Arrests break up terrorist sleeper cell, claim US officials

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The Independent US

Officials in the United States said the arrest of five suspected al-Qa'ida members in New York state marked the first time since the 11 September attacks that they had neutralised a "sleeper cell" that could have been called on a suicide mission.

Officials in the United States said the arrest of five suspected al-Qa'ida members in New York state marked the first time since the 11 September attacks that they had neutralised a "sleeper cell" that could have been called on a suicide mission.

The five men, all of them in their 20s and all US citizens of Yemeni descent, were formally charged over the weekend with unlawfully providing material support and resources to foreign terrorist organisations. Appearing in Buffalo, on the shores of Lake Erie, in handcuffs and shackles, they had "not guilty" pleas entered on their behalf before being returned to custody.

They had been under surveillance since last summer – at least a month before the attacks on New York and Washington – following a tip-off from within the Muslim community in Lackawanna, a suburb of Buffalo where they all lived and attended the local mosque. At the time they had just returned from Afghanistan, where they are alleged to have undergone intensive weapons training in an al-Qa'ida camp near Kandahar.

Michael Battle, a federal prosecutor, said their arrest on Friday night was prompted, in part, by fears of an impending terror attack after the anniversary of 11 September. A few days before they were apprehended, American officials put the country on a Code Orange alert – the second-highest level – and Mr Battle said this had something to do with concerns about the Buffalo five.

The arrests were also prompted by two separate confessions, one made in the Buffalo area and one made abroad by a man believed to be an associate of the five detainees. According to documents presented in court, Sahim Alwan, 29, one of the detainees, told the Federal Bureau of Investigation on Thursday that he and six other men from Lackawanna had attended an al-Qa'ida camp, received weapons training and had been lectured on "jihad, prayers and justification for using suicide as a weapon".

Another man from Lackawanna, identified in court papers only as "uncharged co-conspirator C", had been interviewed by the FBI the previous day in an undisclosed foreign location and revealed similar details about being trained to use assault rifles and heavy artillery.

Mr Alwan is alleged to have said that among those who addressed them at the Al Farouk camp was Osama bin Laden himself. Also attending the camp at the same time was John Walker Lindh, the so-called "American Taliban" who was recently sentenced to 20 years in prison following a plea bargain. Mr Lindh's lawyers did not specify whether he had information about the men from Buffalo, but noted he was co-operating fully with American investigators.

The FBI was quick to underline the importance of its investigation. "We have the key players in western New York," the head of the Buffalo operation, Peter Ahearn, said.

It is not clear, however, just how strong the case against the five will prove to be. The director of the FBI, Robert Mueller, admitted over the weekend that his agency had no knowledge of a specific plot. "We have not seen any plans of an imminent attack in western New York or elsewhere in the United States," Mr Mueller said. "We do not fully know the intentions of those who are charged today."

It appears that US officials were forced to make a judgement call – whether to bring the men in now and minimise the risk of an attack in the future, or else keep them under surveillance for longer in the hope of learning more about their intentions. The man ultimately responsible for that decision is John Ashcroft, the controversial Attorney General who has come in for heavy criticism in the past for wanting to round up every last suspect immediately rather than hold his nerve and wait for more details to emerge through continuing surveillance.

Aside from Mr Alwan, the detainees were named as Yahya Goba, Shafal Mosed, Yasein Taher and Faysal Galab. All were either unemployed or working in menial jobs.

Their families and some of their associates leapt to their defence. "They are good citizens and good members of the community," said Khalid Qazi, a local leader of the American Muslim Council.

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