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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

U.S.: Al-Qaida Cell Uncovered

WASHINGTON -- U.S. authorities on Friday arrested five men of Arab background in a suburb outside Buffalo, New York, on suspicion they were linked to a terrorist cell operating in the United States, federal law enforcement officials said.

The men were subsequently charged Saturday with operating an active cell of al-Qaida. They had received intensive weapons training in Afghanistan in the summer of 2001 and were sent back to the United States to await the order for an attack, officials said Saturday.

The suspects, all of them born in the United States and of Yemeni descent, were arraigned Saturday on federal charges of providing material support to terrorists.

Federal officials said the arrests suggested that, for the first time since the Sept. 11 attacks, the Justice Department might have detected an active al-Qaida terrorist cell in the United States.

The Justice Department acknowledged, however, that it had no evidence to suggest that any attack by the group was imminent. The government did not contend that the men had weapons in their possession or that they had participated in any violent act.

"We have not seen any plans of an imminent attack in western New York or elsewhere in the United States," FBI director Robert Mueller said in announcing the charges. But he added, "We do not fully know the intentions of those who are charged today."

The men were arrested in raids on their homes and businesses in Lackawanna, a Buffalo suburb that has a large Yemeni community and where the suspects lived within a few blocks of one another. Officials said it was information from inside that community that led them to conduct an inquiry there.

In Washington, Deputy Attorney General Larry Thompson said the disruption of a "Qaida-trained terrorist cell on American soil" was an important victory for the United States in combating terrorism. "American citizens who see fit to aid and abet America's enemies will face the full force of America's justice," Thompson said.

A federal magistrate in Buffalo entered a not-guilty plea on behalf of the five men, who are all in their 20s, and ordered them detained until a hearing on Wednesday.

Friends and relatives of the men rallied to their defense, many suggesting the arrests were the result of an anti-Muslim witch hunt. "They are good citizens and good members of the community," said Khalid Qazi, a local leader of the American Muslim Council.

A criminal complaint released by the FBI shows that the government believes three other men from Lackawanna received terrorist training in Afghanistan last year. The complaint identified them as uncharged co-conspirators and said they were now believed to be living outside the United States, at least two of them in Yemen.

Federal officials said they had no evidence to suggest that the five men in custody in western New York had any tie to the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

The criminal complaint in their case focuses on an allegation that they provided material support to al-Qaida by receiving training from the group last year.

They are accused of attending a terrorist training camp in Afghanistan known as Al Farouk, the same camp that was attended -- at about the same time -- by John Walker Lindh, the American who has pleaded guilty to taking up arms against the United States with the army of the Taliban.

As part of his plea agreement, Lindh agreed to cooperate with the government in other terrorism investigations. Law enforcement officials joined with Lindh's lawyers in refusing to comment Saturday on whether he led investigators to the men arrested in western New York.

"I can say that the debriefings continue," said George Harris, one of Lindh's lawyers, in a telephone interview. "He's being absolutely, fully cooperative."

Federal law enforcement officials said they opened their investigation in Lackawanna, an old steel town on the southern border of Buffalo, after receiving information from within the area's Muslim community months ago that people loyal to al-Qaida might be living among them.

But the criminal complaint shows that it was only last week, after months of denials by the suspects, that two men accused of involvement in the terrorist cell broke down in interrogations and acknowledged to the FBI that they had attended the Afghanistan camp.

One of the men, Sahim Alwan, 29, was among the group arrested Friday.