- Member of the New York-based al Qaeda cell, the Lackawanna Six
- Pleaded guilty to providing support to a foreign terrorist organization
Sahim A. Alwan was born in December 1975. In 2001-02 he was a member of a six-man al-Qaeda terrorist cell based in Lackawanna, New York (near Buffalo), where he also served as the president of a local mosque. Alwan’s five accomplices were Mukhtar Al-Bakri, 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.
Alwan 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 escorted him across the border into 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 Alwan) 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.
Alwan was present on one occasion in June 2001 when Osama bin Laden visited the Al-Farooq camp 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).
After just ten days at Al-Farooq, Alwan claimed that he wanted to leave the camp and return home. But before permitting him to leave, Osama bin Laden met with Alwan and subsequently had one of his (bin Laden’s) associates ask the young man to transport some videotapes of the USS Cole bombing — an October 2000 attack by al Qaeda terrorists that killed 17 American sailors — to a guesthouse in Pakistan on his way back to the United States. Alwan complied with this request. Once he was back in New York, he did not tell any American authorities about what he and his comrades had seen and done in Afghanistan.
Following an extended FBI probe, Alwan was arrested in Lackawanna on September 13, 2002. The following month, a federal grand jury indicted each member of the Lackawanna Six on two counts of providing material support for a terrorist group (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 approximately 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.”
Alwan issued his guilty plea in April 2003. As part of his deal, he agreed to testify against Ali Hamza al-Bahlul, Osama bin Laden’s chief propagandist. In exchange, Alwan was given the option of entering the Witness Protection Program and assuming a new identity. On December 17, 2003, he was sentenced to nine-and-a-half years in prison. He was eventually released in July 2010, and he subsequently went into the cell phone business.
Further Reading: “Profiles: The Lackawanna Cell” (PBS.org); Timeline of the Lackawanna Six & Its Members (HistoryCommons.org); “Where the Trail Led … Inside the Lackawanna Terror Case” (NY Times, 10-12-2003); “Chronology: The Lackawanna Investigation” (PBS.org); “Profiles: The Lackawanna Cell” (PBS.org); “Mukhtar Al-Bakri Pleads Guilty [As Does Alwan] to Providing Material Support to Al Qaeda” (Dept. of Justice, 5-19-2003); “U. S. Gives Half of the Lackawanna Six a Fresh Start” (LiveLeak.com); “Sahim Alwan Sentenced for Providing Material Support to Al Qaeda” (FBI.gov, 12-17-2003).