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Third defendant in alleged terror sleeper cell pleads guilty

Six men accused of attending terrorist training camp

From Phil Hirschkorn
CNN New York Bureau

The six defendants are shown in a courtroom sketch from a court appearance in September.
The six defendants are shown in a courtroom sketch from a court appearance in September.

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• Criminal complaint: U.S. v. Goba, et al external link
• Criminal complaint: U.S. v. al-Bakri external link
• Interactive: The hunt for al Qaeda
• Audio slide show: Bin Laden's audio message, 2/03
• Special report: Terror on tape
• Special report: War against terror

BUFFALO, New York (CNN) -- For the second time in two days, one of the six Yemeni-American men accused of attending an terrorist training camp has changed his plea to guilty.

During a federal court appearance Tuesday, Yahya Goba, 26, pleaded to the charge that he provided material support or resources -- consisting of himself -- to a designated terrorist organization, al Qaeda.

Goba admitted he attended the organization's al Farooq camp near Kandahar, Afghanistan, in the summer of 2001, just a few months before it orchestrated the September 11 terrorist attacks.

He said he saw and heard al Qaeda's leader, Saudi exile Osama bin Laden, speak about martyrdom and make anti-Israeli and anti-American statements, including his long-held view that U.S. troops should be driven out of Saudi Arabia, site of the holiest Muslim shrines.

Goba also said he learned to use Kalashnikov and M16 automatic rifles, a nine-millimeter handgun, and a rocket-propelled grenade launcher and received instruction in military tactics during his six week training, which he completed.

His court appearance followed Monday's hearing for Shafel Mosed, 24, who pleaded guilty to the same charges.

Like Mosed, Goba admitted that he knew, prior to departing the United States, that the planned trip was to a camp associated with al Qaeda.

In January, Faysal Galab, 25, became the first of the group to plead guilty, though to a lesser charge of contributing funds, goods and services to and for the benefit of al Qaeda and its leader, Saudi exile Osama bin Laden.

Unlike the others to plead guilty so far, Goba said he allowed one of their al Qaeda recruiters to stay at his upstate New York home both before and after the illegal trip.

After his return, one recruiter stayed with him until shortly after September 11, 2001, after which the operative left, telling Goba he was going to fight for the Taliban, Afghanistan's then-ruling regime, against the Americans.

Goba and the other five defendants, in custody since their arrests in mid-September, are U.S. citizens of Yemeni descent who resided in Lackawanna, New York, a former steel town, five miles outside Buffalo, that has a large Yemeni community.

The government has suggested the men might have constituted a so-called "sleeper cell," possibly waiting for orders to carry out some future attack in the United States, though prosecutors conceded there is no evidence of any such plan.

Goba said the subject of suicide attacks first arose before he arrived at the camp, when he stayed at al Qaeda and Taliban guest houses and was shown videotape of the October 2000 terrorist attack on the USS Cole that killed 17 sailors.

The six defendants all pleaded not guilty after they were indicted last October on two counts of providing material support to a foreign terrorist organization, charges that carry a maximum 15-year prison sentence.

Goba joined Mosed in pleading guilty to the less punitive second count.

Prosecutors say they will ask the court to impose sentences ranging from seven to 10 years on Goba, Mosed, and Galab, who are now cooperating with the investigation.

U.S. District Judge William M. Skretny has tentatively scheduled sentencing for Galab on April 30, for Mosed on July 16, and for Goba on July 17.

Plea agreement

Defense attorney William Claus said in a telephone interview that Goba thought the plea "was in his best interests."

Goba is married and his wife is expecting their first child next month, Claus said.

Plea negotiations are under way for the remaining defendants -- Sahim Alwan, 30; Mukthtar al-Bakri, 22; and Yasein Taher, 25.

"Today's conviction further strengthens the case against the remaining defendants, and enhances the government's ability to identify and prosecute other persons who may have been involved in the same criminal conduct," said Assistant U.S. Attorney William Hochul in a written statement.

Prosecutors say Goba further implicated defendants Alwan and al-Bakri.

Goba said that, prior to their trip, Alwan spoke to him and the others about the requirement to prepare for jihad, or Muslim holy war.

Goba also said that he gave al-Bakri money received from an al Qaeda recruiter to pay for their travel, from New York to Canada to Pakistan.

The government has identified two men responsible for recruiting the six men and facilitating their travel.

One of those men, Kamal Derwish, was among six people killed last November by a Hellfire missile fired by an unmanned Predator aircraft at an al Qaeda target in Yemen.

The other man, Jaber Elbaneh, is believed to be at large in Yemen. Three of his relatives have been charged in Buffalo federal court with running an illegal wire transfer business that allegedly sent nearly half-a-million dollars to Yemen.

Claus would not say which of the recruiters stayed at Goba's house.

But he echoed the comments of other defense attorneys who abandoned the argument that merely attending a camp does not constitute "material support," especially with prosecutors threatening tougher penalties for alternate charges ranging from weapons violations to treason.

Prosecutors warned that it was conceivable that President Bush, who mentioned the case in his State of the Union address, might declare Goba an "enemy combatant," which the plea deal precludes.

"All the lawyers recognize this case exists in a very special context," Claus said.

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