Is American Among Yemen Escapees?

Terror suspect Jaber Elbaneh, believed to be abroad by the FBI, is the seventh man charged in connection to a terrorist sleeper cell based in upstate New York.
GETTY
U.S. Navy ships are patrolling the coast of Yemen as part of a multinational coalition that's trying to find and recapture 23 terrorists who escaped from an underground prison on Feb. 3.

This news comes after an FBI official said an American charged with being part of an al Qaeda terrorist cell in New York was probably among the 23 Yemeni prison escapees.

Jaber Elbaneh, 39, was charged in 2002 with participating in a sleeper cell based in the Buffalo, N.Y., suburb of Lackawanna by attending an al Qaeda training camp run by Osama bin Laden before the Sept. 11 attacks. The Yemeni-born Elbaneh was arrested in Yemen in 2003.

"Preliminary indications" are that Elbaneh escaped along with a man considered a mastermind of the USS Cole bombing that killed 17 sailors in the Yemeni port of Aden in 2000, FBI Special Agent Richard Kolko said. At least 13 escapees were convicted al Qaeda fighters, according to Interpol, the international police organization.

Navy officials would not say how many or what types of ships were participating in the operation. The patrols began Thursday, nearly a week after the escape — which included an al Qaeda operative sentenced to death for plotting the USS Cole bombing in 2000.

The U.S. ships are part of a Dutch-led task force of vessels from different countries that routinely patrols the international waters of the Gulf of Oman, the North Arabian Sea and other parts of the region.

According to Lt. Herb Josey, a Navy spokesman, the U.S. ships are there to counteract any attempts by terrorists to launch an attack or use the waters to escape. The aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt is in the region, and some 7,500 sailors are on the ships in the Roosevelt strike group.

The prisoners escaped on Feb. 3, apparently by digging a tunnel some 180 yards long that emerged at a mosque. The tunnel was dug with help from conspirators on the outside, according to Interpol.

The capture, trial and imprisonment of those responsible for the attack on the USS Cole was a high point in Yemen's declared alliance with the United States in the war on terror, reports CBS News correspondent Mark Phillips. The escape of those behind the attack is a deep embarrassment and puts Yemen's determination into question.

The prisoners shared the same cell in an underground prison beneath the headquarters for the political security forces. Interpol has said the fugitives included Jamal al-Badawi — convicted of plotting, preparing and helping carry out the Cole bombing, which killed 17 sailors in a Yemeni port.

Elbaneh "is considered dangerous and is a threat to the U.S. and its interests," Kolko said. In 2003, the United States offered a $5 million reward for his capture.

Six other men — dubbed the "Lackawanna Six" — are serving sentences ranging from seven to 10 years after pleading guilty in 2003 to providing support to a terrorist organization.

Prosecutors have said Elbaneh attended the training camp with the others.

The United States had asked Yemen to hand over Elbaneh, but Yemen has not yet issued an official response.

Yemeni officials have said the fugitives may have had help from intelligence officers (video) in their escape.

The 23 militants, all convicted members of al Qaeda, all were kept in the same cell, the officials said.