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Fourth guilty plea in Buffalo terror case

Meetings with bin Laden cited

From Phil Hirschkorn

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

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BUFFALO, New York (CNN) -- The fourth of six Yemeni-American men accused of attending an al Qaeda training camp in Afghanistan pleaded guilty Tuesday to terrorism-related charges.

Sahim Alwan, 30, the eldest member of the group, entered his plea in federal court before Judge William M. Skretny, who has accepted guilty pleas from three of the other defendants in recent weeks.

Alwan joins those men in publicly admitting that he attended al Qaeda's now-destroyed al Farooq camp near Kandahar, Afghanistan, in the summer of 2001, just a few months before the Islamic terrorist group carried out the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks against the United States.

Alwan alone had private meetings -- twice -- with al Qaeda leader and Saudi exile Osama bin Laden.

Prosecutors, in court documents, have said Alwan privately admitted the trip to the camp to interrogators months ago, but he entered a "not guilty" plea along with the other defendants shortly after their arrests last September.

His plea change was the "lesser of two bad decisions," said his attorney James Harrington in a telephone interview.

Alwan was the only Buffalo recruit who did not stay five to six weeks, prosecutors say. He feigned an ankle injury to be allowed to leave the camp after 10 days.

Alwan is expected to receive a nine-year sentence and to cooperate with the investigation.

"He choose certainty over a long, difficult process with an outcome that could have been worse," Harrington said.

His codefendants -- Faysal Galab, 27, Shafel Mosed, 24 and Yahya Goba, 26 -- previously entered guilty pleas and now face from seven to 10 years in prison.

Two other men -- Mukhtar al-Bakri, 22, and Yaseinn Taher, 25 -- are engaged in plea bargain talks.

The six men were indicted last October on two counts of providing material support -- essentially themselves -- to a foreign terrorist organization, which carries a maximum 15-year prison sentence.

Alwan joined Galab, Goba and Mosed in pleading guilty to one of those counts. The other is expected to be dropped at sentencing.

Like the others who've pleaded guilty, Alwan told the court that they flew to Pakistan and traveled by car into Afghanistan.

As outlined in the plea agreement, Alwan said he met bin Laden the first time at a guesthouse in Kandahar, where he had been shown videos justifying suicide attacks.

Bin Laden told him there were people "willing to bear their souls in their hands for jihad," or holy war.

At the camp, Alwan and all the recruits heard bin Laden speak about martyrdom against the United States and against Israel. And, according to the plea agreement, Alwan said he trained to fire a Kalashnikov rifle.

His cohorts who stayed longer also received instruction on M16 rifles, a 9-mm handguns, rocket-propelled grenade launchers and military tactics.

After his departure, Alwan had a second meeting in Kandahar with bin Laden, who asked him "what Americans thought about martyrdom missions."

Alwan agreed to act as courier for two videotapes -- he was told they were about al Qaeda's October 2000 bombing of the USS Cole in a Yemen port, which killed 17 U.S. sailors -- to an al Qaeda associate in Karachi, Pakistan, from where he flew home.

Last October, a federal magistrate granted bail only to Alwan, viewing his early departure from the camp as a renouncement of al Qaeda. The highly conditional bail package would have limited Alwan's travel outside his home and his access to computers and telephones.

But Alwan never raised the $600,000 bond and remained incarcerated.

Other than five years in Yemen, Alwan, a U.S. citizen by birth, has lived his entire life in the United States.

Like thousands of other Yemeni immigrants, Alwan's parents moved to the city of Lackawanna, New York, near Buffalo, because his father worked for a Bethlehem Steel plant there.

Alwan still lives there with his wife and three children and was the only one of the six defendants with a steady job before the alleged cell was busted.

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

Assistant U.S. Attorney William Hochul said the 1996 law under which Alwan was 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," one defendant after another has decided to enter a guilty plea.

"They took everything into consideration, and they knew what they were up against," said U.S. Attorney Michael Battle in a telephone interview.

"To the extent that people say we threatened and coerced, we did nothing of the sort," he said.

The government has explicitly renounced in the plea agreement any right to detain Alwan as an enemy combatant, an assurance also given to Galab, Mosed and Goba, although Battle conceded that his office had discussed that possibility with the Defense Department.

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