The whereabouts of Jaber A. Elbaneh, a former Lackawanna man suspected by federal authorities of having ties to the al-Qaida terrorist network, remained a mystery Thursday.
Several national news reports indicated that Elbaneh was among a group of 23 suspected terrorists who broke out of a prison in Yemen on Feb. 3.
An FBI spokesman in Washington said that there are "preliminary indications" that Elbaneh, formerly of Wilkesbarre Avenue, was among the escapees from the Political Security Prison in Sana, Yemen.
But Buffalo FBI spokesman Paul M. Moskal said that there has been no official confirmation from Yemen. In fact, he said, Yemen has provided very little information about Elbaneh since the U.S. government issued a $5 million reward for his arrest in September 2003.
Law enforcement officials in Western New York have many questions about Elbaneh and the way his case has been handled by the Yemeni government:
*According to his family, Elbaneh turned himself over the police in Yemen more than 2 1/2 years ago to face charges filed in Buffalo. Why hasn't he been turned over to American authorities since then?
*How were 23 supposedly dangerous prisoners able to tunnel their way out from a high-security prison?
*Why won't the Yemen government provide any clear answers on whether Elbaneh was among the escapees?
FBI officials were reluctant to say much about the issues, explaining that they did not want to become embroiled in a controversy with a foreign government.
But Lackawanna Police Chief Dennis J. O'Hara makes no secret of his disgust with the way the matter has been handled.
"To me, you have to wonder if this mass escape was an inside job. You have to wonder if some backs were turned when this happened," O'Hara said. "You had a group of men who were supposedly extremely dangerous -- people with al-Qaida ties and ties to the USS Cole bombing. Aren't you going to put a close watch on people like that?"
Lackawanna police have worked closely with the Joint Terrorism Task Force of Western New York on the case that led to the convictions of the "Lackawanna Six," a group of young men who traveled to al-Qaida training camps in Afghanistan. Elbaneh is a seventh suspect in the case, and police think that he was a leader and organizer of the expedition.
In September 2003, the FBI announced that Elbaneh, then 37, was charged with training at and providing material support to al-Qaida. The U.S. State Department offered the $5 million reward for his capture, believed to be the largest reward ever posted for an American citizen sought in a terrorism investigation. The FBI said Elbaneh was involved with "very dangerous people" in Mideast terrorist groups.
Ever since the day of that announcement, Elbaneh has been considered a fugitive. Moskal said the FBI has never received fingerprints, DNA evidence or any other solid proof of reports that Elbaneh was being held by authorities in Yemen.
According to O'Hara, authorities are deeply concerned about Elbaneh because he allegedly told people that he "wants to become a martyr for the al-Qaida cause." His family has denied allegations that Elbaneh is a terrorist, calling him a peaceful family man who quietly worked in a Buffalo cheese factory.
FBI officials and Noel C. Clay, a Washington spokesman for the State Department, said they could not detail the reasons why Elbaneh, a U.S. citizen, has not been returned to Western New York.
A spokesman at the Yemen Embassy in Washington has declined to comment.
"The delay has been a problem," Moskal said.
"All I can say is, the FBI has no law enforcement power in Yemen. We have people there as guests of Yemen, but we can't order Yemen's government to do anything. We can only ask."
Elbaneh reportedly has a wife and seven children in Yemen. He has a number of family members still living in Lackawanna.
According to his uncle, Mohammed T. Albanna, the last week has been confusing and difficult for the family. Albanna says the family has heard conflicting reports on whether Elbaneh actually escaped from the Yemen prison.
"We've received no official word," Albanna said Thursday. "To me, it seems incomprehensible that he would turn himself in to the police, only to escape later.
"The only one who is able to see him and talk to him is his wife. We're waiting to hear something from her."
A major newspaper in Yemen, the Yemen Times, quoted "unverifiable sources" as saying some of the escaped prisoners have been caught in a house in Sana. The number of escapees allegedly caught was not reported.