* Al Qaeda cell in Lackawanna, New York, whose members were arrested in September 2002
* All six of those arrested pled guilty to terrorism-related charges.
The Lackawanna Six (a.k.a. the Buffalo Six) was a cell of a half-dozen al-Qaeda operatives of Yemeni heritage who were arrested in Lackawanna, New York (near Buffalo) in September 2002. American citizens by birth, all six were residents of Lackawanna and its community of approximately 3,000 Yemeni Muslims. Their names were Muktar Al-Bakri, Sahim A. Alwan, Faysal Galab, Yahya A. Goba, Shafal Mosed, and Yasein Taher. All in their twenties at the time of their arrests, these six men were recruited into terrorism by two veteran mujaheddin, Kamal Derwish and Juma al-Dosari, who encouraged them to attend a six-week-long weapons course at al-Qaeda’s Al-Farooq training camp in Afghanistan, near Kandahar.
Between April and June of 2001, the Lackawanna Six traveled separately to the Al-Farooq camp, though they falsely told their relatives and friends that they were going to Pakistan to study with the Islamic evangelical group Tablighi Jamaat. The first leg of each man’s journey was a stopover in Pakistan, where Kamal Derwish met them and escorted them across the border into Afghanistan. At Al-Farooq, the Lackawanna Six were schooled in the use of assault rifles, rocket-propelled grenades, plastic explosives, Molotov cocktails, and land mines.
In June 2001, Sahim Alwan, Kamal Derwish, and Jaber Elbaneh—a 36-year-old Lackawanna man who also attended the Al-Farooq camp but was not considered part of the same terror cell as the other six—met with Osama bin Laden in a small-group setting. When one of the three asked bin Laden about a rumor that a large-scale terrorist operation was imminent, bin Laden responded: “They’re threatening us. And we’re threatening them. But there are brothers willing to carry their souls in their hands.”
Later that month, the Lackawanna Six and Derwish began training at Al-Farooq along with hundreds of other aspiring terrorists. One day Osama bin Laden visited the camp with his chief lieutenant, Ayman al-Zawahiri, and delivered a 20-minute speech in Arabic to the 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).
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.
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 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 crimes as drug dealing and cigarette smuggling. Needham put the names on an FBI watch list and formally opened an investigation on June 15. Twelve days later, three of the men on that list—Faysal Galab, Shafel Mosed, and Yaseinn Taher—flew home from Al-Farooq without having completed their training course. After their plane landed in New York, the three were detained and questioned for two hours by the FBI. They were then released, as authorities did not yet know that the men had attended an al-Qaeda training camp.
At various times, each of the other Lackawanna men (other than Jaber Elbaneh) likewise left Al-Farooq without completing their training and returned to the U.S. Once they were back in New York, none of them told American authorities about what they had seen and done in Afghanistan.
Sometime around July 2001, FBI agent Needham interviewed Sahim Alwan, shortly after the latter had returned from Afghanistan. But Alwan falsely told Needham that he had been in Pakistan for religious training, rather than at Al-Farooq. Some two months later, just hours after the 9/11 attacks, Needham again called Alwan and asked him if he knew of any terrorist-affiliated individuals who may have recently come into town. Alwan said no, but in fact Juma al-Dosari, the al-Qaeda operative who initially had helped recruit the Lackawanna Six, was back in Lackawanna searching for additional jihadists—and Alwan knew exactly where al-Dosari was staying.
Under interrogation in Guantanamo during the spring of 2002, al-Dosari revealed a number of aliases that he had used in the past, and he acknowledged the recruitment activities he had conducted in Lackawanna. Based on the aliases provided by al-Dosari, U.S. intelligence officials suddenly realized that they had already intercepted communications between him and such notables as: (a) Osama bin Laden’s son Saad bin Laden, and (b) al-Qaeda leader Khallad bin Attash. The officials also learned that al-Dosari had a long history with al-Qaeda; that he had fought in Afghanistan, Bosnia, and Chechnya; and that he had been arrested in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia on separate occasions for his involvement in the 1996 Khobar Towers bombing, which killed 19 American service members at a U.S. Air Force housing complex in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia. On the strength of this and other related information, the FBI began closely monitoring the “Lackawanna Six” in May 2002.
In early September 2002, senior Bush Administration officials debated what should be done with the Lackawanna Six. Vice President Dick Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld argued that the men should be detained indefinitely as “enemy combatants.” But because there was no evidence indicating that any of them had actually carried out, or even planned, any terrorist acts, Attorney General John Ashcroft recommended that the government pursue a criminal case charging them with having provided “material support” to al-Qaeda. In accordance with Ashcroft’s wishes, the six men were arrested and formally charged during the second week of September 2002. (Five were arrested in Lackawanna, and the sixth, Al-Bakri, was arrested in Bahrain and then transferred to the U.S.)
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.
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.
By May 2003, all six Lackawanna defendants had 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.
Further Reading: Timeline of the Lackawanna Six & Its Members (HistoryCommons.org); “Profiles: The Lackawanna Cell” (PBS.org); “Where the Trail Led … Inside the Lackawanna Terror Case” (NY Times, 10-12-2003); “Buffalo Terror Suspect Admits al Qaeda Training” (CNN.com, 5-20-2003); “‘Lackawanna Six’ Indicted” (CBS News, 10-22-2002); “Officials: American Killed in Yemen Led New York Cell – Chicago Tribune” (Chicago Tribune, 11-10-2002).