Last week, six men from Buffalo, N.Y. were arrested for allegedly providing support to Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaida terrorist network. The government claims the men attended one of al-Qaida’s terror camps where they were schooled in the tools of terror, including the use of suicide as a weapon.
The suspects acknowledged having traveled to Pakistan in 2001 for religious training; two of them acknowledge attending an al-Qaida camp where they heard bin Laden speak and were trained in the use of guns. They claim they did not know what the camp was and left the camp early because they did not agree with the radical views expressed.
In a number of news accounts, the six men – all of whom are American citizens – have been portrayed as average, “All-American kids” who enjoyed school, America and soccer. Ben Fleming ’04, an assistant sports editor at the Record, hails from Buffalo and played soccer two summers ago with two of the suspects. He sat down with the Record and discussed the experience.
So, I understand you played soccer with enemy combatants.
Well, actually they’re not enemy combatants, but yeah, I played with two of them: my left back and my left midfielder. It was quite shocking to see that story on CNN.com.
Which two were the ones you played with?
It was Yasein [Taher] and Shafal [Mosed]. [Both have denied ever attending a terrorist camp or traveling to Afghanistan.]
Why don’t you tell us about them?
They’re just normal guys like you and me. They had jobs and then came and played soccer and hung out.
Were they good soccer players?
They were middling soccer players at best.
So how much of this “All-American” image many media outlets are portraying is true?
I think it’s the kind of thing where if you pull anyone’s life out of context to try and make a story out of it, you’ll get a lot of exaggeration. The fact of the matter is these were guys who lived relatively unassuming lives.
What do you remember about these two guys on a personal level?
Well, Yasein was really goofy. He was always really popular; he’d trip over himself to get a laugh. Sort of the team’s Charlie Chaplin. Shafal was a nice guy. Kind of quiet, kept to himself.
Kept to himself, did he?
Well, I mean, not like that. He knew the other guys on the team better than me. He never really opened up to me. Not that that’s incriminating, lots of people don’t – girls, in particular.
So what would do when they weren’t playing soccer?
They went to the beach a lot.
You’re in Buffalo.
Well, there are beaches on beautiful Lake Erie.
Have they put the fires out there yet?
That was like 20 years ago.
Would you ever go anywhere with these guys?
There was a field trip once where we all went up to Canada. I got this great vision of seeing an inspector come onto a bus and see a bunch of Muslim guys waving their passports.
What’s the atmosphere like back in Buffalo now?
I actually just got off the phone with my aunt who works for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Buffalo. Niagara Square in downtown Buffalo is crawling with T.V. reporters and camera crews. She made a comment to me: they think lawyers are vicious, look at when Al Jazeera gets to town – they go for the kill.
So, since you said you were shocked to hear these guys were arrested, do you think there’s any way the allegations against Yasein Taher and Shafal Mosed are true?
Well, they certainly could be terrorists. It’s a big world, anything’s possible, and I’m not going to sit here and pretend that I know all that much more about the case than anyone who reads the newspapers does. But from knowing these guys, and the community that they come from, which could hardly be called “anti-American” at all, I just don’t see it. I think that these are some guys that are, at worst, mixed up in something that is completely beyond them and that they will show that somehow, eventually.