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Thompson, Mueller, Pataki Address Reporters

Aired September 14, 2002 - 14:00   ET


FREDRICKA WHITFIELD, CNN ANCHOR: Five suspected terrorists arrested last night near Buffalo, New York are scheduled to appear in court this afternoon. CNN national correspondent Bob Franken joins us with the latest. Hi there, Bob.
BOB FRANKEN, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Hello, Fredricka. And we're waiting for a news conference from Washington with the FBI Director Robert Mueller and FBI and U.S. attorneys officials from Buffalo here, where at this moment in the U.S. courthouse behind me five members of the Muslim community in nearby Lackawanna, a suburb of Buffalo, are facing arraignment. Charges are being officially disclosed for the first time. It is the culmination of an investigation that lasted over six months.

Sources are telling us that the five are charged with terrorist activities, specifically providing material support for terrorist organizations. There will be, we're told, some sort of information release as the news conference begins. The news conference, however, is being held in Washington. Of course, it comes in a day with the announcement of the arrest -- capture of a major al Qaeda leader in Pakistan. Big developments there, big developments here.

We're told that members of the American Muslim community in Lackawanna -- they make up about 5 percent of that suburb's population -- we're told that they were the ones who cooperated with the FBI. As a matter of fact, it was people from that community, according to sources, who tipped off the FBI and began the investigation.

There was a raid last night at the homes of some of the five. Weapons were taken. FBI agents went in, startling members of the community. There's been a mixed reaction in the community, of course, saying that -- some of the people say that these are people who could never be involved in the kind of activity that's alleged. Interestingly, many of the leaders of the community are saying that they really don't know. They keep emphasizing they are loyal Americans, and now they are waiting to hear what the FBI has to say. So are we; it's about to happen now.


The attorney general is out of the country this afternoon, meeting with the European justice ministers about our joint efforts to fight terrorism. The attorney general left the country shortly after the decision was made in the case that we're going to announce today.

Today I'm joined by New York Governor George Pataki, FBI Director Bob Mueller and other federal and state officials to announce that United States law enforcement has identified, investigated and disrupted an al Qaeda-trained terrorist cell on American soil.

In the past 24 hours, federal authorities have arrested five United States citizens who reside near Buffalo, New York, on charges of providing material support to al Qaeda.

In custody of federal authorities this afternoon are Faisal Galab (ph), Yahim al-Alwan (ph), Yaya al-Goba (ph), Shafil Moussad (ph), and Yasin Tahir (ph), all native-born citizens of the United States and residents of Lackawanna, New York.

These charges are the result of an intensive investigation conducted by agents of the FBI in coordination with the joint terrorism task force, other federal, state and local law enforcement and intelligence agencies.

The investigation was initiated as a result of information indicating that a number of individuals from Lackawanna, New York, from the Lackawanna, New York, area, had participated in weapons training in the summer of 2001 at a terrorist training camp in Afghanistan. This camp, al-Farooq, is known to be used by al Qaeda. It is the same camp at which John Walker Lindh received terrorist training.

According to the complaint, two members of the al Qaeda-trained Buffalo cell have confirmed that they and six of their associates attended the al-Farooq training camp near Kandahar in June of 2001. At the Farooq camp, the complaint charges, these individuals received weapons training, including the training in the use of Russian assault rifles, handguns and long-range rifles.

While they were at the camp, Osama bin Laden visited and delivered a speech, instructing the approximately 200 trainees in anti-American and anti-Israeli sentiment, as well as al Qaeda doctrine.

All of the individuals charged left the camp prior to September 11, 2001.

If convicted of the crimes with which they are charged in today's complaint, these five defendants could face a maximum penalty of 15 years in prison.

Now, I want to emphasize, however, that the investigation of the Buffalo cell is ongoing. We are working to develop additional evidence and information about the activities of this cell and the defendants named today. In addition, efforts to apprehend the associates of today's defendants are ongoing.

Today's action is the latest in a series of material support for terrorist charges that have been brought in the past three weeks against individuals residing in the United States. Earnest James Ujaama of Seattle, Washington, and several other U.S. residents were indicted late in August for conspiracy to provide material support to terrorists. Although the facts of these cases differ, together they demonstrate the commitment of the Department of Justice to aggressively pursue terrorists and those who aid terrorists wherever they reside. Terrorism and support of terrorists is not confined to large cities and metropolitan areas of America. It lurks in small towns and rural areas, as well.

Today's arrests send an unambiguous message that we will track down terrorists wherever they hide. American citizens who see fit to aid and abet America's enemies will face the full force of America's justice.

We are a nation at war, and we are a group of citizens on alert. I thank Governor Pataki who, in this case and so many others, has proven to be an invaluable partner to the campaign against terrorism.

I also thank and acknowledge Director Mueller for his unparalleled leadership in this time of national challenge and institutional change.

I'm also grateful to Mike Battle (ph), the U.S. attorney for the Western District of New York, and FBI Special Agent in Charge Peter Ahearn (ph) for their outstanding contribution to the cause of justice in this case.

But I'm grateful, as well, to the many agents, to the many agents of the FBI and other law enforcement agencies and their hard work, for they played a critical role in these arrests.

In addition, I thank the Muslim community of Buffalo for their extraordinary cooperation. The assistance of Muslim-Americans in this case has helped to make the Buffalo community and our nation safer, and we are indeed grateful.

Thank you.

Director Mueller and Governor Pataki now have a few remarks, after which we will attempt to answer your questions.

ROBERT MUELLER, FBI DIRECTOR: Thank you, Larry, and good afternoon, everyone.

These arrests are the result of a long-term investigation by the FBI's joint terrorism task force, located in Buffalo, which includes representatives of the New York State Police, the United States Attorney's Office, our partners in state and local law enforcement and other government agencies, all of whom participated in this investigation.

And these extraordinary efforts by these participants, along with the cooperation of key foreign partners who have joined in the global war against terrorism, have led to these arrests that we're announcing today.

We have FBI agents dedicated to counterterrorism in each of the FBI's 56 field divisions. And we will continue to use every resource we have to identify individuals in this country who would seek so do us harm.

Now, we do not fully know the intentions of those who were charged today, and our investigation is continuing. But as we go forward, to the extent that we can identify others who should be charged, they will be investigated and they will be charged.

I, as did the deputy attorney general, want to thank all of those who contributed to these arrests. And I also want to stress the importance of cooperation provided by the American public to this investigation but also to another of -- to other investigations around the country.

And I particularly also want to praise the cooperation of Muslim- Americans, not only in the Buffalo and Lackawanna area but also around the country.

It is combined efforts such as these that best protect the public and ensure that justice will be done.

Thank you.

And now, Governor Pataki.

GOV. GEORGE PATAKI, NEW YORK: Thank you. Thank you, Director Mueller and Deputy Attorney General Thompson.

As proud as we are, and rightfully so, of the efforts that our men and women are making around the globe in the war against terror, these arrests, I think, send powerful messages:

First, the threat of terrorism is real, and it is in our communities across this state here in the United States.

Second, to deal with that threat, we need the cooperation not just of all levels of law enforcement, but also of the people of this country.

We have seen, with these arrests, dramatic improvements in the way New Yorkers, Americans and law enforcement have responded since September 11.

Shortly after September 11, Attorney General Ashcroft directed the creation of new joint terrorism task forces across the country, including a new one in western New York.

We are proud of the role that task force has played and the role that our state police have played with that task force from the very beginnings of the investigation that lead to these arrests and ongoing and continuing today. And I want thank Superintendent McMahon (ph) of the state police for their professionalism.

I also want to thank the people of western New York, the Muslim community in Lackawanna, and all New Yorkers because they are the eyes and ears of our communities.

And it's through vigilance, it's through cooperation at all levels of law enforcement, and through having the support of the American people that these arrests have been made. And we will continue to take that war to the streets and defend the people of New York and of America.

So it's -- again, it's a pleasure for me to be able to thank the brave men and women of our state police who are out there, the joint terrorism task force and all of those involved today in the actions that have lead to these arrests.

THOMPSON: Questions?


QUESTION: If I can direct this to Director Mueller, I'm curious to know if, at this point, you know whether the cell operated on its own or whether it was under orders from al Qaeda, people overseas? And secondly, is it clear how they were financed?

MUELLER: The investigation is ongoing. And as I think you will see from the complaint, these individuals traveled to Afghanistan and attended training camps there, and so you have that tie. But as I say, the investigation is continuing into those links.

QUESTION: Yes, Larry, you said that he attended, this group attended the same training camp as John Walker Lindh. I'm just wondering, given John Walker Lindh's prosecution, if he assisted you in this investigation and if he was at the camp at the same time? Wonder if you could comment on that?

THOMPSON: We cannot comment on any of the details that lead up to the complaint that was charged. That's a detail of the investigation, and it would be improper for us to comment on it.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) you at all? Could you elaborate and...

THOMPSON: No, we cannot.

QUESTION: Any evidence that they were about to enact any sort of plot at this point?

THOMPSON: I'll let Director Mueller answer that.

MUELLER: No, we have -- the investigation to date, we have not seen any plans of an imminent attack on, whether it be western New York or elsewhere in the United States.

QUESTION: Related to that, Mr. Mueller, would you say that this -- does this qualify as a sleeper cell, as we have often referred to?

MUELLER: I'd prefer not to define it. If you look at the complaint, you'll see that these are group of individuals that went together to train at the camps in Afghanistan.

QUESTION: Did the investigation...

MUELLER: And they've been charged with material support. Yes, sir?

QUESTION: Did the investigation start with a tip from the Muslim community, or is part of the material that you used to start the investigation?

THOMPSON: We do not want to get into the details of the investigation, but we have had, as we said, great cooperation from members of the Muslim-American community, and we appreciate that a great deal.

Yes, sir?

QUESTION: The charge is providing material support and resources to terrorists, but I mean, what exactly does that mean? Are we talking money, are we talking arms? What exactly is that?

THOMPSON: Well, as the complaint alleges, the individuals are -- were al Qaeda-trained. And beyond that, as what's specified in the complaint, we'd rather not go beyond that.

QUESTION: Did the facts that were being uncovered in this investigation lead to the raising of the state of alert in the United States earlier this week?

THOMPSON: Not specifically. The elevation of our alert status was made after considering a number of factors. And we will continue to review those factors. And the attorney general, in consultation with Governor Ridge and the president, will revise that status as they deem appropriate.

QUESTION: Mr. Thompson, can you comment on how significant the arrest of Ramzi Binalshibh is for U.S. investigative efforts?

THOMPSON: Well, as the president announced, he has been captured. And we believe that he was a significant planner in the September 11 attacks. We believe he had financial and other connections to Mohammed Atta, who was a member -- who was one of the 19 hijackers. And I don't think I would comment beyond that.

Yes, sir?

QUESTION: Can you discuss, there was another person who was in Pakistan with Mr. Binalshibh, Khalid Sheik Mohammed. Can you talk at all about whether he is in custody or if you have any indications that he was with Binalshibh in those few days before his capture?

THOMPSON: I'm not going to comment about anything beyond what I just said.

Yes, sir?

QUESTION: The al-Farooq camp, isn't it used predominantly to train fighters who were used in the war with the Northern Alliance versus terrorists?

THOMPSON: I wouldn't necessarily characterize it that way.

QUESTION: Are there people who are actually doing terrorist operations separate from inside Afghanistan...

THOMPSON: I'm not going to get into the details. I just would -- I do not agree with that characterization of the sole use of that camp.

QUESTION: Considering these gentlemen are U.S. citizens and they went to Afghanistan, is there any indication in their, like, State Department travel documents that they had been there? Or did they somehow manage to go around actually having to file things like passports?

THOMPSON: We will not get into all the details. That's an investigative detail. But there is -- as the complain charges, that these individuals did travel to Afghanistan and train in an al Qaeda camp.

QUESTION: On Binalshibh, would the United States support his extradition to Germany?

THOMPSON: We're not -- I can't comment on that.

QUESTION: You mentioned two people, you talked about six associates, that's a total of eight. Five more arrested. Do I take it that there are three that you are still looking for?

THOMPSON: We have arrested all known individuals involved in this al Qaeda-trained cell in the United States.

QUESTION: How would you alleviate the fears of people living in Buffalo and in Lackawanna about the fact that, according to the government, an al Qaeda cell was in our backyard?

THOMPSON: Well, as both Director Mueller and Governor Pataki said, the FBI and state and local authorities in western New York have worked very hard in uncovering the details involved in this case. We believe that the citizens of western New York can be safe. We have a great anti-terrorism -- joint anti-terrorism effort there. And I think that these -- the charges that are announced today speak for themselves.

PATAKI: If I might just comment on that, we have taken significant steps since September 11 to make sure that the people of western New York and all New York are as safe as possible. In addition to creation of the joint terrorism task force, we created our Office of Public Security, and we have assigned state police specifically to that terrorism task force. And just a few weeks ago, we announced beefing up patrolling in the border areas between the U.S. and Canada, western New York and northern New York, with significant new state police patrols.

So I don't think there's anybody in America who can stand here and say with absolute certainty there will not be another attack. But I think you can be very confident that everything that can be done proactively to try to get after those who might be among us before they can launch another attack is being done. And it's being done in western New York and, I believe, across the country.

QUESTION: Director Mueller, can you comments on reports that there were weapons found? Can any of you guys talk about that?

WHITFIELD: Governors -- Governor George Pataki, FBI Director Robert Mueller, as well as Deputy U.S. Attorney General Larry Thompson, all commending members of the Muslim community in an area of Lackawanna, a suburb of Buffalo, New York, all in assistance of apprehending five people, five people who are described, as Larry Thompson puts it, described as "al Qaeda-trained terrorists" that were apprehended overnight, and now we're waiting for their arraignment or at least their appearance in court.

And our Bob Franken is in Buffalo, where he too is waiting for that appearance in court, if it hasn't happened already, Bob. They said that they were al Qaeda trained, but they made it very clear that they are still trying to work out exactly who may have financed their training, which was in Afghanistan, as well as whether any instructions were coming from overseas or that there is any evidence of an al Qaeda cell operating right here in the U.S., Bob?

FRANKEN: Well, we're quoting -- quoting now Robert Mueller, the FBI director, saying, "we do not fully know the intentions of those arrested today." And by the way, they are being arraigned right now, which is to say they're facing the charges. And as you pointed out, each of the officials made a very special point of saying that there was total cooperation or significant cooperation among Muslims in the community of Lackawanna with FBI officials.

Now, the charges are very interesting. They are not even saying that there is now a connection with this cell, as it was called, and al Qaeda. However, the charge is that in 2001, interestingly, at the time that John Walker Lindh was at this al Qaeda training camp, these five participated in training, including weapons training. That is going to result in a charge of providing material support for the terrorists.

Now, what is so interesting about that is in the case of John Walker Lindh, his lawyers questioned that, saying that his person, his being there did not constitute what the law contemplated as material support, that it was constitutional freedom of association. That was never resolved because John Walker Lindh made a plea. But it's going to be resurrected in this hearing here and this case here, and the investigation, as we heard, goes on -- Fredricka.

WHITFIELD: And Bob, Mr. Thompson made it very clear, if there ends up being a conviction in this case involving these five, there's a maximum penalty of 15 years in prison.

FRANKEN: Fifteen years, yes. That, of course, is always the theoretical maximum. But these are serious charges.




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