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Al Qaeda link sought in U.S. teen’s death

Times Staff Writer

A teenager from Lackawanna, N.Y., was killed this week in the attack on the U.S. Embassy in Yemen, and authorities said Thursday that they were investigating whether a group of militants believed to be linked to Al Qaeda -- which allegedly includes her cousin as a senior member in that country -- was responsible.

Susan Elbaneh, 18, and her Yemeni husband, Abdul Jaleel, whom she had just married on a trip her ancestral homeland, were among the 17 people killed in the well-coordinated attack Wednesday in Sana, the Yemeni capital, relatives and State Department officials said.

Two senior federal officials confirmed that the investigation of the attack, the deadliest direct assault on a U.S. embassy in a decade, is focusing on local Al Qaeda cells that they believe have some connection to Jaber Elbaneh, Susan’s cousin.

Both Elbanehs spent significant amounts of time in Lackawanna, a former steel town near Buffalo, where Susan grew up and was a senior at Lackawanna High School.

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Friends and family Thursday described Susan Elbaneh as an outgoing and popular girl, the second of eight siblings, who would never have anything to do with terrorism.

Jaber Elbaneh, in contrast, was a salesman and taxi driver around Lackawanna who long ago fell in with a group of militants and went to Yemen, his birthplace, where, according to the FBI, he became one of the local Al Qaeda affiliate’s most influential members.

The poor and often lawless country bordering Saudi Arabia is Osama bin Laden’s ancestral home, and has long been one of Al Qaeda’s main havens outside Pakistan and Afghanistan. U.S. counter- terrorism officials and experts said Thursday that militant activity has increased sharply there since last year, even with the Yemeni government stepping up enforcement.

Jaber Elbaneh, 42, is on the FBI’s most-wanted-terrorists list and has a $5-million U.S. bounty on his head. He has been indicted by a federal grand jury in New York for allegedly being the seventh member of the controversial Lackawanna Six, a group of Yemeni-American men imprisoned for traveling to an Al Qaeda training camp in 2001.

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FBI and the Justice Department have tried to have Elbaneh extradited to the United States on those charges.

The Yemeni government has responded that its constitution prohibits such extraditions, and at times it has allowed Elbaneh and some other alleged senior members of Al Qaeda’s Yemen operation to walk free as long as they promise not to launch attacks inside the country, one top FBI counter-terrorism official said.

“We know where he is, the Yemenis know where he is . . . and we’d like the Yemenis to give him to us, but that’s not really in the cards,” another senior federal law enforcement official said Thursday.

U.S. officials have been sharply critical of Yemen, saying it has gone easy on terrorists for many years, though there have been some recent improvements, the top FBI official said. He and others spoke on condition of anonymity, citing diplomatic sensitivities.

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On Thursday, Yemeni authorities raised the death toll from the attack to 17, and said that they had arrested at least 30 suspects in the brazen assault on the embassy, which has been targeted before.

The dead include six suspected attackers, some dressed as Yemeni military officers, as well as six Yemeni security officials guarding the embassy, and Susan Elbaneh and others waiting to enter the compound. She was the only American killed in the attack.

The senior federal law enforcement official said U.S. authorities had begun helping Yemen investigate the attacks, including possible connections to a still-robust Al Qaeda cell in Saudi Arabia, as well as the Yemen cell.

Yemen’s ambassador to the United States, Abdulwahab Abdulla Al-Hajjri, said in an interview that it was too early to tell who was responsible for Wednesday’s assault, whether it was connected to Al Qaeda and whether there were more assailants who escaped.

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Federal agents visited Susan Elbaneh’s home in Lackawanna on Wednesday and confirmed that the two Elbanehs were cousins. “I’m sure that she was there by accident,” said a federal official. “It is certainly ironic. She’s not a bad guy.”

Ahmed Elbaneh, 37, said FBI agents asked about the relationship between his sister and Jaber, but that family members told them that she had not seen him since she was a little girl.

The tightknit family was concentrating on grieving, he said.

“She touched everyone,” he said.

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Gregory Johnsen, a Yemen expert who is affiliated with the Army’s Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, N.Y., said there may even be a deeper irony in the case. He said Jaber Elbaneh was one of several senior members of the older generation of Al Qaeda who have drawn the wrath of young, more violent leaders for their “non-aggression pact” with the government.

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josh.meyer@latimes.com


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