Born in December 1977, Yasein Taher was voted the “friendliest” member of his 1996 graduating class at Lackawanna High School, located in Lackawanna, New York (near Buffalo). Just a few years later, in 2001-02, Taher was a member of a six-man al-Qaeda terrorist cell based in Lackawana. His five accomplices were Mukhtar Al-Bakri, Sahim A. Alwan, Faysal Galab, Yahya A. Goba, and Shafal Mosed. This group eventually came to known as the Lackawanna Six or Buffalo Six, and all of its members hailed from a community of approximately 3,000 Yemeni Muslim residents of Lackawanna. They were recruited into terrorism by two veteran mujaheddin, Kamal Derwish and Juma al-Dosari, who encouraged the men to attend a six-week-long weapons course at al-Qaeda’s Al-Farooq training camp in Afghanistan, near Kandahar.
Taher traveled to the Al-Farooq camp in the spring of 2001, though he falsely told his relatives and friends that he was going to Pakistan to study with the Islamic evangelical group Tablighi Jamaat. The first leg of Taher’s trip was a stopover in Pakistan, where Kamal Derwish met him and escorted him across the border into Afghanistan.
Taher was present on one occasion in June 2001 when Osama bin Laden visited the Al-Farooq camp with his chief lieutenant, Ayman al-Zawahiri, and delivered a 20-minute speech in Arabic to the hundreds of trainees. In his address, bin Laden discussed the recent merger between al-Qaeda and Egyptian Islamic Jihad; hinted about suicide operations that were planned against the U.S. and Israel; and exhorted those in attendance to pray for some 40 operatives who he said were about to embark on a very important mission (presumably a reference to 9/11). Taher was the only Lackawannan fluent enough in Arabic to understand bin Laden’s speech, and he subsequently explained the substance of it to the other five.
Throughout the spring and early summer of 2001, the Al-Farooq training camp conducted numerous evacuation drills in anticipation of a possible U.S. bombing raid. At various times, each of the Lackawanna Six left the camp and returned to the United States without completing their basic training course. (A seventh Lackawanna resident, 36-year-old Jaber Elbaneh, stayed in the Middle East and remained loyal to al-Qaeda.) Once they were back in New York, none of the Lackawanna Six told any U.S. authorities about what they had seen and done in Afghanistan.
In early June 2001, the FBI’s Buffalo, New York field office received an anonymous, handwritten letter from someone in Lackawanna’s Yemeni community naming several locals (including Taher) who allegedly had been recruited by “two terrorists” and then traveled to “meet bin Laden and stay in his camp for training.” FBI agent Edward Needham checked these names against criminal databases and found that a number of them had previously been convicted of such offenses as drug dealing and cigarette smuggling. Needham put the names on an FBI watch list and formally opened an investigation on June 15. Twelve days later, when Taher flew back to New York along with Faysal Galab and Shafel Mosed, the three were stopped and questioned for two hours by the FBI and were then released. The authorities did not yet know that these men had attended an al-Qaeda training camp.
The FBI probe continued, however, and Taher was eventually arrested in his hometown of Lackawanna in September 2002. The following month, a federal grand jury indicted each member of the Lackawanna Six on two counts of providing material support for a terrorist organization (al-Qaeda); all pleaded not guilty. But over the next few months, all six defendants reversed course and decided to plead guilty in exchange for prison terms of six-and-a-half to ten years. According to the chairman of the American Bar Association’s Task Force on Treatment of Enemy Combatants: “The defendants believed that if they didn’t plead guilty, they’d end up in a black hole forever.”
Taher issued his guilty plea in May 2013, and in December he was sentenced to eight years in prison. According to court papers, Taher gave investigators “highly valuable” intelligence which included identifications and descriptions of a number of al-Qaeda leaders, trainers and recruits. Moreover, Taher agreed to testify against Ali Hamza al-Bahlul, Osama bin Laden’s chief propagandist. In exchange for his testimony, Taher was permitted to enter the Witness Protection Program and assume a new identity.
Taher was originally scheduled to be released from prison on September 1, 2009. Not long before that, however, his name disappeared from the federal Bureau of Prisons public database. His attorney, Rodney Personius, stated that Taher was in protective status as he completed his prison term, but he declined to reveal whether the client intended to remain in the Witness Protection Program.
Further Reading: “Profiles: The Lackawanna Cell” (PBS.org); “Where the Trail Led … Inside the Lackawanna Terror Case” (NY Times, 10-12-2003); Timeline of the Lackawanna Six & Its Members (HistoryCommons.org); “Chronology: The Lackawanna Investigation” (PBS.org); “Yasein Taher Pleads Guilty to Providing Material Support to Al Qaeda” (Dept. of Justice, 5-12-2003); “Second of ‘Lackawanna Six’ Defendants Gets Sentenced” (Los Angeles Times, 12-5-2003); “U. S. Gives Half of Lackawanna Six a Fresh Start” (LiveLeak.com).