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Lackawanna Case Reopened as U.S. Seeks New Suspect

Co-conspirator is charged after six members of N.Y. terror cell all plead guilty.

May 22, 2003|Richard A. Serrano | Times Staff Writer

The case against an accused terrorist cell in Lackawanna, N.Y. -- which had appeared closed after six defendants pleaded guilty and a seventh suspect was killed in a missile strike in Yemen -- was revived Wednesday when federal authorities filed new charges against an eighth man believed to have trained at an Al Qaeda camp in Afghanistan.

Jaber Elbaneh, 36, named in a criminal complaint unsealed Wednesday, was accused of joining his Lackawanna neighbors, all of them Yemeni Americans, at the notorious Al Farooq training camp, where Osama bin Laden allegedly prepared young men for future terrorist attacks.

The group spent several weeks at the camp in the spring and summer of 2001, just months before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. According to federal officials in Buffalo, N.Y., Elbaneh earlier was identified as an "unindicted co-conspirator" in the case, along with Kamal Derwish, who was believed killed last November in a U.S. missile strike in Yemen.

It was unclear why authorities were only now releasing Elbaneh's name. But, saying they believed he was living abroad, they issued an urgent "be-on-the-lookout" alert for him.

In Washington, Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft said the unsealing of the criminal complaint "demonstrates our ongoing resolve to hunt the globe for those who aid and train with terrorists."

Beginning in January and ending Monday, the six other accused cell members individually pleaded guilty.

They are expected to be handed prison sentences of 10 years or less in return for their cooperation in helping the FBI track down Al Qaeda recruiters who came to this country in search of young men for the training camp.

Indeed, the last defendant to plead guilty Monday, Mukhtar al-Bakri, first told the FBI about Elbaneh during an interview in Bahrain on Sept. 11, 2002 -- the anniversary of the attacks.

According to the complaint unsealed Wednesday, Al-Bakri told agents that he traveled with Elbaneh and some of the others from Lackawanna to Pakistan in the summer of 2001.

They were there for what they thought was going to be Islamic religious instruction, but which turned out to be paramilitary training for Al Qaeda.

For a while, they stayed at a guest house in Afghanistan, where Elbaneh and the others "received lectures on jihad [holy war], prayers and justification for using suicide as a weapon," the complaint said.

They then went to the Al Farooq camp near Kandahar, where they were allegedly given additional training on using firearms and other military tactics.

According to federal law, the attendance of Americans at such a training camp would be illegal and tantamount to providing material support and resources to a foreign terrorist entity.

If Elbaneh is captured, he could face a maximum of 25 years in prison.

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