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Al Qaeda trainee gets 10-year sentence

From Phil Hirschkorn

The six are shown in a courtroom sketch from a court appearance in September 2002.
The six are shown in a courtroom sketch from a court appearance in September 2002.

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(CNN) -- The first of the six Yemeni-Americans from upstate New York who attended an al Qaeda training camp in 2001 was sentenced to 10 years in prison Wednesday for providing material support to a terrorist organization.

Mukhtar al-Bakri, 23, was the last of the six to plead guilty earlier this year. His sentencing hearing was in federal court in Buffalo, New York, before U.S. District Court Judge William Skretny.

Al-Bakri and five other men in custody flew to Pakistan and drove to Afghanistan in the spring of 2001. During their six-week stay, they were instructed in the use of Kalashnikov and M-16 automatic rifles and rocket-propelled grenade launchers, and taught to assemble explosives at Al Farooq camp near Kandahar.

The recruits heard al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden speak in person just a few months before he ordered the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks that killed nearly 3,000 people in the United States.

The FBI learned of the Lackawanna, New York, men's illicit trip from an anonymous letter from an Arab-American and placed them under surveillance when they returned.

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The tip undermined the group's cover story -- that they had gone to Pakistan for Muslim religious studies.

Prosecutors suggest the Lackawanna Six -- also known as the Buffalo Six because Lackawanna is a small city within 5 miles of Buffalo -- might have constituted a so-called sleeper cell, possibly waiting for orders to carry out some future attack in the United States, but they concede there was no evidence of such a plan.

Assistant U.S. Attorney William Hochul said the 1996 law under which the six were convicted defines "material support" as financial or personnel assistance.

Early in the case, defense lawyers argued that the law was being misapplied. Faced with the specter of more serious charges, ranging from weapons violations to treason, or even being labeled an "enemy combatant," each defendant entered a guilty plea between January and March, one by one, and agreed to cooperate with counterterrorism officials.

The six denied constituting a "sleeper cell" -- living incognito and awaiting orders from al Qaeda.

Al-Bakri was the first of the men arrested after two of his e-mails tracked by the FBI were interpreted to refer in code to imminent terrorist acts.

The FBI arrested the other men, named by al-Bakri, over the next few days in Lackawanna, where the men lived and grew up.

The men are expected to receive prison terms ranging from seven to 10 years as they are sentenced individually over the next two weeks.

The other men are: Yasein Taher, 25; Shafal Mosed, 25; Yahya Goba, 26; Faysal Galab, 27; and Sahim Alwan, 30.

A seventh man who traveled with the group, Jaber Elbaneh, 37, is still at large, and the U.S. government is offering $5 million for information leading to his capture.

The second Lackawanna man to be sentenced Thursday will be Taher, who is expected to receive an eight-year term.

The main recruiter of the Lackawanna Six, a Saudi born in Buffalo named Kamal Derwish, was killed in November 2002 by a CIA-launched Predator missile attack on al Qaeda operatives in Yemen.

A Derwish friend and al Qaeda recruiter who preached the religious obligation of training for jihad at the Lackawanna mosque, Juma al-Dosari, has been in custody at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, since his capture by U.S. forces near the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.

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