In 2001 Kamal Derwish recruited six young people into an al Qaeda “sleeper” cell of would-be terrorists popularly known as the Buffalo Six or Lackawanna Six. Like his recruits, Derwish was a native of the region of Lackawanna, New York on the shore of Lake Erie just to the south of Buffalo. Lackawanna was home to a community of approximately 3,000 Yemeni Muslims.
Born in Buffalo in 1973, Derwish, the son of a steelworker, was taken by his family to live in Yemen when he was five. Soon thereafter his father died in a car accident. The boy was then sent to live with relatives in Saudi Arabia, where he was educated under the influence of the kingdom’s fundamentalist Wahhabist sect of Islam. The Saudi government deported him to Yemen in 1997 because of his radical political activity.
Derwish returned to Lackawanna in 1998 and began giving lectures at a local mosque. He preached about the evils of listening to popular music, watching television, engaging in loose relations with women, and other behaviors forbidden by Wahhabism. He also made periodic visits to the Middle East. In 1999 he married in Yemen and thereafter returned to the U.S.
Reputedly a charismatic speaker, Derwish’s fervor and passion for Islam attracted a small circle of young male disciples in Lackawanna. He persuaded six followers in particular — Mukhtar Al-Bakri, Sahim A. Alwan, Faysal Galab, Shafal Mosed, Yasein Taher and Yahya A. Goba — to make a pilgrimage to Afghanistan with him in early 2001. While there, they attended for several weeks an al Qaeda training camp where they were instructed in weapons use and terrorist tactics. During their stay, the camp was visited by the revered Osama bin Laden.
In the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the FBI and CIA began to find threads of evidence linking Derwish and his six followers to al Qaeda. For instance, intelligence agents learned that Derwish had received advanced weapons training at an al Qaeda camp, and that during the mid-1990s he had fought alongside Muslim rebels in Bosnia. The agents also became aware of communications between Derwish and bin Laden’s son Saad, as well as between Derwish and Tawfiq bin Atash; the latter was one of the planners of the deadly 2000 terror attack against the U.S.S. Cole in Yemen.
On November 3, 2002, an unmanned CIA Predator drone flying high above the Yemeni desert unleashed a Hellfire missile at a car that was carrying Kamal Derwish, instantly killing him and four others. Also among the dead was Salim Sinan al Harethi (a.k.a. Abu Ali), the suspected mastermind of the U.S.S. Cole attack.
Further Reading: Timeline of the Lackawanna Six & Its Members (HistoryCommons.org); “Kamal Derwish: The Life and Death of an American Terrorist” (PBS.org).