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Posted on 09/17/2002 11:09:18 AM PDT by ganesha
Former Lackawanna man is suspected of recruiting for sleeper cell
By DAN HERBECK, MICHAEL BEEBE and JERRY ZREMSKI News Staff Reporters 9/17/2002
A worldwide manhunt is on for a former Lackawanna resident who is the suspected organizer and ringleader of the alleged al-Qaida "sleeper cell" that was broken up over the weekend.
The Buffalo News has learned that authorities have identified Kamal Derwish, 29, as a prime suspect in the ongoing investigation. Derwish is a former resident of Holland Avenue, where one of the other "Buffalo Cell" defendants also lived.
Allegations of terrorist-related activities against the former Lackawanna man are so serious that he may face some form of military prosecution, rather than the criminal courts, authorities said.
"He is believed to be the man who recruited people for the cell and encouraged them to go to Afghanistan for al-Qaida training," one police source said of Derwish. "He's being looked for all over the world."
Authorities said Derwish was referred to as "Uncharged Co-conspirator A" in charges filed over the weekend against five other suspects. They believe Derwish received more advanced training from al-Qaida than any of the other suspects, including training in the use of anti-aircraft weapons.
The CIA, FBI and National Security Agency all are participating in the search for Derwish. A federal official in Washington, who has extensive knowledge of terrorist groups, said Derwish is one of many people with suspected al-Qaida ties whom federal intelligence and military personnel are trying to find.
"(Derwish) is still at large," said the official, who has intimate knowledge of the manhunt. "We don't want to say where we suspect he is."
Six alleged associates of Derwish from Lackawanna have been charged so far with providing material support to a terrorist organization. They are Shafal A. Mosed, 24, of Ingham Avenue; Yahya A. Goba, 25, of Wilkesbarre Avenue; Sahim Alwan, 29, of Wilkesbarre Avenue; Yasein A. Taher, 24, of Ludel Terrace; Faysal H. Galab, 26, of Holland Avenue; and Mukhtar al-Bakri, 22, of Ingham Avenue.
Peter Ahearn, agent in charge of the Buffalo FBI office, said that three weapons - two ordinary guns and one stun gun - were found at the suspects' homes during searches. He did not say exactly where they came from.
In papers filed at federal court, prosecutors also allege that another former Lackawanna man, Jaber Elbaneh, traveled to Afghanistan to train at Osama bin Laden's al-Farooq terrorist camp. Elbaneh is also being sought by authorities.
The investigation is being monitored on a daily basis by high-echelon government leaders, including President Bush, Attorney General John D. Ashcroft, National Security Adviser Condoleeza Rice and FBI Director Robert Mueller III, authorities said.
When the first five suspects were arrested over the weekend, the Joint Terrorism Task Force of Western New York filed court papers discussing the alleged activities of three mysterious "Uncharged Co-conspirators," identified only as A, B and C.
On Monday, officials identified Derwish as A, Elbaneh as B and al-Bakri as C.
According to court papers, Derwish met one of two groups of men from Lackawanna after they arrived in Karachi, Pakistan, in May 2001, and arranged for their transportation into Afghanistan.
One of the Lackawanna suspects, Alwan, told the FBI their first journey came nine days after he, Yahya Goba and two other men - who The News has learned were Elbaneh and al-Bakri - arrived in Pakistan. Derwish arranged for their travel to Quetta, Pakistan.
On the following day, Alwan, Goba, Elbaneh and al-Bakri crossed the border into Afghanistan by car and spent four to five days in a guest house in Kandahar, according to the FBI affidavit.
Agents said Alwan told them he stayed in a guest house for four to five days, where he heard lectures "on Jihad, prayers and justification for using suicide as a weapon." Alwan and Elbaneh then traveled by bus with 10 other unidentified individuals to the al-Farooq training camp, west of Kandahar, he told the FBI.
Once he arrived at the camp, Alwan said he saw the five other men from Lackawanna - al-Bakri, Goba, Mosed, Taher and Galab.
On the fifth day of camp, Alwan said, he saw Derwish.
Alwan said Derwish "told him he was in a more advanced training camp nearby," according to an FBI's affidavit. "(Derwish) seemed to know some of the trainers at the camp . . . (and) stated he was receiving training on anti-aircraft guns."
It was during the second week of training, Alwan said, that Osama bin Laden came to the camp and spoke in favor of the Islamic Jihad and al-Qaida and denounced the United States.
Friends and family members of those arrested so far have denied the allegations, saying the men are law-abiding U.S. citizens.
Suspect reportedly in Yemen
Members of Lackawanna's Yemeni community who knew Kamal Derwish said he wasn't a Lackawanna native, but that he has an uncle who lives here. An older woman at Derwish's former residence - an apartment in a large, pale blue house at 74 Holland Ave. - said he has been in Yemen for the past two years.
"He lives in Yemen," said the older woman, from behind a curtained window. The blue house, which is surrounded by a chain-link fence, was quiet Monday, although neighbors said it has been the scene of much activity in recent years.
"There's a lot of in and outs. There's a lot of taxicabs pulling up," said Dolly Vazquez, who has lived across the street from the blue house at 74 Holland all of her life. "A lot of people don't stay there very long."
Rashad Alderwish, 28, said both he and Derwish lived in apartments at 74 Holland about four years ago.
"Kamal lived here, but I don't know a thing about him. I believe he lived here in 1998," Alderwish said. He added that Yahya Goba also lived at 74 Holland "in the beginning of 1997."
Derwish, like the five Lackawanna suspects arrested over the weekend, is a registered Democrat, according to Erie County Board of Elections records.
Neighborhood residents said Derwish was in Lackawanna for at least a year, two at most. He had a wife and at least one child. He attended the Lackawanna mosque and was seen throughout the community in social settings.
"He was here for a short time. It's been a while," said Mohamed Abuhamra, 52, a businessman in the community. "I would see him at the mosque and the community socials. He was normal when he was among us. I really didn't see him any different than anyone else."
Members of Elbaneh's family - who live two doors down from the blue house on Holland Avenue - said that Elbaneh went abroad for religious training some time ago, and to their knowledge, is still there.
Anti-terrorism law invoked
The charges brought against the men, providing material support to a foreign terrorist organization, were part of anti-terrorism legislation passed by Congress in 1996.
John Walker Lindh, who became known as the "American Taliban" after taking up arms against the United States and fighting for al-Qaida, pleaded guilty to the charge in July.
The only known case that has gone to trial involved two Lebanese brothers who were convicted in June of using money from a cigarette-smuggling ring in North Carolina to aid the militant group Hezbollah. Hezbollah and al-Qaida have been designated as foreign terrorist organizations by the U.S. Secretary of State, as the law requires.
Law enforcement sources said they expect that if Derwish is captured, he could become a military prisoner much like Jose Padilla, the al-Qaida suspect from Chicago who is accused of plotting to explode a "dirty bomb" of nuclear material somewhere in the United States.
Authorities detained Padilla May 8, but never charged him with a crime. Instead, after Padilla refused to cooperate, Bush declared him an "enemy combatant" and shipped him off to a military brig in Charleston, S.C., where he remains today.
Federal authorities have declined to say when, how or even if Padilla will be prosecuted. They've indicated that they would rather try to get information from him in private than take the chance of having valuable intelligence spill out in a courtroom.
News Staff Reporters Lou Michel, Charity Vogel, Tom Ernst and Jay Rey contributed to this report.