By Craig Whitlock
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, May 19, 2008
BERLIN, May 18 -- Jaber Elbaneh, the al-Qaeda operative who had roamed free in Yemen despite a $5 million reward offered by the U.S. government for his capture, was jailed Sunday by a Yemeni judge.
Elbaneh's detention was ordered one day after a Washington Post article on how he was living under the personal protection of Yemen's president, Ali Abdullah Saleh. The Yemeni government has repeatedly refused U.S. requests to extradite Elbaneh to stand trial on terrorism charges, straining diplomatic relations between the two countries.
According to Yemen's official news agency, a judge ordered Elbaneh's arrest after prosecutors filed a request to lock him up. Elbaneh is one of three dozen Yemeni defendants being tried on charges of conspiring to blow up oil installations in 2006.
Until Sunday, prosecutors had allowed Elbaneh to remain free while the trial proceeded in Sanaa, the capital, in spite of recent demands from FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III and other U.S. officials that he be imprisoned.
U.S. officials welcomed the news. "We have been waiting for the arrest of this wanted terrorist for a long time," said an official at the U.S. Embassy in Sanaa, speaking on the condition of anonymity. "Elbaneh's arrest sends the right message that terrorists will be held accountable for their crimes."
It is unclear, however, how long Elbaneh, 41, a U.S.-Yemeni citizen, will remain behind bars. Senior Yemeni officials have expressed doubts about whether Elbaneh is guilty and have said they will not extradite him to the United States, citing a constitutional ban on deporting Yemeni citizens to other countries.
The U.S. government indicted Elbaneh in 2003 on charges of providing material support to a terrorist organization for his alleged membership in the so-called Lackawanna Six, a group of young men from near Buffalo who had traveled to Afghanistan to train in al-Qaeda camps.
Unlike other members of the cell, Elbaneh did not return to the United States after the trip to Afghanistan. He instead went to Yemen, where authorities reluctantly arrested him in January 2004 after heavy pressure from the United States.
Elbaneh escaped from a maximum-security prison two years later, along with 22 other inmates.
Rumors persisted that he was allowed to remain free with the tacit permission of the Yemeni government. Three months ago, Elbaneh confirmed the suspicions when he walked unannounced into a courtroom, escorted by four bodyguards, and told a judge that he was under the personal protection of Yemen's president.
Elbaneh was convicted in absentia by a Yemeni court in 2006 and sentenced to 10 years in prison for his involvement in attacks on foreign oil workers. He is being retried on those charges, with 35 other defendants, but had been free on bail until Sunday.
Yemen has refused to hand over two other al-Qaeda operatives sought by the United States.
Jamal al-Badawi and Fahd al-Quso, who helped organize the 2000 bombing of the USS Cole that killed 17 American sailors, are also wanted under the State Department's Rewards for Justice program. Like Elbaneh, both men have $5 million bounties on their heads.
Quso was freed last year from prison in Yemen after serving seven years of a 10-year sentence for his role in the Cole bombing, which took place as the destroyer refueled in the Yemeni port of Aden. Badawi was convicted in the attack but has escaped from prison twice and been released at least once with the permission of senior Yemeni officials.