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Sources: Buffalo investigation began before 9/11

From top left: Yasein Taher; Shafel Mosed and Yahya Goba. From bottom left: Sahim Alwan and Faysal Galab  

BUFFALO, New York (CNN) -- The investigation into five Buffalo-area men arrested on terrorism charges began before the September 11 terrorist attacks, government sources have told CNN.

"We had no idea what was to come," said one source.

The sources told CNN they decided to arrest the five men now because of an "increase of chatter from this group and the gravity of what they were saying."

Said one source, "We were exploring the possibility they were part of an operation that might be happening."

The sources acknowledged they were monitoring the communications of the five, using "every sophisticated technique."

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On the Scene: Peter Bergen: Getting al Qaeda to talk

The five men formed an al Qaeda-trained cell, federal officials said Saturday, and at least two of them received weapons training at an al Qaeda camp in Afghanistan.

The five men had their initial court appearance Saturday in U.S. District Court in Buffalo on charges of providing material support to terrorists.

Much of the information gathered in the investigation came from three "uncharged co-conspirators" mentioned in the criminal complaint. Some of them, according to the sources, are being held in countries the sources do not want to identify because of "political sensitivities."

Authorities identified the five men as Yahya Goba, 25; Sahim Alwan, 29; Shafal Mosed, 24; Yasein Taher, 24; and Faysal Galab, 26. One is employed, another is a student, and the other three are unemployed, officials said.

All are American citizens of Yemeni descent. Four were born in the United States and one is a naturalized citizen, FBI Special Agent Peter Ahearn said.

"The investigation still will be continuing to ascertain the scope of what they were doing," Ahearn said. But he added, "We did not, during this investigation, find at this point anything specific that they were planning that would jeopardize the health and safety of anybody in the United States or western New York."

FBI Director Robert Mueller also said Saturday that the intentions of the men are still not fully known.

But the sources told CNN that their "analysis of the cryptic chatter of the five arrested" worried them enough to act now and arrest them.

A man walks past a residence searched by the FBI Friday in Lackawanna, New York.
A man walks past a residence searched by the FBI Friday in Lackawanna, New York.  

The arrests were a significant development in the U.S. efforts to disrupt Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda terrorist network. Coming as they did in a suburb of Buffalo, in western New York, they also served as a reminder that Americans all over the country must be vigilant, said New York Gov. George Pataki.

"The threat of terror is real, and it's not just in far corners of the globe or in large cities like Washington or New York," Pataki said. "The threat of terror is out there in every single community."

According to the criminal complaint, the men trained in June 2001 at the Al Farook camp near Kandahar, the same camp where American Taliban fighter John Walker Lindh trained.

At one point during the men's stay, the complaint alleges, bin Laden gave a speech to the trainees about the alliance of the Islamic Jihad and al Qaeda, "espousing anti-United States and anti-Israel statements."

Galab was arrested Saturday morning, while the other four were arrested Friday night. Ahearn said all lived "within blocks" of one another in the suburb of Lackawanna, a former steel town of 19,000 that now has a large Yemeni community, perhaps as many as 1,000 people, Lackawanna Mayor John Kuryak said.

Ahearn thanked members of that community for helping authorities with the case and said they were involved from the beginning.

All five men appeared at a two-hour hearing in U.S. District Court Saturday, charged with one count each of providing material support to a foreign terrorist organization, namely al Qaeda. The government alleges that the men's participation in the al Qaeda camps amounted to "material support."

The men face as many as 15 years in prison, Deputy U.S. Attorney General Larry Thompson said. The judge entered not guilty pleas on the men's behalf because, at the time, none had legal counsel. Three of the men had obtained counsel by Saturday evening.

The men are being held at the federal detention center in Batavia, New York, until a Wednesday bond hearing. The government cited a risk of flight and the seriousness of the charges in arguing for the five to be held without bond.

But family members and neighbors of some of the men said they doubted any of them were involved in terrorist activities.

Officials said the men lived near one another in Lackawanna and attended the same mosque, the Lackawanna Islamic Center. The imam there, Abdulwahab Ziad, said the arrests surprised him.

"They are good, good people," he said of the five. "We hear about them very good [things], we know them good. They came here and worshipped to the god in the mosque."

He added, "If any person goes to Pakistan or India or Mecca, it doesn't mean he goes to do something [illegal]."

Mohamed Saleh, who works at the mosque, said the government is justified in investigating the men, but he does not believe they are guilty of the charges.

"They're very peaceful human beings," Saleh told CNN. "I haven't seen any negative approach from them, to theirselves, to their families, or to the community members or other people in general."

Federal officials, however, said that some of the information implicating the men came from the Muslim community.

"I want to thank the Muslim community of Buffalo for their extraordinary cooperation," said Thompson. "The assistance of the Muslim community in Buffalo has helped to make the nation safer."

According to the complaint, FBI agent Edward Needham said the men initially said they had traveled to Pakistan for religious instruction, but that one of the uncharged co-conspirators and Alwan later admitted the group had gone to Afghanistan for training.

One co-conspirator said he was trained in the use of Kalashnikov assault rifles, handguns and long-range rifles. He said another co-conspirator was trained in the use of heavy artillery.

About 200 people were trained at the camp in groups of 20, and all had code names, according to the complaint.

Goba was described as the "leader" of the group at the training camp by one of the co-conspirators, the complaint said.

Though Thompson and Ahearn said the men formed an "al Qaeda-trained cell," sources said the group could not be described as an active cell and did not appear to be under direct al Qaeda control.

Ahearn said authorities executed search warrants at five properties and had consent to search one other home and two vehicles.

He also unveiled photographs of the five men, an unusual step he said the FBI was taking in an effort to solicit further information from others who have seen the men.

Kuryak said he had been informed of the FBI probe about six months ago. His first reaction to the news was "disbelief."

"We just want to reassure everybody in the city that they're safe," he said.

Lackawanna police said the FBI had executed two search warrants. Kuryak said two residences, including a small apartment above a storefront, were searched Friday night, and two intersections had been blocked off.

Eyewitnesses said as many as 20 FBI agents were on the scene, removing boxes from the building.

CNN National Correspondent Bob Franken, Justice Producer Terry Frieden, Justice Correspondent Kelli Arena, National Correspondent Susan Candiotti and Producer Phil Hirschkorn contributed to this report.




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