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Wesam El-Hanafi, Sabirhan Hasanoff, US Citizens, Charged With Trying To "Modernize" Al Qaeda

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NEW YORK -- A native New Yorker and a former accountant were charged Friday with conspiring to give computer advice, buy wrist watches and do other tasks to help al-Qaida "modernize."

A vaguely worded indictment unsealed Friday in federal court in Manhattan accused Wesam El-Hanafi, who was born in Brooklyn, of traveling to Yemen to meet with unnamed al-Qaida members in February 2008.

The terrorists "instructed him on operational security measures and directed him to perform tasks for al-Qaida," the indictment says. While there, he also "took an oath of allegiance to al-Qaida," it adds.

In February 2008, El-Hanafi, 33, bought computer software that allowed him to secretly communicate over the Internet, federal prosecutors allege. That summer, he met with an unnamed co-conspirator and the second defendant, Sabirhan Hasanoff, in Brooklyn to discuss joining al-Qaida, according to the indictment.

The confidential co-conspirator paid $50,000 to Hasanoff, 34, who later traveled to New York City and performed unspecified "tasks for al-Qaida," the court papers say. The papers say that the conspiracy included El-Hanafi purchasing seven Casio digital watches last year, but doesn't say why.

Two law enforcement officials told The Associated Press Friday that both men were detained overseas and brought to the United States, arriving in Virginia. The officials spoke to the AP on condition of anonymity because the investigation was ongoing; they did not specify where overseas the men were detained.

Prosecutors described Hasanoff only as a dual citizen of the United States and Australia who has lived in Brooklyn. Public records show he has a Queens address and is a certified public accountant.

A professional networking site says a Sabir Hasanoff was a senior manager at Pricewaterhouse Coopers who graduated from Baruch College in Manhattan. Pricewaterhouse spokesman Kelly Howard said the accounting firm employed Hasanoff from 2003 to 2006.

The employment history is striking comparison to other recent cases involving suspects who were recruited by al-Qaida for operations on U.S. soil, including that of Najibullah Zazi. Zazi – who admitted plotting a suicide attack on Manhattan subway stations after receiving al-Qaida explosives training in Pakistan – and his accomplices were younger and less educated. Zazi was a coffee cart vendor and an airport van driver in Colorado at the time of his arrest; another suspect was a New York City cab driver.

U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara said in a statement that the men had schemed "to modernize al-Qaida by providing computer systems expertise and other goods and services." His office declined further comment.

At an initial court appearance Friday afternoon in Alexandria, Va., El-Hanafi, and Hasanoff, waived their rights to a hearing there. They were detained and ordered transferred to New York for a bail hearing.

Prosecutor John Cronan declined to answer questions about the case after the hearing. There was no immediate response to phone messages left with the men's defense attorneys.

The case was investigated by the FBI New York's Joint Terrorism Task Force.

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Associated Press writers Adam Goldman and David B. Caruso in New York and Matthew Barakat in Alexandria, Va. contributed to this report.