WASHINGTON -- The U.S. citizen killed by a CIA missile in Yemen may have been a leader of six Al Qaeda suspects indicted recently in Buffalo, N.Y., on terrorism charges, U.S. officials said Friday.
If confirmed, the connection buttresses prosecutors’ claims that the suspects were part of an Al Qaeda sleeper cell and posed a serious threat to national security.
Officials said they are seeking to determine whether Ahmed Hijazi -- the name of the U.S. citizen killed in Yemen on Sunday -- is Kamal Derwish, who is wanted in connection with the Buffalo case. Hijazi apparently matches the alias used by Derwish, one of two fugitives in that case, said a senior U.S. official.
“We are looking into the possibility that the American in the car may have been using an alias and in fact may have been Kamal Derwish,” another official said.
“It’s too early to tell” for certain whether Derwish was in the car, particularly since the missile caused so much damage that there were scant human remains to recover, the official said.
The CIA and FBI are trying to get conclusive evidence that Derwish was in the car through forensic tests on the remains, including DNA sampling and other means, the official said.
Authorities allege that the American-born Derwish, who has spent much of his 29 years living in Yemen and Saudi Arabia, guided the others in the Buffalo case to an Al Qaeda camp in Afghanistan in the spring of 2001 after they had made their way to Pakistan, ostensibly to pursue religious studies.
At that Al-Farooq camp, federal prosecutors said in recent court testimony, the men underwent weapons training and heard Osama bin Laden give a fiery speech, calling on Muslims to rise up against the United States and its allies.
Authorities said Derwish is one of at least two men wanted for questioning because of their alleged ties to the six men, accused of operating a sleeper cell in the Upstate New York town of Lackawanna. Derwish left the United States before the FBI made its arrests in September, officials said.
Officials stressed that they have not been able to positively identify five of the six suspected Al Qaeda figures killed when an unmanned CIA surveillance plane fired a Hellfire missile at their vehicle.
The only man U.S. officials are certain was killed in the blast is Qaed Sinan Harithi, a high-ranking Al Qaeda operative who was the principal target.
Harithi was a former bodyguard to Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda’s top commander in Yemen, officials said. He is suspected of planning two attacks off the Yemeni coast -- the 2000 bombing of the U.S. destroyer Cole in which 17 U.S. sailors were killed, and the bombing of a French tanker last month that killed one crewman.
The arrests in September had been downplayed even by some in law enforcement as a roundup of men who had attended Al Qaeda training camps in Afghanistan but did not appear to be engaged in terrorist plots.
If authorities can show that it was Derwish traveling with Harithi, it would be the first significant link between the alleged Lackawanna cell and a high-ranking Al Qaeda operative.
Derwish was believed to be hiding out in Yemen while the FBI and CIA pursued him so he could be questioned in connection with the Lackawanna case.
All six of the Lackawanna suspects are of Yemeni descent and were indicted on charges of providing material support to a terrorist organization -- Al Qaeda. They lived within blocks of one another in the dying steel town near Buffalo and Lake Erie.
The indictment listed two men as being co-conspirators, though they were not indicted. Those two were not named, but authorities said Friday that one of them was Derwish, a burly and vocal Islamic activist in the local Yemeni community. Derwish is believed to have acted as a ringleader of sorts who helped radicalize and recruit the others.
Federal authorities said Friday that much of their information indicating that Derwish and the other unindicted suspect were affiliated with the alleged sleeper cell came from informants within the Muslim community in Lackawanna and that the information has not been corroborated.
Nevertheless, a senior U.S. official said, “We have reason to believe they are connected based on our investigation, and that they engaged in activity very similar to the six” men who have been indicted.
Michael Battle, the U.S. attorney for the Upstate New York region that includes Buffalo and Lackawanna, confirmed that authorities want to question Derwish in connection with the case. But he said he had been given no details as to whether Derwish was in the car that was destroyed.
“As would be clear from our complaint, there are two individuals out there that we have an interest in,” Battle said. “That investigation continues, and whether or not those two individuals have any connection to this bombing incident we have no knowledge of and are in no position to comment on.”
Defense lawyers have described the six alleged co-conspirators named in the indictment as unwitting dupes who had no intention of carrying out terrorist acts in the United States or elsewhere.
All six remain in custody, even though a judge ordered one of them freed pending trial, in part because of his cooperation with authorities.
The CIA strike represented an aggressive new tack in the war on terrorism, marking the first time the United States has launched a military-style assault on Al Qaeda suspects outside the war theater of Afghanistan.
Some have expressed alarm at the nature of the attack, saying it amounted to an “extrajudicial” execution. The subsequent development that there was a U.S. citizen in the vehicle was seen by some legal experts as even more troubling. Americans are traditionally afforded significant legal protections, even when they are overseas and are linked to U.S. enemy groups.
John Walker Lindh, the American captured in the fighting in Afghanistan last year, was brought to the United States for trial. As part of a negotiated plea agreement, Lindh pleaded guilty Oct. 5 to aiding and abetting the Taliban and was sentenced to 20 years in prison. He could have up to three years deducted from the sentence for good behavior.
Officials said they didn’t know who was in the vehicle with Harithi, let alone that a U.S. citizen was among the car’s occupants. One senior U.S. official said it was of little significance that an American was in the car.
“If you’re a citizen associated with five other terrorists planning and conducting terrorist operations, call me crazy, I think you’re a terrorist,” the official said.
Those indicted in Buffalo are Yasein Taher, Sahim Alwan, Faysal Galab, Yahya Goba, Shafal Mosed and Mukhtar al-Bakri, all between 22 and 29 years old.
The other alleged co-conspirator not indicted, identified by authorities as Jaber Elbaneh, also was believed to be hiding in Yemen.
During court proceedings, Alwan testified that although he attended the Al-Farooq camp in Afghanistan, he left 10 days later “after realizing the crazy, radical mentality” of people there.