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BOOK REVIEW: The Jihad Next Door, The Lackawanna Six and Rough Justice in the Age of Terror

by Jeanne Finley


The Jihad Next Door, The Lackawanna Six and Rough Justice in the Age of Terror

By Dina Temple-Raston
Public Affairs Books (Perseus Books Group), 2007
288 pp.

If as a child you ever played the game “Gossip,” you’ll remember that the original message, whispered in your ear and then passed along from friend to friend, was fantastically twisted by the time it circled back to you. That’s the image that came to mind as I read about the Lackawanna Six in The Jihad Next Door. Six young Yemeni-American Muslims, high school and post-high school friends from an enclave in a western New York working-class suburb, did indeed go to a training camp in Afghanistan via Pakistan in 2001 (pre 9/11). But they hated it, realized that kind of violent jihad wasn’t for them, and all but one of them cut their stays short and came home again to take up their working-class lives. Nobody really knew about the real purpose of the trip, and they didn’t really talk about it except to their own small clique of friends. But somebody knew about it, and talked: the JTTF of the Buffalo FBI got a still-anonymous letter in June 2001 that began, “Two terrorists came to Lackawanna…for recruiting the Yemenite youth.” And that was how (and why) the FBI entered into a very personal relationship with these six men, and how the original “message” of attending a training camp to become a better Muslim morphed hysterically into each of them being charged with material support to terrorism as members of an “al-Qaeda sleeper cell.”

There were three additional men related to this case (perhaps it should have been called the Lackawanna Nine). More on them shortly.

Remarkably, there were none of the usual governmental shenanigans in this case, unlike most of the other “terror” prosecutions nationwide: no informant, no secret evidence, no backdoor legal moves. It was simply the FBI’s persistence in monitoring (through FISA), keeping physical watch on, and direct personal contact with the Six that gradually broke them down, after which the government (Bush and Cheney briefed directly by the FBI and CIA, case personally directed by then-AG John Ashcroft, and things splendidly helped along by Governor George Pataki and the media) went ballistic in trumpeting the Lackawanna Six as the nation’s first homegrown al-Qaeda terror cell. That’s the message that finally circles back to you: from young Muslims on a quest to be better, more religious, more connected Muslims, to sleeper cell: says something about what the government wanted us to hear, doesn’t it? The government got its publicity before the case went to trial, rather than after: the true terror––fear––caused each of the six to make plea deals in 2003 and avoid trial altogether.

Temple-Raston is the FBI reporter for NPR. She is clear-minded, even-handed, detailed, limns the corruption of the “message” gradually, and gives credit where it’s due, even to the do-the-right-thing mentality of the JTTF head, Ed Needham, who comes off as the first human FBI agent I’ve yet read about. But she also consistently asks: were these young men in any way a cell? If so, of what? For what purpose? Let’s just say she was unconvinced enough to spend two years writing and researching the book, and to then write: “The story of the Lackawanna Six…provides a way to look at the application of justice during an extraordinary period in American history…the treatment of the Muslims…is a test for the rules of justice in America post-9/11…[and]…provides a measure by which we can see how much this country has changed. Was the [group] really a sleeper cell if its members weren’t planning a crime?” It was a test case in that “it was the first time U.S. citizens had been investigated for terrorist activity since 9/11, and the first time that such a case was built on the new rules for information sharing” (the deliberate breakdown of “the wall,” whereby intelligence agencies could not share information with each other, rescinded by the preeminence of the Patriot Act and then FISA—this was supposedly pre-NSA, at least there are no references to it in the book). Temple-Raston writes: “There was no evidence whatsoever that the Lackawanna Six were planning to do anything or attack anyone. So they were on trial, in a sense, for what they might have done.” However, U.S. Attorney Mike Battle, another do-the-right-thing guy, saw the earmarks of a conspiracy: material support was the issue rather than whether the men were a sleeper cell, and “given the national mood…it was easy to prosecute terrorists, even before they struck. Even, in other words, if they could be deemed terrorists before they became terrorists.”

The whispered word “preemption” resounds throughout the book. So does the word “Constitution,” if you listen between the lines.

The book also contains fascinating brief detours into other cases: Adama Bah, a teenaged girl from Queens; Shaheen Rassoul, the “frog painter of Santa Fe.”

Four of the Lackawanna Six are at the Communications Management Unit at the federal prison in Terre Haute, Indiana:

Mukhtar al-Bakri, parole date February 2011.

Yassein Taher, parole date April 2009.

Sahim Alwan, parole date December 2010.

Shafel Mosed, parole date February 2011.

Faysal Galab was at the CMU and was paroled in August 2008.

Yahya Goba does not show up on the BOP’s Inmate Locator. He has been “instrumental in helping U.S. authorities bring cases against other suspected al-Qaeda members, including Jose Padilla and the Australian Joseph Thomas (‘Jihad Jack’).” Parole date: February 2011.

Taher and Alwan were suddenly removed from the CMU on October 23, 2008 and sent to Miami Federal Detention Center. See article below for details as to the probable reason. Neither one is now listed in the BOP’s Inmate Locator. The suggestion is that, like Yahya Goba, they are cooperating and are thus under government protection.

But vitally important to this case, and exemplifying the vicious power of the U.S. government that would surface after 2002 with regard to Muslims, are three other men who did not come back to the U.S.:

Jaber Elbaneh, a friend of the Six, remained in Afghanistan, was arrested and imprisoned in Yemen, staged a sensational escape, and was recaptured in Yemen in May 2007. To date, Yemen has refused to extradite him to the U.S. Elbaneh is currently #1 on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted List.

Jumah al-Dossari, who supposedly “recruited” the Lackawanna Six for the training camps, was sent to Guantanamo in December 2001 from Pakistan. He has become famous for his tragically numerous suicide attempts at Gitmo, one in the presence of his lawyer, and for his anguished poems and diaries written there. From the beginning, he has continued to insist his was a case of mistaken identity. Apparently somebody agreed with him: he was released to Saudi authorities from Gitmo on July 16, 2007, along with sixteen other Saudi prisoners. His file never contained a direct reference to Lackawanna.

The brief story of the end of Kamel Derwish, a friend of al-Dossari’s who apparently was the liaison between the Afghan training camps and the Lackawanna men, reads like a John Le Carré novel—or like the ending of the George Clooney film Syriana. On November 3, 2002, Derwish was sitting in the back seat of a truck in an SUV convoy traveling across the Yemeni desert. His backseat companion was al-Qaeda’s top operative in Yemen. Watching them via cameras on a Predator drone circling overhead were intelligence officers in Djibouti, east Africa and in the U.S. Counterterrorism Center in Langley, Virginia, as well as CIA Director George Tenet, also in Virginia. Upon Tenet’s nod, a Hellfire missile, fired remotely from the Predator, slammed into the convoy, incinerating the truck and its five occupants. Just one problem: Kamel Derwish, from Lackawanna, New York, was an American citizen, and “in killing him officials had murdered the one man who could clarify whether the Lackawanna Six were really a sleeper cell or half a dozen confused friends who had gotten in over their heads.” Aside from that, “the strike happened outside any formally recognized war zone….a clear violation of sovereign airspace…The killing smacked of political assassination…Before [this], the U.S. had considered acts of terrorism largely in judicial terms…but in this case…apart from [the al-Qaeda operative], none of the men in the convoy had even been charged with a crime.” Derwish may or may not have been the target—but “there is something alarming about the fact that the U.S. government approved the assassination of one of its own citizens without trial or, some would say, much in the way of evidence. Derwish had committed no greater crimes, that we know of, than the other men who came from Lackawanna. Yet he died brutally at the hand of his own government. After his death, U.S. authorities began to question whether he was, in fact, in the vehicle at all, clearly embarrassed at the precedent they might have set….the U.S. has yet to admit on the record that he was killed by U.S. forces.”

“Justice” doesn’t get any rougher than that.

Upstate convicts testify at Gitmo

"Lackawanna Six" members speak about terrorist training

By DAVID MCFADDEN, Associated Press

First published: Friday, October 31, 2008

GUANTANAMO BAY NAVAL BASE, Cuba — Three upstate New York men convicted of aiding terrorism said Thursday their al-Qaida training included viewing a violent video allegedly created by a Guantanamo prisoner on trial as Osama bin Laden's chief propagandist. The two-hour video featured images of al-Qaida attacks and was intended both to inspire and instruct terrorist recruits in Afghanistan, the three men said as they testified for the prosecution in the second Guantanamo war-crimes trial.

"It was showing how successful people can be if they really want to perform jihad," Yahya Goba, one of the Yemeni-American men from Lackawanna, N.Y., told the court, using an Arabic word often interpreted as meaning holy war. "Anything military, economical, political was considered a target."

Goba and the two others, Yasein Taher and Sahim Alwan, three of the so-called "Lackawanna Six,” pleaded guilty in 2003 to aiding terrorism by attending an al-Qaida camp in Afghanistan and are now serving prison terms in Indiana.

The men said they agreed to testify against Ali Hamza al-Bahlul, of Yemen, in hopes they would be allowed to enter a witness protection program, with their identities shielded, after their release from prison.

Al-Bahlul is charged with conspiracy, solicitation to commit murder and supporting terrorism. He faces up to life in prison if convicted by a jury of nine U.S. military officers at the U.S. base in Cuba.

Prosecutors are seeking to prove that al-Bahlul's alleged activities and ties to al-Qaida are war crimes punishable by the special military tribunal.

The prisoner has dismissed the military tribunals as a "legal farce" and is boycotting the trial by sitting mutely in court.