By Dina Temple-Raston
Sunday, September 9, 2007
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.
Derwish assumed that after spending time at al-Farooq camp, rubbing shoulders with dedicated jihadists determined to change history, the Lackawanna Six would find it easy to leave their aimless lives in upstate New York. But in the end, the young men could hardly wait to get back home. They faked injuries and left the camps early. Nearly all the men returned to the United States hoping that they could put their brush with Islamic extremism behind them.
And that might well have happened had someone in the Lackawanna Muslim community not sent an anonymous letter to the FBI's Buffalo field office. The Lackawanna Six were arrested within days of the first anniversary of 9/11. Both President Bush and Vice President Cheney personally told FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III to bring them in. Absent any special reason to arrest them or any action that indicated that they were particularly threatening, it's difficult not to see the timing as political. A year after the attacks, the Bush administration needed a win, and the Lackawanna Six's story seemed to give them one.
Prosecutors played hardball. Newspapers reported that the men had known about the 9/11 plot but hadn't warned authorities -- something that the men and their lawyers say was flatly untrue but made for great copy. The six had heard at the camps that some al-Qaeda operatives were "ready to take their souls in their hands," but they had no idea when or what the target might be.
Prosecutors floated the idea of giving them the death penalty. They exaggerated the danger the young men posed, ramping up public fear to make the case against them more potent. Michael Chertoff, then an assistant attorney general for the Justice Department's Criminal Division, insisted that the Lackawanna Six should serve no less than 20 years for attending the camp. But Michael Battle, the U.S. attorney for western New York, warned that such a sentence would not be well received in Buffalo: The Muslim community would certainly cry foul, and even the wider Buffalo community was starting to wonder whether the Lackawanna Six were merely a bunch of young men who had stumbled misguidedly into extremism.
Chertoff eventually told Battle that he could start plea-bargaining negotiations at 10 years, and the men all eventually pleaded guilty. They received sentences ranging from seven to nine years for providing material support to al-Qaeda. The case never went to trial.
Officials both inside and outside the FBI told me that if they were handling the Lackawanna case today, they would do it differently: They would have allowed the situation to play itself out, and they would have waited longer to see what kind of intelligence they might have gleaned from the group. But the political environment in 2002 required a heavier hand, and decisions about suspected terrorists still had a tang of vengeance.
American justice has started walking back from such extremes. Consider some of the recent so-called homegrown terrorism cases. The Muslim men accused of planning an attack on Fort Dix, N.J., were arrested after a 15-month investigation during which the FBI had been watching the six New Jersey residents around the clock. The decision to arrest them came only when they were about to purchase weapons from an undercover FBI agent. The FBI allowed the plot to unspool in hopes of discovering an overseas connection or al-Qaeda link.
Crucially, local Muslim communities are now part of the process. Before the Fort Dix arrests, the FBI held a conference call with national Muslim leaders. Bureau officials presented some of the evidence; Muslim leaders asked questions. When the American Muslim leadership explained the arrests to their followers, they were armed with facts -- without the media hype. Tellingly, the usual claims of racial profiling of Muslims didn't come up in the Fort Dix case. The FBI says that such conference calls are now standard operating procedure immediately before high-profile arrests.
Perhaps we are far enough away from 9/11 now to see that the United States is best served when we hold ourselves to the highest standards of fairness and inclusiveness. Selectively abandoning civil liberties and due process to wage the war on terrorism only plays into bin Laden's hands. Al-Qaeda succeeds at changing America simply by threatening it.
The first member of the Lackawanna Six will be eligible for parole next year. Will the men who emerge from prison return to Lackawanna as fervent jihadists or chastised Americans? Will their experience with the U.S. justice system make them better citizens? Or will they have become the very thing that most frightens us: a bitter enemy created from within?
One episode at that guesthouse in Afghanistan offers a glimpse of what is at stake. At one point, Sahim Alwan, the spooked young American, took one of his Lackawanna friends aside, according to legal documents. "This stuff isn't right," he whispered. "Do you want to stay?"
His friend Jaber Elbaneh looked surprised. "I want to be a martyr," he replied bluntly. "I want to die." Alwan returned to Lackawanna weeks later. Elbaneh is still at large in Yemen -- and on the FBI's list of most wanted terrorists.
Dina Temple-Raston is National Public Radio's FBI correspondent and the author of the forthcoming
"The Jihad Next Door: The Lackawanna Six
and Rough Justice in the Age of Terror."