The Spark

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.” — Karl Marx

Lackawanna, New York:
Alleged "terror cell"
– but where are the terrorists?

Sep 23, 2002

On September 13 and 14, the FBI arrested and charged five American-born men of Yemeni descent with "providing material support to terrorists." A sixth man was arrested on the same charges in the Persian Gulf state of Bahrain, where he had gone to be married. The FBI claims these six residents of Lackawanna, New York, a suburb of Buffalo, all in their 20's, plus two others not in the U.S. right now, make up a secret Al Qaeda "sleeper cell," organized to carry out terrorist acts in the U.S. at some point in the future.

In fact, the government has no evidence that any of the individuals it has charged actually did anything illegal. All those charged were born in this country, and grew up in Lackawanna. One has been in minor trouble with the law in the past for smuggling tax-free cigarettes from nearby Indian reservations into Lackawanna, a fairly common offense in the area. On the other hand, another of those charged has worked for years as a job counselor at the nearby Iroquois Job Corps Center, has been a respected preacher at his mosque and is considered to be a very patriotic, rising young leader of the Yemeni community in Lackawanna.

What all of them share in common is that they live in Lackawanna's Yemeni community of approximately 1,000 people, went to high school together there and played soccer together. One of them is considered to have been one of the school's best players ever.

While still in school, they became more engaged in religious activities. In the spring of 2001, a fundamentalist Muslim friend of theirs invited them to go to Pakistan to attend an annual Muslim religious observance, one of the largest such observances in the world, attended by over a million people. Apparently, the friend also convinced them to travel on to Afghanistan. It's here they are accused of visiting an Al Qaeda training camp for several days, during which they allegedly heard a speech by Osama bin Laden.

This training camp is the same camp where the American John Lindh trained. Lindh was captured while fighting with the Taliban in Afghanistan and has made a deal with the government as a result of plea bargaining. Lindh is apparently willing to say he either saw or knew of the Lackawanna men being at the training camp.

Maybe so. Maybe not. But even if it this were true, none of what they did was illegal at the time. The U.S. still had ties with the Taliban, in Afghanistan, not to mention with Pakistan. Since the Lackawanna men returned to their home town, none of them has done anything illegal. None have attempted to run away, even after it became known months ago that the FBI was investigating possible terrorist activity in Lackawanna's Yemeni community. The one who was arrested in Bahrain turned himself in there after relatives called from the U.S. and told him the FBI was looking for him. None of these men has been accused of giving money to Al Qaeda or any other terrorist organization. None has been accused of having explosives or other weapons intended for terrorist purposes. None has been accused of engaging in any kind of terrorist activity, nor of plotting any – only that they might do something in the future.

The government says that it was able to develop its case against these men because of help from the Muslim community in Lackawanna. Yet almost everyone who had any contact with them in Lackawanna says they think the allegations against them are groundless and that the government is either mistaken or being malicious against Muslims by charging that these young men are terrorists.

Maybe all of these people are mistaken – or even lying. Maybe.

But it seems far more likely that the government is simply using unproven allegations and exaggerations about these men to whip up more hysteria about terrorism and to cover up the fact that its war on terrorism has so far proved worthless. The administration needed something to point to with the anniversary of 9/11 approaching, and with the question being raised, "So what has the government actually succeeded in doing to stop terrorism?" The record of the Bush administration was pretty dismal. It ignored intelligence reports that an attack was coming before 9/11. Osama bin Laden appears to have escaped the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, and the war there is dragging on with no end in sight.

Well, at least the government can now claim that it has broken up a "terror cell" in Lackawanna... and another alleged three-man terror operation in Detroit. But where are the terrorists?