The Buffalo Six (known primarily as Lackawanna Six, but also the Lackawanna Cell, or Buffalo Cell) is a group of six Yemeni-American friends who were convicted of providing material support to Al Qaeda in December 2003, based on their having attended an Al Qaeda training camp in Afghanistan together in the Spring of 2001.
They are six naturalized American citizens who were friends from childhood in Yemen:
|“||When one of the men...bought propane tanks at a local hardware store, the agents immediately thought they had discovered a bomb plot. In fact, they discovered a plan for a family barbecue.||”|
—Dina Temple-Raston, The Jihad Next Door
The six men traveled from the United States to Afghanistan in spring 2001, before the September 11 attacks, while the country was still ruled by the Taliban. Its leaders were giving sanctuary to Osama bin Laden, the Saudi Arabian Muslim who used it as a base for Al Qaeda terrorist training.
In June 2001, an anonymous two-page handwritten letter was received from an individual ostensibly living in Lackawanna who knew the immigrant Yemeni population intimately. It warned, "I am very concern. I am an Arab-American... and I cannot give you my name because I fear for my life. Two terrorist [sic] came to Lackawanna... for recruiting the Yemenite youth... the terrorist group... left to Afghanistan to meet... bin Laden and stay in his camp for training", and gave the names of twelve local youths.
In the late summer of 2002, one of the members, Mukhtar al-Bakri, sent an e-mail message in which he described his upcoming wedding in Yemen, and another in which he mentioned a "big meal" after the wedding, which is traditional in Islam. The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), who were monitoring him, sounded the alarm and al-Bakri was arrested by Bahraini police on the date of his wedding in September 2002. They found him in his hotel room with his new wife, where he was taken into custody by a Special Security Force Command tactical team.
The other five were arrested in Lackawanna, New York, a suburb of Buffalo, New York in September 2002. On September 14, 2002, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) held a press conference in Buffalo to announce the arrests of five of the local Al Qaeda suspects. The FBI Special Agent in charge of the investigation, Peter Ahearn (At the time head of the FBI's Buffalo Field Office), stated that there was no specific event triggering the arrests, which followed four to eight months of investigations. Later, FBI counterterrorism chief Dale Watson told The New York Times that the bureau acted as "we are probably 99 percent sure that we can make sure these guys don't do something – if they are planning to do something." Watson paraphrased the President's response as that "under the rules that we were playing under at the time, that's not acceptable. So a conscious decision was made, 'Let's get 'em out of here'."
On February 23, 2006 the U.S. FBI confirmed the escape, as they issued a national Press Release naming Elbaneh as one of the first new additions, since its inception in 2001 following the 9/11 attacks, to the FBI Most Wanted Terrorists list.
On May 20, 2007, Elbaneh turned himself in to Yemen authorities on the condition that his prison sentence would not be extended.
An anonymous voice message was being sent to households across Lackawanna, ostensibly from "BioFend", noting that "we believe that the goal of this terrorist cell was to detonate briefcase-sized dirty bombs right here in Western New York". When then-Governor Eliot Spitzer had the company dissolved, it was still unclear whether the recordings were meant to lay the groundwork for a financial scam, or were an attempt to "taint the jury pool" by spreading untrue rumors suggesting there had been a violent plan in the works.
Though all six initially entered pleas of "not guilty", they all eventually pleaded guilty to "providing material support or resources to a foreign terrorist organization." One of their defense lawyers suggested that they had been intimidated by threats of being declared enemy combatants. None of the six had been accused of planning or engaging in terrorist acts.
Yahya Goba and Mukhtar al-Bakri received 10-year prison sentences. Yaseinn Taher and Shafal Mosed received 8-year prison sentences. Sahim Alwan received a 9.5-year sentence. Faysal Galab received a 7-year sentence. All sentences were for single counts of "providing support or resources to a foreign terrorist organization". In discussing the plea bargain agreements, US prosecutors commented the defendants had cooperated with federal terrorism investigators, providing detailed information on Al-Qaeda membership, training, and methods.
In late October 2008, three of the six men testified at the Guantanamo military commission's review of Ali Hamza al Bahlul actions. Yassein Taher, Sahim Alwan and a third member of the group (not identified to the press) testified they had been shown a two-hour jihadist video that celebrated the attack on the USS Cole during the period when they were in al Qaeda guest houses and when they attended the al Farouq training camp.
Al Bahlul was charged with producing the jihadist video for recruiting members to Al-Qaeda. The Buffalo men testified that they were terrified and appalled by the video. According to the journalist Carol Rosenberg of the Miami Herald, Taher and Alwan expected their testimony would be rewarded by their being placed in the witness protection program. The third man, whose name was withheld from the press, was already in the protection program.
In July 2009, the media reported that local officials had suggested that federal troops be used to capture the suspects, rather than sending in 130 federal and local members of the Western New York Joint Terrorism Task Force. At the time, Vice President Dick Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld believed that the men should be declared enemy combatants and tried by a military tribunal. President Bush rejected this proposal, and the arrests proceeded without incident; they were tried in criminal court.