Yemen Holds Terrorist Fugitive on FBI List

A fugitive member of the so-called Lackwanna Six sleeper cell, Jaber Elbaneh, apparently surrendered himself to Yemeni authorities, more than a year after he escaped from one of their maximum security prisons.

What isn't clear is whether American officials, who have put him on their top 25 most wanted terrorists list, will ever get to talk to him.

The Lackawanna Six are seen by American intelligence officials as the first known homegrown terrorist sleeper cell in America.

In the Spring of 2001, six young men from Yemeni-American community of Lackawanna, on the shores of Lake Erie just outside of Buffalo, New York, packed their bags and traveled to Afghanistan to attend an al Qaida camp called al-Farooq. They shot weapons, learned to make bombs, and even met with Osama bin Laden.

After weeks at the camp, nearly all of them returned home to resume rather ordinary, middle class lives driving taxis, working at delis and pumping gas. All of them, but Jaber Elbaneh.

Instead of returning, Elbaneh moved his family to Yemen and told the friends that he was never coming back. The group was arrested a year later for providing material support to a terrorist organization and Elbaneh was put on the FBI's terrorist list.

"He's on FBI.gov and there is a picture and a wanted poster of him," said FBI spokesman Richard Kolko. "He's been in Yemen, and several months ago he escaped from jail and there were reports last week that he was back in jail and we haven't confirmed his status at this point."

The FBI isn't confirming that Elbaneh is behind bars because of an odd dance they have had to do with the Yemeni authorities. Working with officials in Yemen has been hit or miss. They will report they have a terrorist fugitive in prison one day, and then he will be gone the next, he said.

One former law enforcement official familiar with the case said that Elbaneh's arrest in Yemen is like a "catch and release program," because he has been arrested and then released on numerous occasions.

Elbaneh was in Yemen's maximum security prison last year when he escaped. He and two dozen prisoners dug a tunnel out of the facility and emerged from under the women's bathroom floor of a nearby mosque and disappeared. Among the people thought to have escaped with him were masterminds of the USS Cole bombing in Aden, Yemen, which took the lives of more than a dozen U.S. servicemen and blew a house-sized hole into the American destroyer.

"Elbaneh had been on the lam for quite a while," Kolko said. "We have a legal attache that is stationed in Yemen and she will work with the local authorities there to try to determine Elbaneh's current status and we'll have to go from there."

There is a great deal of interest in the Lackawanna Six because they have been a marquee case for the Bush administration and its war on terror. When officials talk about battlefield successes, Lackawanna is always in that list.

The FBI learned about the Lackawanna Six by sheer luck: they received an anonymous letter from someone in the Yemeni-American community who knew the Lackawanna Six had gone to Afghanistan to train at the al Qaida camp. The FBI began tracking the men from the moment they returned, just months before the 911 attacks.

They watched them for a year hoping, among other things, that Elbaneh and the man who recruited the participants, Kamel Derwish, would return. Neither man came back. The FBI finally arrested the group in the States and charged them with material support of a terrorist organization. Some observers say the men never planned anything against the United States, but were arrested for political reasons.

"The greatest significance of that case was the timing," said Rodney Personius, one of the defense attorneys for the Lackawanna Six. "The arrest took place on the one year anniversary after 9-11 and the case was used by the Bush administration as evidence that, in their words, they were winning the war on terrorism."

The FBI is eager to apprehend Elbaneh, though the organization doesn't think he will shed any more light on the Lackawanna Six case. The men who were charged already admitted that they attended the camp in Afghanistan and even met Osama bin Laden. They also provided information about their recruitment and details about the camps themselves and pleaded guilty to the charges. They are now serving between 7 and 10 years in prison.

What Jaber Elbaneh may provide, analysts say, is a goldmine of information on what happened after the Lackawanna Six came home. Elbaneh's time in Yemen could provide clues into recruitment and al Qaida training. "He may have gone back to Yemen and stayed in Yemen to do things that the group in New York were not doing," said Tom Sanderson of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Of course, the FBI needs the Yemeni government to hand over Elbaneh first.

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