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Fifth 'Lackawanna Six' Suspect Pleads Guilty

Only one member of an alleged N.Y. cell remains charged with aiding the Al Qaeda terror group.

May 13, 2003|Richard A. Serrano | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — A fifth member of the alleged "Lackawanna Six" terrorist cell pleaded guilty Monday in Buffalo, N.Y., leaving just one defendant in an extraordinary federal criminal case involving a group of young men who traveled to Afghanistan and trained with Osama bin Laden's organization.

Like four others before him, Yasein Taher admitted that he had undergone weapons and explosives training at the notorious Al Farooq training camp in the spring of 2001 and agreed to cooperate with federal authorities in the war on terrorism in return for a likely sentence of no more than 10 years in prison.

That leaves Mukhtar al-Bakri as the lone defendant in one of the first federal trials of domestic terrorism suspects since Sept. 11, 2001.

The government accused the six men from Lackawanna, N.Y., a Buffalo suburb, of providing "material support" to Bin Laden's Al Qaeda operation.

It was unclear whether Al-Bakri is in plea negotiations. He has been considered a principal defendant in the alleged terrorist cell, especially after he gave FBI agents detailed descriptions of life in the Al Farooq camp.

Al-Bakri also allegedly sent an e-mail after the group returned to western New York less than three months before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, warning of events that would be "very huge."

Taher also was considered a major defendant because authorities had uncovered in his home a lengthy document glorifying terrorism and suicide missions.

Prosecutors have said the nine-page document praised martyrdom and self-sacrifice as a means to "strike terror in the hearts" of the enemies of Islam, adding that the Koran supports "suicidal operations."

Taher, a 25-year-old unemployed collection agency worker and father of one who was arrested last September, could have been sentenced to 15 years in prison had he gone to trial and lost.

Either way, the case against the Lackawanna Six was, in the words of U.S. Atty. Michael Battle in Buffalo, "a model in pursuing and prosecuting terrorism suspects, and in preventing terrorist acts here and abroad."

Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft in Washington said the benefit to the government in granting plea agreements to the defendants was to help learn more about terrorist operations, because the men are now obliged to assist the United States.

"The cooperation we secure from defendants who trained side by side with our enemies in Afghanistan and elsewhere is valuable as we continue the war on terrorism," Ashcroft said.

According to the plea agreement, Taher and the others reached the Al Farooq camp after journeying through Pakistan in April 2001, and spent several weeks in training there.

"Taher received training and instruction in the use of weapons, during which time the defendant was shown how to assemble and fire a number of firearms, including a [Kalashnikov] rifle, 9mm handgun, M16 automatic rifle, and a rocket propelled grenade launcher," the agreement said.

Along with others, he was required to perform periodic guard duty at the camp, and "also received instruction and training on other military-type subjects consisting of explosives and tactics," the agreement said.

At one point Bin Laden showed up at the camp and spoke to the trainees.

According to the plea agreement, "while Taher was not conversant in Arabic, portions of the Bin Laden speech were translated for him."

"Among other things," the agreement said, "Bin Laden spoke about missions against United States and Israeli interests, as well as the virtues of patience as it applied to the jihad (that is the struggle against those who have oppressed followers of the faith)."

Taher left the camp shortly after the Bin Laden visit, and "before completing all of the training that was available." He returned to New York last June 27.

Along with a sentence of 10 years or less, he also may be fined up to $150,000.

No trial date has been set for Al-Bakri, prosecutors said.

Al-Bakri allegedly spoke to the FBI in mid-September, describing daily life at the camp and recalling that the Bin Laden speech was given "under heavy guard" -- even inside the training camp.

The government further alleged that Al-Bakri, after leaving the camp, sent an e-mail to an associate warning of a terrorist attack involving explosives against Americans. He referred to it as "the Big Meal."

"The next meal will be very huge," he allegedly wrote. "No one will be able to withstand it, except those with faith.... No one will be able to bare (sic) it."

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