outside the meeting, which was closed to the press, Adbulwahab Ziad, head of the Lackawanna Islamic Mosque, where the suspects worshipped, said he was confident that the five will be found not guilty and that the government will apologize for charging them.

Others pointed out that well before the arrests Friday and Saturday, all five had had conversations with FBI agents. "They were cooperating," said one young man who declined to identify himself. The accused are Sahim Alwan, 29; Faysal Galab, 26; Yahya Goba, 25; Shafal Mosed, 24; and Yasein Taher, 24. All are U.S. citizens of Yemeni descent and all live within a few blocks of each other in Lackawanna's 1st Ward, within sight of the massive Bethlehem Steel plant that shut down in the early 1980s.

A 12-page federal complaint unsealed Saturday lays out the charges against the five, saying that they and three "uncharged co-conspirators"--identified only by the letters A, B and C--received weapon training at an Al Qaeda camp in Afghanistan between April and June 2001. The unnamed co-conspirators also are U.S.-born Lackawanna residents of Yemeni descent, the complaint says.

The men accused of aiding Al Qaeda had made no secret of the fact that they had traveled to Pakistan. But the supposed purpose of the trip was to visit and receive religious training, said Mohamed Albanna, vice president of the American Muslim Assn. of Greater New York.

The Afghan camp is the one where the so-called American Talib, John Walker Lindh, was trained--although authorities would not say whether Lindh was there at the same time. The complaint does state that Bin Laden visited the camp while the Lackawanna men were present and gave a speech "espousing anti-United States and anti-Israel sentiments."

A sixth New York resident has been arrested in Bahrain, family members told the New York Times on Sunday. A federal official told the paper that more details on the new arrest would be given today.

At his arraignment Saturday, Alwan told U.S. District Judge H. Kenneth Schroeder Jr. that he earns $31,500 a year working for an organization in nearby Medina, N.Y., that runs an academic and vocational training center for underprivileged youth. He is married with three children.

When the judge asked whether he was still employed, the well-dressed, bespectacled Alwan said: "Yeah, I guess. I don't know yet." Alwan served as president of the mosque three years ago, Albanna said. The thriving mosque serves 400 to 500 worshipers in the heart of the Yemeni neighborhood.

According to the federal complaint, Alwan initially denied having traveled to the Afghan camp while he was on the religious trip to Pakistan. But on Thursday, confronted with the confession of "Co-conspirator C," Alwan admitted that he had visited the camp and received training there along with Galab, Goba, Mosed and Taher, the complaint says. Galab, Mosed and Taher are longtime friends and former teammates on school and youth soccer teams and were often seen together at the mosque.

Taher's uncle, Abdul Noman, said in an interview Sunday at the neighborhood soccer club that he had coached all three men when they were on the youth teams.

Taher was the best player of the three, fast and well-disciplined, a star when he played for the Lackawanna Steelers high school soccer team, Noman said. Taher quit playing much soccer after he married his high-school sweetheart and they had a son, his uncle said. Taher is one of six children of Noman's sister, who immigrated to the United States from Yemen in 1967. His father, grandfather and uncles all worked at Bethlehem Steel.

Taher is the most religious of his siblings, regularly praying at the mosque and refusing to drink alcohol or eat pork, but he hardly stands out as a religious zealot, Noman said. "He's like any other young guy," Noman said. "He eats hamburger, pizza, Buffalo chicken wings."

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