- Member of the New York-based al Qaeda cell, the Lackawanna Six
- Pleaded guilty to providing support to a foreign terrorist organization
Born in 1981, Mukhtar Al-Bakri was a member of a six-man al-Qaeda terrorist cell based in Lackawanna, New York (near Buffalo) during 2001-02. His five accomplices were Sahim A. Alwan, Faysal Galab, Yahya A. Goba, Shafal Mosed, and Yasein Taher. This group eventually came to known as the Lackawanna Six or Buffalo Six, and all of its members hailed from a community of approximately 3,000 Yemeni Muslim residents of Lackawanna. They were recruited into terrorism by two veteran mujaheddin, Kamal Derwish and Juma al-Dosari, who encouraged the men to attend a six-week-long weapons course at al-Qaeda’s Al-Farooq training camp in Afghanistan, near Kandahar.
Al-Bakri traveled to the Al-Farooq camp in the spring of 2001, though he falsely told his relatives and friends that he was going to Pakistan to study with the Islamic evangelical group Tablighi Jamaat. The first leg of Al-Bakri’s trip was a stopover in Pakistan, where Kamal Derwish met him and subsequently escorted him across the border into Afghanistan.
Al-Bakri was present on one occasion in June 2001 when Osama bin Laden visited Al-Farooq with his chief lieutenant, Ayman al-Zawahiri, and delivered a 20-minute speech in Arabic to the hundreds of trainees. In his address, bin Laden discussed the recent merger between al-Qaeda and Egyptian Islamic Jihad; hinted about suicide operations that were planned against the U.S. and Israel; and exhorted those in attendance to pray for some 40 operatives who he said were about to embark on a very important mission (presumably a reference to 9/11). When Al-Bakri told the al-Qaeda leader that he was worried because his parents had no knowledge of his whereabouts, bin Laden responded by suggesting that the young man write them a letter telling them where he was.
Throughout the spring and early summer of 2001, the Al-Farooq training camp conducted numerous evacuation drills in anticipation of a possible U.S. bombing raid. At various times, each of the Lackawanna Six left the camp and returned to the U.S. without completing their basic training course. (A seventh Lackawanna resident, 36-year-old Jaber Elbaneh, stayed in the Middle East and remained loyal to al-Qaeda.) Once they were back in New York, none of the Lackawanna Six told any U.S. authorities about what they had seen and done in Afghanistan.
In early June 2001, the FBI’s Buffalo, New York field office received an anonymous, handwritten letter from someone in Lackawanna’s Yemeni community naming several locals (including Al-Bakri) who allegedly had been recruited by “two terrorists” and then traveled to “meet bin Laden and stay in his camp for training.” FBI agent Edward Needham checked these names against criminal databases and found that a number of them had previously been convicted of such offenses as drug dealing and cigarette smuggling. Needham put the names on an FBI watch list and formally opened an investigation on June 15.
At the request of the CIA, Al-Bakri was arrested by police in Bahrain on September 10, 2002 and was then transferred to the United States. (The other five were arrested by the FBI in their hometown of Lackawanna.) Prior to Al-Bakri’s arrest, investigators searched his home and found a 22-caliber handgun, a rifle with a telescopic lens, and a cassette tape labeled “Call to Jihad” which they said “asks Allah to give Jews and their [American] enablers a black day.” On Al-Bakri’s computer, the investigators found an email he had written describing a terrorist plot dubbed “Big Meal,” which called for the use of explosives. “The next meal will be very huge,” the email read. “No one will be able to withstand it except those with faith.”
In October 2002, a federal grand jury indicted each member of the Lackawanna Six on two counts of providing material support for a terrorist organization (al-Qaeda); all pleaded not guilty. But over the next few months, all six defendants reversed course and decided to plead guilty in exchange for prison terms ranging from about six-and-a-half to ten years. According to the chairman of the American Bar Association’s Task Force on Treatment of Enemy Combatants: “The defendants believed that if they didn’t plead guilty, they’d end up in a black hole forever.”
Al-Bakri issued his guilty plea on May 19, 2003, and on December 3 he was sentenced to ten years in prison. Ultimately, Al-Bakri was released after about seven-and-a-half years, on July 1, 2011. He subsequently found work in a cell-phone store in the Buffalo, New York area.
Further Reading: “Mukhtar Al-Bakri” (GlobalSecurity.org); Timeline of the Lackawanna Six & Its Members (HistoryCommons.org); “Where the Trail Led … Inside the Lackawanna Terror Case” (NY Times, 10-12-2003); “Profiles: The Lackawanna Cell” (PBS.org); “Buffalo Terror Suspect Admits al Qaeda Training” (CNN.com, 5-20-2003); “Chronology: The Lackawanna Investigation (PBS.org); “Mukhtar Al-Bakri Pleads Guilty to Providing Material Support to Al Qaeda” (Dept. of Justice, 5-19-2003); “Mukhtar Al-Bakri Sentenced for Providing Material Support to Al Qaeda” (Dept. of Justice, 12-3-2003); “[Al-Bakri:] ‘I Did My Share of Suffering’” (Buffalo News, 11-24-2012).