U. S. gives half of the Lackawanna Six a fresh start

The Buffalo Six (also known as Lackawanna Six, Lackawanna Cell, or Buffalo Cell) is a group of six Yemeni-Americans who were convicted of providing material support to al-Qaeda. The six are American citizens by birth.

When three of the Lackawanna Six complete their prison terms, they will have the chance to start new lives under new identities — courtesy of the U. S. government.

That’s because they struck a bargain with the government: their testimony against Osama bin Laden’s media secretary in exchange for a fresh start.

Yahya A. Goba, Sahim Alwan and Yasein A. Taher are, in fact, already living under aliases while finishing out their time behind bars.

But three other members of the Lackawanna Six who also visited bin Laden’s terrorist training camp in Afghanistan prior to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks have not gotten the same benefit to start anew.

Faysal H. Galab, the first to take a plea deal, received the shortest sentence, seven years, and is now out of federal custody and living in the Detroit area under his own name.

Shafal A. Mosed is out of prison and in a federal halfway house in Rochester working as a day laborer. He plans to move back to Lackawanna and rejoin his wife and child in September, according to members of the Yemenite community in Lackawanna.

His brother, who refused to speak about Mosed’s upcoming return, pointed out that Galab has managed to succeed in quietly moving on with his life.

Mukhtar al-Bakri, the only member of the Lackawanna Six still incarcerated at a highly secure special unit at the federal penitentiary in Terre Haute, Ind., is not expected to be released until early 2011.

“Mukhtar was the youngest and really didn’t have the contacts and knowledge the others had,” attorney John J. Molloy said of his client. “If he had, he may have been able to avail himself of the government’s largess.”

In contrast, the U. S. government considers Jaber A. Elbaneh, sometimes referred to as the seventh member of the Lackawanna group, an individual of high value. He avoided apprehension because he was in Yemen when his six companions were arrested.

FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III, during a visit here two weeks ago, said he wants Elbaneh back to face trial. The problem is Yemen lacks an extradition treaty with the United States, which has placed a $5 million reward for Elbaneh’s capture.

It’s a much different story for Goba, Alwan and Taher.

At a Guantanamo Bay military tribunal last October, Alwan and Taher said they were testifying against bin Laden’s aide in the hopes that when they complete their prison sentences the government will give them new identities.

By law, the special consideration they were seeking had to be made public.

And all signs indicate they got their wish.

Alwan, Taher and Goba are no longer at Terre Haute. Their names have vanished from the federal Bureau of Prison’s public records and federal officials decline to comment on their whereabouts, though officials in the case say they remain imprisoned.

When they are released, they will have the choice of continuing in the witness protection program or going the route of Galab and Mosed and assimilating back into society under their true identities.

But if they remain under federal protection, it means severing ties with their past, a routine requirement for those in the program in order to help ensure their safety.

U. S. Marshal Peter A. Lawrence would not comment on the Lackawanna Six specifically, but pointed out that the witness protection program, run by the Marshal Service, has remained a success over the decades because of its strict rules.

“The program has never lost anybody so long as they stay within the rules,” Lawrence said. “You need to abide by the conditions that are set.”

There’s no question Goba, Alwan and Taher went out on a limb when they testified last fall, helping convict bin Laden’s chief propagandist, Ali Hamza al-Bahlul.

The three had watched a violent al- Qaida recruitment video put together by al-Bahlul, who was sentenced to life in prison. The purpose of the video, Goba testified, was to show “how successful people can be if they really want to perform jihad. Anything military, economical, political was considered a target.”

During Alwan’s testimony, al-Bahlul, 39, of Yemen, grinned repeatedly at him. Alwan told of meeting bin Laden at his al-Farooq training camp in the spring of 2001.

The video, Alwan said, was designed to promote martyrdom missions. “I realized I was in over my head,” Alwan testified.

When the six were arrested on the one-year anniversary of 9/11, they found themselves at the center of the Bush administration’s domestic efforts to fight terrorism. The result was a storm of unwanted national attention on the Yemenite community in Lackawanna.

Many there expressed frustration over the lack of judgment the young men exercised in going to Afghanistan and one of the men’s fathers told his son’s attorney that he would personally behead the young man if he had any intentions of harming America, a lawyer in the case said.

But times have changed and now the government, barring the unforeseen, will end up launching Alwan, Goba and Taher into new lives when they re-enter society either later this year or next year.

Unlike Alwan and Taher, Goba, who was identified as the organizer of the Lackawanna Six, disappeared soon after the highly publicized detention hearings were conducted at the federal courthouse in downtown Buffalo seven years ago.

Goba periodically emerged as a government witness to testify at trials involving terror suspects around the country.

“He has provided a significant amount of assistance to the government,” said Marianne Mariano, his attorney.

As a reward for his cooperation, Goba’s 10-year prison sentence was cut by one year. With accrued good time, he could be free by next year. Taher, sentenced to eight years, could be free later this year. Alwan, sentenced to 9z years, is expected to be free in 2010.

Goba’s Lackawanna relatives say his wife and child will not be joining him when he is freed and that his experiences during incarceration have made him extremely nervous, though they refused to further discuss his case.

As for Mosed, his attorney, Patrick

J. Brown, says his client accepts the fact that his life has been permanently changed because of his poor decision in traveling to bin Laden’s camp.

“He recognizes that because of the notoriety he received in this case, that this is going to be a recurring issue for the rest of his life and he’ll just have to deal with it,” Brown said.

The lawyer added that he believes Mosed is hoping the community will look at his entire life, realizing that prior to going to the camp, he was not a radical and that now his goal is to live with his family and lead a lawful life.

“Hopefully that puts in context his life. He did something wrong as a young man,” Brown said.

Lackawanna Police Chief James L. Michel Jr. said any of the Lackawanna Six who decide to return home are welcome back, providing they have learned their lesson.

“Just as with any other person who has committed a crime, they serve their punishment in prison and are entitled to start their life over again,” Michel said.

lmichel@buffnews.com By Lou Michel NEWS STAFF REPORTER