Enemy Within? Not Quite.
In a guest house in southern Afghanistan, just miles from the al-Farooq training camp, the young would-be al-Qaeda recruits would gather. They balanced plates of beans and rice in their laps as they discussed how they, too, could join the global holy struggle to defend their fellow Muslims.
They had been debating martyrdom, the true meaning of jihad and the atrocities that Russia had committed against their Muslim brothers in Chechnya. But when the conversation turned to the United States, Sahim Alwan, a 29-year-old from upstate New York, became uncomfortable. As the other aspiring jihadists argued feverishly that Washington's support of Israel was evil and its foreign policy anti-Arab, he hunkered down and hoped he could pass for Canadian.
For Alwan, traveling to Afghanistan with a handful of his friends from the steel town of Lackawanna, was more of a thrill ride than a spiritual journey. Speaking to FBI investigators later, he likened his brush with jihadism to a teenager's decision to steal a car: He knew he shouldn't, but a youthful rush made him do it anyway.
Alwan was one of the group of suspected terrorists now known as the Lackawanna Six, a handful of Arab American 20-somethings who went to an al-Qaeda camp outside the Taliban stronghold of Kandahar in the spring of 2001 and returned to the United States just months before 9/11. Their arrests in September 2002 gave shape to American fears of post-9/11 homegrown terrorism. Headlines called them the enemy within, and U.S. authorities called them an al-Qaeda sleeper cell.
But after I spent three years researching the case -- interviewing family members and law enforcement officials and seeing public and internal legal documents -- what emerged was something much more nuanced and complicated: a story about how young Muslims reared in the United States can be swept up in the undertow of international jihad, and about just how clumsy preemptive justice has become in the age of sacred terror.
From a distance, the Lackawanna Six look no different from the three young Muslim men arrested last week on suspicion of plotting an attack against U.S. targets in Germany. Police there say the men had enough chemicals and military-style detonators to make bombs more powerful than the ones that killed 191 commuters in Madrid in 2004 and 52 in London a year later.
But for the Lackawanna Six, the flirtation with Osama bin Laden's vision of life was fleeting. We often forget that, unlike their European counterparts, they never took the last step and traveled the short distance from al-Qaeda trainee to bona fide religious warrior.
At the time of their arrest in September 2002, none of the Lackawanna Six appeared to be actively plotting to attack anything. None of them had signed the true jihadist's pledge of loyalty to bin Laden. And none of them seemed eager to put what they had learned at the training camp to use. For some reason, they traveled to the brink of radicalization but didn't go over it.
Six years after 9/11, many people ask me why the United States hasn't been hit again. The FBI would tell you that its vigilance has prevented additional attacks; the Department of Homeland Security would add that our borders are better protected and that terrorists are better tracked. To some extent, that's true. But it's also important to note that the relationship between U.S. law enforcement and the American Muslim community has improved significantly. They increasingly share information, which lets law enforcement get leads on homegrown terrorism suspects early on and stop plots before they get beyond the talking stage. And much of that has to do with the Lackawanna Six.
They were U.S. citizens bound together by their Yemeni heritage. They went to Lackawanna High School ("Home of the Steelers") and played soccer for the varsity team. Aside from that, they kept to themselves and wore jackets emblazoned with the moniker "Arabian Knights." They traveled to Yemen once a year, where they were greeted in their villages like conquering heroes simply for surviving in America.
Their parents wanted those trips to provide them with a strong connection to their Arab and Muslim heritages. To a large extent, it worked. As teenagers, the boys straddled two worlds, an American one and a Muslim one. But when they graduated from high school, their lives unraveled into a procession of petty crime, low-level jobs and drift. It made them ripe for recruiting.
Their recruiter was an al-Qaeda operative named Kamal Derwish. An American who had moved from Lackawanna to Saudi Arabia as a child, Derwish called the small steel town's Muslim community "virgin territory." He told the men that if they ever expected to be good Muslims, they would have to sign onto jihad.