Brooklyn 'Computer Wiz' Accused of Conspiring With Al Qaeda Affiliate in Yemen

A New York-born man described by a law-enforcement official as a computer expert is at the center of the latest investigation into Americans who have tried and, in some but not all cases, succeeded in hooking up with Al Qaeda elements based overseas. Wesam el-Hanafi, a 34-year-old Brooklyn, N.Y., native, is one of two men indicted by Federal authorities in Manhattan on Friday on charges of conspiring to provide material support, including computer expertise, to Al Qaeda—more specifically to Yemen-based elements of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, a spinoff of the now Pakistan-based terror network founded by Osama bin Laden.

A law-enforcement official familiar with the investigation, who asked for anonymity when discussing an ongoing case, says investigators viewed el-Hanafi as a "computer wiz" who connected with two significant, but as yet unidentified Al Qaeda operatives during a trip to Yemen in February 2008. The feds say that on that trip, el-Hanafi swore allegiance to Al Qaeda. Subsequently, according to the law enforcement official, he essentially became an I.T. consultant for the terror group, traveling back and forth multiple times between Yemen and Brooklyn and buying computer software and materials for Al Qaeda. Preet Bharara, the U.S. Attorney in Manhattan, said in a statement that el-Hanafi and a co-defendant, Sabirhan Hasanoff, "conspired to modernize al Qaeda by providing computer systems expertise and other goods and services." Among the goods that the indictment also says el-Hanafi purchased online as part of the conspiracy are seven Casio digital watches. The indictment doesn't say why he allegedly bought the watches, but U.S. investigators have said in the past that Al Qaeda has used Casio watches in bombs.

Much of the rest of the information released by the feds about the case, including the indictment, is sketchy, particularly regarding how investigators got onto the case. The indictment says the conspiracy began in November 2007, when Hasanoff, a 34-year-old dual Australian and American citizen who also lived in Britain, received $50,000 from a person identified only as unindicted co-conspirator number one ("CC-1"). Over the next 18 months, the indictment alleges that el-Hanafi and Hasanoff had numerous contacts with CC-1, asking the alleged co-conspirator, among other things, to pledge allegiance to Al Qaeda, to perform unspecified tasks for Al Qaeda, and to keep his or her passport clean of stamps because it would be more useful to Al Qaeda. Included in the press release on the case was a statement by New York Police Commissioner Ray Kelly describing the indictment as "the result of the hard work and professionalism of the Federal prosecutors, FBI agents, and the NYPD detectives involved." This sparked some speculation that CC-1 might be an undercover source or operative who originated with the New York cops, though an NYPD spokesman did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

CBS News reported that el-Hanafi and Hasanoff appeared on Friday in federal court in Virginia and waived their right to a hearing there, facilitating their transfer to federal authorities in New York. The circumstances in which they were taken into custody also remain unclear: a person familiar with the case says that they only arrived in the U.S. from overseas on Friday; details of where they came from and how and why they arrived back stateside were not immediately available.

Brooklyn 'Computer Wiz' Accused of Conspiring With Al Qaeda Affiliate in Yemen | U.S.