The U.S. citizen killed by a missile launched from a pilotless drone aircraft over Yemen was the ringleader of an alleged terrorist sleeper cell in Lackawanna, N.Y., administration officials said yesterday.
Kamal Derwish, one of two unindicted co-conspirators in the Lackawanna case, died along with the intended target of the attack, senior al Qaeda leader Abu Ali al-Harithi, who is accused of masterminding the October 2000 attack on the USS Cole in which 17 sailors died.
These two men and four others were traveling in a car outside the Yemeni capital of Sanaa when they were hit by a Hellfire missile operated at an undisclosed location by the CIA. Derwish had been identified by sources Thursday as Ahmed Hijazi, an alias.
The CIA knew Derwish had returned to Yemen and was, as one administration official described him, "a fellow traveler" in a tight circle of terrorists atop the United States' unofficial most-wanted list. But the CIA officers who targeted the car, following it via live video from the drone and ultimately firing the missile, did not know Derwish was a passenger, the official said.
But, as the administration official -- who asked not to be identified -- noted dryly, "it would not have made a difference. If you're a terrorist, you're a terrorist."
The Long Island newspaper Newsday first reported that the U.S. citizen killed in the attack was Derwish.
Six American-born men accused of being Derwish's recruits were arrested in September and have been indicted in Buffalo, N.Y., on charges of giving "material support" to a terrorist organization, al Qaeda. Prosecutors charge that the men trained in al Qaeda camps in Afghanistan and were awaiting orders to carry out terrorist attacks.
Derwish, 29, an unindicted co-conspirator, was the most mysterious of the men from Lackawanna named in court papers, and, according to U.S. prosecutors, the most influential. They portrayed him as the devoutly religious provocateur who lured the six indicted men into the al Qaeda orbit.
"Derwish was a very religious man, but obviously no one here is going to like that he was in that car with an al Qaeda leader," said Khalid A. Qazi, head of the American Muslim Council of Western New York. "We want to know what happened, but these men should get what they deserved."
Derwish, according to accounts in the Buffalo News and interviews with those who knew him, was born in Buffalo and spent his early years in the suburb of Lackawanna, a down-at-its-heels former steel town by the shores of Lake Erie.
His father, who labored at Bethlehem Steel, eventually took the family back to his native Saudi Arabia in hopes of finding steadier work. Three years later, his father died in a car crash and Derwish soon traveled to Sanaa, Yemen, where he found relatives to care for him and the fundamentalist brand of Islam that soon consumed him.
In the late 1990s Derwish apparently returned to Lackawanna. He was known as an austere fellow -- a husky, bearded man who roiled some leaders at the local mosque with his insistence on following the strictest Muslim practice. He upbraided a local shopkeeper for selling pork and beer, the shopkeeper said weeks ago.
He was fluent in English and Hebrew, often held discussion groups that doubled as pizza parties in his modest Lackawanna home, and spoke of wanting to fight alongside the Taliban someday, neighbors said. He often traveled back and forth to Saudi Arabia.
He was accused of persuading the six Lackawanna men of Yemeni descent to attend religious school in Pakistan. Prosecutors contend that he greeted them in Karachi and soon took them to an al Qaeda training camp in Afghanistan.
Prosecutors say that Derwish helped convert the men into willing recruits for al Qaeda. Their families and defense attorneys portray them as small-town working-class boys who didn't know what they were getting into.
Two of the men, Sahim Alwan, 29, and Mukhtar al-Bakhri, 22, say that when they got to the camps, they were appalled with what they found. Alwan, feigning injury, talked his way out of the camp 10 days later. He is the only defendant granted bail but must live under extremely restrictive conditions.
The CIA operation that killed Derwish, al-Harithi and the others operated under a set of highly classified rules derived from a "presidential finding" approved by President Bush and vetted by White House, CIA and State Department lawyers.
The operation had its own "rules of engagement" that described which individuals could be targeted. U.S. officials assert that the men were enemy "combatants" in the U.S.-led global war on terrorism, which unlike any other conflict cannot be defined by national boundaries. Some scholars of constitutional and international laws have raised questions about these rules and charged that the killings do not fall within known legal bounds.
Staff writer Susan Schmidt contributed to this report.