WASHINGTON - The five men accused of operating a terrorist cell in a Buffalo, N.Y., suburb received weapons training at an al-Qaida camp in Afghanistan in the summer of 2001 and had been returned to the United States to await orders for an attack, federal officials said yesterday.
The suspects, all American citizens of Yemeni descent, were formally charged yesterday with providing "material support" to terrorists, a charge that carries a maximum prison sentence of 15 years.
They were arraigned in federal court in Buffalo yesterday afternoon.
The Justice Department acknowledged that it had no evidence to suggest that any attack by the group was imminent. The government did not contend that the men had weapons in their possession or that they had participated in any violent act.
The men were arrested Friday evening and yesterday morning during raids on their homes and businesses in Lackawanna, N.Y., an old steel town where the suspects lived within a few blocks of each other amid a large Yemeni community.
The arrests followed the capture Sept. 11 of suspected al-Qaida organizer Ramzi Binalshibh, 30, who the FBI believes was intended to be the 20th hijacker before he failed to obtain a U.S. visa.
He was seized during a shootout in Karachi, Pakistan, on Wednesday, the one-year anniversary of the attacks.
"One by one, we're hunting the killers down," President Bush said yesterday at Camp David. "We are relentless, we are strong, and we're not going to stop."
The five men - identified as Yahya Goba, 25; Sahim Alwan, 29; Shafal Mosed, 24; Yasein Taher, 24; and Faysal Galab, 26 - were charged with violating a federal statute that makes it a crime to provide "material support" to a designated foreign terrorist organization. In this case, the support is in the form of training at an al-Qaida camp in Afghanistan.
Three other members of the cell who had trained at the camp were mentioned in the criminal complaint as "uncharged co-conspirators."
Two were cooperating with authorities, the complaint said. It described both as "native-born" Americans believed to be living in Yemen.
The third uncharged co-conspirator was described as cooperating with agents after initially making misleading statements.
He was interviewed "outside the United States" on Wednesday, the complaint said.
As part of so-called American Taliban John Walker Lindh's plea agreement, he agreed to cooperate with the Justice Department. Federal officials would not comment yesterday on whether Lindh helped lead investigators to those arrested near Buffalo.
FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III said at a news conference yesterday that authorities had found no evidence that the cell was involved in an imminent terrorist plot, but they continue to investigate. "We do not fully know the intentions of those who were charged today," he said.
What they do know centers on the training the men received at Al-Farooq, the al-Qaida camp near Kandahar, in the summer of 2001, officials said.
Among others who trained there was Lindh, who has pleaded guilty to fighting against the United States as a Taliban soldier. He is expected to receive a 20-year sentence at a hearing scheduled for Oct. 4.
Training at the Afghan camp involved the use of "Russian assault rifles, handguns and long-range rifles," said Larry Thompson, the deputy attorney general, who appeared with Mueller.
Osama bin Laden visited the camp as recently as the summer of 2001, according to the complaint, calling for a holy war and expressing anti-Israeli and anti-American sentiments.
The capture of Yemeni-born Binalshibh in a joint raid by CIA and Pakistani forces concluded a worldwide manhunt for the man who authorities believe contributed money and logistical support to the Sept. 11 hijackers.
He was not wounded during the capture, officials said.
Binalshibh, a former roommate of Sept. 11 hijacker Mohamed Atta, is considered an aide to Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, who is believed to be the mastermind of the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, authorities said.
Mohammed has not been found.
Binalshibh was being interrogated by Pakistani authorities yesterday. Germany's interior minister, Otto Schily, said he would seek his extradition to Germany, which had issued an international warrant for his arrest. Binalshibh lived with Atta in Hamburg.
Thompson declined to comment yesterday on whether the United States would honor the German warrant.
"Today's arrests send an unambiguous message that we will track down terrorists wherever they hide," Thompson said. "American citizens who see fit to aid and abet America's enemies will face the full force of America's justice."
Lackawanna Mayor John Kuryak said yesterday that he was informed six months ago the FBI was conducting an investigation in his city.
However, it was more recent intelligence that led authorities to the suspected terrorist cell. The discovery was one of several factors that caused federal authorities to elevate the nation's terrorist alert status to orange, the second-highest threat level, authorities said.
Justice officials thanked Muslim-Americans in the Buffalo area and across the country for helping lead them to the suspected al-Qaida ring, but would not say what sort of information those communities provided.
At a news conference in Buffalo last night, Peter Ahearn, the special agent in charge of the FBI's Buffalo office, suggested that local Muslims were key to the breakthrough.
"Suffice it to say, the Muslim community was involved in this from the beginning," he said.
Ahearn said the suspects have roots in Detroit and traveled to that city, which has the largest concentration of Muslim-Americans in the United States.
The men "worked together, socialized together," and lived in the same neighborhood, he said. They became involved in a Muslim organization in Pakistan called Tablighi Jamaat, which led them to the training camp near Kandahar, Ahearn added. Lindh was also involved in the organization.
Lindh's lawyer argued that the camp provided his client training on how to fight as a soldier against the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan, not for terrorist activities.
Yesterday, Mueller disputed that characterization of the camp's function, but would not elaborate.
Thompson suggested that more arrests of members of the cell are possible. "We are working to develop additional evidence and information about the activities of this cell," he said.
Wire services contributed to this article.