A man with links to an alleged al Qaeda terrorist cell in the Buffalo area was charged yesterday with running an illegal money-transfer business that sent nearly $500,000 to Yemen over the last two months, officials said.
Mohammed Albanna, a prominent leader of the Yemeni community in the Buffalo area, was arrested by agents of the U.S. Customs Service and Drug Enforcement Administration outside his wholesaling business, the Queen City Cigarettes and Candy Co., officials said. Albanna was arrested along with two other members of his family: Ali A. Albanna, 29, and Ali Taher Elbaneh, 52.
According to the Associated Press, Mohammed Albanna, 51, is the uncle of Jaber Elbaneh, listed as an unindicted coconspirator in the case of six men from nearby Lackawanna, N.Y., who were indicted in October on charges of providing material support to the al Qaeda terrorist network. The three men arrested yesterday also live in Lackawanna,
Albanna's business is alleged to have sent $487,000 since October to unidentified recipients in Yemen. Prosecutors said the operation violated the USA Patriot Act, which, since the beginning of this year, requires that money-transmitting firms with overseas business register with the U.S. government. The crime is punishable by as much as five years in prison.
Investigators have found no evidence that money transferred by the trio was sent to terrorist groups or associates, but the case remains under investigation, according to several federal officials.
Two sources said that authorities are investigating large transfers by Albanna's firm before October, and that most of the money appears to have gone to one location in Yemen. Most of the transactions were made through negotiable checks that were shipped to Yemen, one law enforcement official said.
"We have no solid evidence so far of terrorist connections or terrorist links," another law enforcement official said. "But we do continue to have a concern about the general connections between these kinds of financial operations and terrorist organizations. . . . Obviously, his family connections heighten our interest."
U.S. Attorney Michael A. Battle characterized Albanna's business as a type of "hawala" -- an informal financial exchange mechanism common in the Arab world. Under the hawala system, money is generally provided to a contact in one location, who arranges for the same sum to be given to recipients in another place with a promise of payment later.
Because they operate below legal and financial radars, hawalas "are by their nature susceptible to abuse by criminal elements," Battle said in a statement.
Yesterday's arrests widen the scope of the probe in Lackawanna, a downtrodden steel town on the shores of Lake Erie with a sizable Yemeni immigrant population. Federal authorities in September arrested the "Lackawanna Six" for allegedly training at al Qaeda terror camps in Afghanistan before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon.
The alleged ringleader of the group, a Yemeni American named Kamal Derwish, is believed to have been killed in Yemen in a Nov. 3 airstrike by an unmanned CIA aircraft, which destroyed a car carrying senior al Qaeda leader Abu Ali al-Harithi and four other men. Derwish was listed along with Jaber Elbaneh as an unindicted co-conspirator in the Lackawanna case; Elbaneh is reportedly at large in Yemen.
U.S. officials have become increasingly concerned about the presence of terrorists in Yemen and the influence of terrorist groups with Yemeni immigrants in the United States. Yemen is the ancestral home of al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden and was the site of the October 2000 suicide bombing of the USS Cole warship.
When law enforcement agents swept into Lackawanna in September, Albanna quickly became one of the most visible community advocates for the young defendants.
Albanna described the suspects as family men who played soccer and were between jobs.
All three men pleaded not guilty at an arraignment in Buffalo yesterday. The federal court hearing will continue today, officials said.
Correspondent Christine C. Haughney in New York contributed to this report.