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Chasing the Sleeper Cell

Written and Produced by David Rummel & Lowell Bergman
Reported by Lowell Bergman & Matthew Purdy
Directed by David Rummel

 

LARRY THOMPSON, U.S. Deputy Atty. Gen.: United States law enforcement has identified, investigated and disrupted an al Qaeda-trained terrorist cell on American soil.

ANNOUNCER: Tonight on FRONTLINE, an inside look at how the government pursued a terrorist threat here at home.

PETER AHEARN, Special Agent in Charge, FBI Buffalo: We could possibly have a very active cell planning to do something in the United States. That's your worst nightmare.

ANNOUNCER: With a new mandate to prevent another terrorist attack, the CIA and the FBI combined forces.

DALE WATSON, Fmr Ass't Dir, Counterterrorism, FBI: They had the full force of the FBI investigative efforts focused on them.

ANNOUNCER: It was hailed as a victory in the war on terrorism here at home.

Pres. GEORGE W. BUSH: [State of the Union, January 28, 2003] We've broken al Qaeda cells in Hamburg, London, Paris, as well as Buffalo, New York.

ANNOUNCER: But were these Americans really an al Qaeda sleeper cell ready to strike?

DENNIS O'HARA, Lackawanna Police Chief: If they were, they were deep asleep.

ANNOUNCER: For the first time, a member of the group speaks.

LOWELL BERGMAN, FRONTLINE / The New York Times: You've got inside information.

SAHIM ALWAN: What kind of inside information?

ANNOUNCER: Tonight, FRONTLINE and The New York Times join forces to report and investigate from inside the war at home, as the government brings all its resources to bear Chasing the Sleeper Cell.

NARRATOR: On the shores of Lake Erie, in the shadow of a shuttered steel plant that once employed thousands of its residents, lies Lackawanna, New York, a working-class town just south of Buffalo. This neighborhood is home to 3,000 Muslim Americans whose families came from the small country of Yemen on the Arabian peninsula.

It is also home to what intelligence officials have called the most dangerous terrorist cell in the country. They were a group of young Yemeni-Americans who grew up together and met after prayers in this neighborhood mosque.

MOHAMMED ALBANNA, VP, American Muslim Council: These young men were living the American way. I mean, they were teenagers. They went to high school. They went to proms.

NARRATOR: One was voted the friendliest student in the high school. Most had played on the local Lackawanna soccer teams since they were children. But in the spring of 2001, they loaded up their car to head off on what they said was a search for their Islamic faith.

MOHAMMED ALBANNA: We were led to believe that these kids were going on a religious trip to Pakistan. Even when they came back, they told the families that's where they went.

NARRATOR: But the religious seekers' destination was not Pakistan. It was an al Qaeda training camp in Afghanistan. The trip grew out of spirited religious discussions after evening prayers. The man who ran the meetings was Kamal Derwish, a U.S. citizen with roots in Lackawanna who grew up in Saudi Arabia. He was steeped in that country's fundamentalist brand of Islam, which intrigued the group of Lackawanna men.

MOHAMMED ALBANNA: If there was a born-again Christian, I would say these individuals are born-again Muslims.

NARRATOR: Mohammed Albanna is a spokesman for the Lackawanna Muslim community.

MOHAMMED ALBANNA: They were thirsty for whatever knowledge, and from whichever sources. And they got it from Mr. Derwish.

INTERVIEWER: He was an effective preacher.

MOHAMMED ALBANNA: He was an effective preacher with the young guys, indeed.

NARRATOR: Derwish told the men gathered in this apartment that attacks on Muslims around the world obligated them to train for jihad -- holy war -- to defend their Muslim brothers.

A.J. AHMED, Lackawanna resident: When he spoke, people listened. He was a very charismatic person. He talked quite a bit about it, you know, how the-- you know, the situation in Chechnya, the situation in Bosnia, the situation in Palestine.

NARRATOR: Derwish's preaching was persuasive, enough to convince seven friends from the tight-knit Yemeni community to leave for Afghanistan. Most were in their 20s. One told a friend he was determined to fight for jihad and die a martyr, but many say they went along out of a sense of religious obligation, like 19-year-old Mukhtar al Bakri. The last to join the group, 29-year-old Sahim Alwan, was a former president of the mosque.

A.J. AHMED: He used to give some sermons and he was very religious, and you know he-- you know, he did his part in the community. You know, I would've never thought he would've went to an al Qaeda camp. Never would've thought of that.

NARRATOR: But on May 14th, 2001, Alwan and his friends boarded a flight in Toronto and connected on to Pakistan. They were met by Kamal Derwish, who led his prized recruits into Afghanistan, the first and only group of American citizens known to have trained in an al Qaeda camp.

DALE WATSON, Fmr Ass't Dir, Counterterrorism, FBI: We were very, very concerned about the camps. The basic question of the camps was, who are the-- who's graduating from those camps and where are they going? Did they come back to the United States? Did they scatter in 60 countries, or whatever?

NARRATOR: Until September of last year, Dale Watson was the top FBI counterterrorism cop in America. He says there was no intelligence in the spring of 2001 that a contingent of Americans were in the camp or that Kamal Derwish was recruiting here in the United States.

DALE WATSON: We were always trying to figure out who was in the United States. Did we have a list of the graduates from those training camps? No, we did not.

NARRATOR: No U.S. agents had been able to infiltrate al Qaeda, and Dale Watson says before 9/11, the FBI was denied the resources needed to effectively fight the group.

DALE WATSON: Everybody wanted to talk tough about terrorism, but when you came right down to it, the political will was not there. I'm asking for personnel and money because I know what's coming down here on us.

NARRATOR: Watson and others were asking for more resources because they knew the pattern of al Qaeda attacks-- the bombing of the U.S. embassies in East Africa in 1998 and the attack on the USS Cole in Yemen in 2000. By the spring of 2001, the U.S. counterterrorism community was increasingly anxious about where al Qaeda might strike next and what had not been done to stop it.

DALE WATSON: You have a U.S. warship attacked, where 17 sailors were killed. And what is the response? There is no response. None whatsoever. I mean nothing. This whole process of training people, graduating graduates, attacking U.S. targets with the U.S. response being not a whole lot, was a clear signal that they had a green light. And I think Usama bin Laden thought that.

NARRATOR: While Alwan and the others were in Afghanistan, a letter from Lackawanna's Yemeni community arrived at the FBI offices in Buffalo. It said that a group went to, quote, "meet bin Laden and stay in his camp for training." The letter wound up on the desk of veteran counterintelligence agent Ed Needham.

LOWELL BERGMAN, FRONTLINE / The New York Times: What was the counter-terrorism situation, in terms of inside the FBI here, when you first became aware of the letter?

ED NEEDHAM, FBI Buffalo: There was one agent assigned to the international terrorism program at the time, and it was me.

LOWELL BERGMAN: You were it?

ED NEEDHAM: Yes, at the time.

LOWELL BERGMAN: The letter indicated these people were over training in Afghanistan.

ED NEEDHAM: Yes. It was a letter with some names and allegations, and there was a lot of work to do to try to get to the bottom of those allegations. We interviewed one of the individuals that was named in the letter. At the time, we were told he had just returned from a trip to Pakistan.

LOWELL BERGMAN: And that's Mr. Alwan.

ED NEEDHAM: Yes, it was.

NARRATOR: Sahim Alwan was the first from the Lackawanna group to return. Today he is in federal detention. He agreed to be interviewed by FRONTLINE and The New York Times. It is the first time an American who trained in an al Qaeda camp and met with Usama bin Laden has ever sat down for an interview.

LOWELL BERGMAN: Why are you talking to us?

SAHIM ALWAN: Why am I talking to you? There is an image that was put out there about me, and I want everyone to know that, you know, that's not who I am. And I want people, you know, to see that, you know, I'm not a terrorist. I love my country. I would never hurt any fellow American or do any harm to my-- my family lives here.

LOWELL BERGMAN: You have three children. You're college educated. You're a family man, religious, a leader in the community. Why did you go?

SAHIM ALWAN: I really was, you know, starting to learn my religion, you know, and get into it. I was-- you know, I was hungry for knowledge of the religion itself. And I didn't-- I never really saw the mujahedin part of it, of the--

LOWELL BERGMAN: The mujahedin are the warrior side.

SAHIM ALWAN: Exactly.

LOWELL BERGMAN: That's what you wanted to see.

SAHIM ALWAN: Yeah. There's a verse in the Quran that says, you know, you have to learn out to prepare, like, you got to be prepared, just in case you do have to go to war. If there is a-- if there is a war, then you would have to be called for Jihad. We were told it was obligated that you had that kind of background. And that was the aspect of, you know, going and learn how to use weapons, and stuff like that.

LOWELL BERGMAN: There was a deal you guys made amongst yourselves to make the Afghanistan part of it a secret.

SAHIM ALWAN: Right, because of the training and, you know, the weapons, and stuff like that.

ED NEEDHAM: Mr. Alwan told us that he had been in Pakistan for some religious training with a Muslim missionary movement.

SAHIM ALWAN: It was a story that we talked about before we left, that we went to Pakistan, we were going to Pakistan. When we were there-- if we ever get back, that's the story we stick to. Everyone agreed to that.

LOWELL BERGMAN: Did you believe him?

ED NEEDHAM: There was some doubt.

NARRATOR: Needham's doubts remained, as Alwan's friends returned from Afghanistan in the summer of 2001. Kamal Derwish, the recruiter, remained overseas, as did Jaber Elbaneh, the Lackawanna man intent on becoming a martyr. Those who returned all repeated Sahim Alwan's cover story that they had gone to Pakistan, not Afghanistan.

LOWELL BERGMAN: You knew where they were.

DALE WATSON, Fmr Ass't Dir, Counterterrorism, FBI: Yes.

LOWELL BERGMAN: Why didn't you pick them up?

DALE WATSON: Well, I hear that argument a lot. You know, why don't we just round them up? We just couldn't round up individuals because, one, somebody sent an anonymous letter that said, you know, A, B and C are doing something illegal or are terrorists. That would give us cause to take a closer look at them, but you had to have some probable cause to arrest somebody in this country.

NARRATOR: The Lackawanna suspects were American citizens. They could not simply be detained. Lacking hard evidence of a serious crime, late in the summer of 2001, the FBI was at an impasse

JOHN ASHCROFT, U.S. Attorney General: The danger that has darkened the United States of America and the civilized world on September 11th did not pass with the atrocities committed that day. Terrorism is a clear and present danger to Americans today.

NARRATOR: In the wake of 9/11's massive intelligence failure, Attorney General John Ashcroft and director of the FBI Robert Mueller scrambled to strengthen the bureau's domestic intelligence operations.

Atty. Gen. JOHN ASHCROFT: We cannot wait for terrorists to strike to begin investigations. We must prevent first, prosecute second.

NARRATOR: The FBI launched a massive overhaul. Thousands of agents were reassigned to counterterrorism and scores of new joint terrorism task forces were created, teaming FBI agents with their counterparts in other law enforcement agencies.

ED NEEDHAM: Buffalo formed a joint terrorism task force on the heels of 9/11, and we went from one person working terrorism in Buffalo to about 25 people.

NARRATOR: Under the new USA Patriot Act, intelligence agents and criminal investigators were now free to share information in terrorism cases.

[www.pbs.org: More about the Patriot Act]

Pres. GEORGE W. BUSH: As of today, we're changing the laws governing information sharing. And as importantly, we're changing the culture of our various agencies that fight terrorism.

NARRATOR: But as the FBI was trying to change its culture, it was also working to track down those responsible for the 9/11 attacks. In Buffalo, the main focus was not on Lackawanna. Agents were ordered to watch the border for fleeing terrorists and possible new al Qaeda attackers trying to get into the United States.

LOWELL BERGMAN: What does the matrix of sleeper cells, of al Qaeda operatives in the U.S. look like to you?

DALE WATSON: It looks very frightening in the fact of, again, about what we don't know, particularly. We went back and looked at how many visas, through the INS process, how many, you know, commonalties of individuals that carried out 9/11 were potentially here from inside the United States that had obtained a visa. And the numbers were astronomical, so to speak. So do we know of the 70,000 Saudi males between 18 and 35 that entered the U.S. between December of 00 and August of 01? What were they all doing, and where were they?

LOWELL BERGMAN: Seventy thousand?

DALE WATSON: Approximately 70,000.

NARRATOR: One of those 70,000 Saudis was in Lackawanna, living in this house with one of the men he had helped Kamal Derwish recruit to go train in Afghanistan. He was a fighter for jihad and comrade of Kamal Derwish named Jumma al Dosari. Two weeks after 9/11, unbeknownst to the FBI, he left Lackawanna to fight with the Taliban in Afghanistan as a U.S. attack loomed.

In Buffalo, the FBI began to investigate allegations that the Lackawanna suspects were involved in criminal activity. Special agent Dave Britten was Ed Needham's new partner.

DAVE BRITTEN, FBI Buffalo: We did checks on those individuals. There was some activity that led us in the direction of possible drug activity, possible fraud, but nothing specific that would lead us to believe that these people would actually go to Afghanistan and train, other than what was said in the letter.

NARRATOR: In the wake of 9/11, some in the intelligence community would criticize the FBI for being overly focused on finding a crime in Lackawanna.

JOHN MacGAFFIN, Fmr Deputy CIA Spy Chief: This is not about bringing people to trial. The mission of intelligence is to determine where the danger lies.

NARRATOR: A 30-year veteran of the CIA, John MacGaffin is a leading critic of the FBI. He says the FBI has to develop the resources to infiltrate al Qaeda, much as it did the Communist Party years ago.

JOHN MacGAFFIN: The Bureau has done it in the past. It is not able to-- it does not do it now as well because it is-- it approaches it in a law enforcement, criminal conviction mentality. And that's unfortunate because we're taking a chance. We're taking a chance that we're not-- we're not going down the road that's likely to get us inside the innermost councils of those who wish us harm.

LOWELL BERGMAN: There's skepticism that the Bureau will be able to do this.

JOHN MacGAFFIN: Will do-- will choose to do it because it's-- organizational change is hard, hard, hard.

NARRATOR: By the spring of 2002, nearly a year after the FBI had received the anonymous letter naming the Lackawanna group, the case was progressing slowly. But that was all about to change. Jumma al Dosari, the Lackawanna recruiter who went off to fight for the Taliban, had been captured fleeing Afghanistan. He was shipped to the special prison camp at the U.S. naval base in Guantanamo, Cuba. An enemy combatant beyond the reach of the courts, he was interrogated.

At FBI headquarters, al Dosari's interrogation confirmed suspicions that an al Qaeda recruitment operation had been going on in Lackawanna. The new information was funneled to the FBI's radical fundamentalist unit, where a supervisor made a phone call to Buffalo and Dave Britten.

DAVE BRITTEN: FBI headquarters told us to get ready to be on the hot seat. They identified one of the individuals named in the letter as someone very important in the Usama bin Laden, al Qaeda investigation.

NARRATOR: The individual was Kamal Derwish.

DALE WATSON: The information on Derwish came from a lot of different sources. And I was convinced, at that point, that he was a key player.

LOWELL BERGMAN: That Derwish was a key player in what sense? That he was a major actor in al Qaeda?

DALE WATSON: That he had-- that he had some involvement with-- up in the hierarchy of al Qaeda.

NARRATOR: FBI officials say they were told by the CIA that Derwish was in direct contact with one of Usama bin Laden's sons, as well as one of the al Qaeda planners of the Cole bombing. Pete Ahearn is the special agent in charge in Buffalo and western New York.

PETER AHEARN, Special Agent in Charge, FBI Buffalo: It was a concern that, you know, we could possibly have something here and a very active cell planning to do something in the United States. That's your worst nightmare.

NARRATOR: By June, the director of the FBI was being briefed.

ED NEEDHAM, FBI Buffalo: We had to send two briefings a day to FBI headquarters, 6:00 AM and 2:00 PM. And those were summarized and briefed up to people at the Department of Justice and probably above sometimes.

NARRATOR: In fact, those briefings were now being relayed to the president. Every morning since 9/11, the southwest gates of the White House have opened for the armored motorcades of national security officials arriving for a daily threat briefing. Tom Ridge, secretary of homeland security, says Lackawanna was on the agenda virtually every morning.

TOM RIDGE, Secretary of Homeland Security: There were discussions about who these people were, what were they doing.

LOWELL BERGMAN: It's our understanding that the president, because he had been briefed a number of times about this case and because there were six Americans, which made it very unusual--

TOM RIDGE: Yeah.

LOWELL BERGMAN: --asked questions.

TOM RIDGE: I know the president asked questions about that. What are the leads? Where have they been? Have we found any sources to corroborate it? What's their legal status? What's the-- what's the plan in order to deal with these individuals? The picture became broader and clearer over time, as the FBI dug deeper and deeper.

NARRATOR: The FBI needed answers to two questions: Were the American veterans of an al Qaeda camp plotting an attack? And could they develop evidence to charge them in criminal court?

DALE WATSON: The intense investigation was underway. Were they just free to come and go? They were free. But did we have a pretty good handle on what they were doing? Yeah, we did.

LOWELL BERGMAN: We can assume they were being heavily surveilled.

DALE WATSON: You can assume they had the full force of the FBI's investigative efforts focused on them.

NARRATOR: For the first time, a special FBI counterterrorism team was sent to Buffalo, along with reinforcements from around the country. The FBI had been granted dozens of electronic intercept warrants by a secret court in Washington to conduct round-the-clock surveillance.

DAVE BRITTEN: FBI headquarters was telling us that with the upcoming 4th of July holiday, we may have the only means of determining what, if any, terrorist activity could-- could be going on in the United States.

NARRATOR: The whole country was on edge as the 4th of July approached.

NBC NEWS: From the FBI tonight, a notice to the nation's local police and fuel companies, terrorists might try to use gasoline or oil trucks to attack American targets

NARRATOR: There were concerns in Lackawanna, as well.

Chief DENNIS O'HARA: Again, this street is predominantly populated by the Arabians.

NARRATOR: Lackawanna police chief Dennis O'Hara says he received a warning just before the 4th of July.

Chief DENNIS O'HARA: We did get reports of something along the lines of a suicide bombing, with the suicide bombers, males, dressed in the female garb of the Arabians. It made us worried. There's no doubt about it. I can tell you one thing, on the 4th of July, I didn't let my wife or family go to any malls.

NARRATOR: But the only fireworks on the 4th of July were those planned by the city. There were no suicide bombers. And despite round-the-clock surveillance, there was no evidence that the Lackawanna group was engaged in anything other than their normal daily routine.

Chief DENNIS O'HARA: Were they a sleeper cell? I don't know. If they were, they were deep asleep.

PETE AHEARN: We did not develop something here that was a direct threat, that there was a plot. There were some indications that would make you a little concerned. And then we would vet that out and say, "No, well that is not something we're worried about."

NARRATOR: But under the Patriot Act, the FBI and the CIA were now sharing all the information gathered in the investigation. The FBI looks for facts that will stand up in court, while the CIA's analysts interpret information, trying to project what will happen. The different missions would lead to new problems in the case. FBI director Robert Mueller says these disputes are inevitable in complex investigations.

ROBERT MUELLER, Director, FBI: There'll be differences of opinion, where you have partial facts, as to what those facts mean. And you try to put them together, but you do not have a clear picture. And what you're trying to do is see what that picture means. And there'll be differences of opinion in just about every intelligence analysis that you make. In this particular investigation, there was some.

NARRATOR: One dispute concerned the interpretation of the emails of Mukhtar al Bakri. Al Bakri, the youngest of the group, was now traveling in the Middle East. His email exchanges discussed an upcoming marriage.

All I need is to get married ... Did you get what U needed for marriage?

NARRATOR: CIA analysts concluded that the reference to a marriage -- "a wedding" -- was code for an impending attack, and that warning reached the White House before the FBI had a chance to comment.

PETE AHEARN, Special Agent in Charge, FBI Buffalo: It was not vetted back to the source, which was the FBI in Buffalo, to say, "Hey, can you look at this? This is going to go up the chain. Could you make sure it's accurate?"

NARRATOR: Had the CIA asked, they would have learned that Mukhtar al Bakri was, in fact, preparing for his own wedding.

Allah bless you. Hurry up and get married.

PETER AHEARN: I mean, we know there was a wedding, but apparently, from the experts, you know-- and again, they're experts. They've seen words in the past that, when used, could signify a pending event.

NARRATOR: While there was a misinterpretation of the wedding email, there were concerns on all sides about electronic intercepts that revealed continuing contact between members of the group and Kamal Derwish overseas. And then there was another email from al Bakri that seemed ominous in tone.

The next meal will be huge, and no one will be able to withstand it except those with faith.

NARRATOR: Communications like these, according to sources, heightened concerns at the CIA, and the CIA director warned the White House.

DALE WATSON: The conclusion was that this is a very dangerous group in Buffalo, or Lackawanna.

LOWELL BERGMAN: What we were told is that they were described to the president as "the most dangerous terrorist cell"--

DALE WATSON: I've seen that reported that way.

LOWELL BERGMAN: --"The most dangerous terrorist cell inside the United States."

DALE WATSON: At the present-- at the time that it was stated, yes.

LOWELL BERGMAN: And now the president of the United States wants to know, What are they going to do?

DALE WATSON: You have the FBI here, you know, sitting here, almost as a sitting duck. And the obvious question is, Can you guarantee they're not going to do anything? And there are no guarantees in this business. So there's a high probability that, you know, they're not going to do anything. But if you're the president or if you're the vice president and you say-- and somebody tells you that, "Well, there's a real high probability they're not going to do anything, and we want to watch them for a while," they'll say, "Hmmm. I don't think so." So a conscious decision was made, "Let's get them out of here."

LOWELL BERGMAN: You've got a potential terrorism emergency here, and you're going to not just scoop them up off the street. Detain them on anything.

PETER AHEARN: Correct. I mean, inside the borders of the United States, there is the rule of law. We had U.S. citizens. I was not just going to go up and scoop them off the street.

LOWELL BERGMAN: The FBI is worried about the Constitution, when it comes to terrorists?

PETER AHEARN: Of course we're worried about the Constitution, maybe the biggest misunderstanding a lot of people in the United States have. We had to do this as best we could, to take them out legally, you know, and file charges, if we were going to prevent. You know, we couldn't just deport them and send them overseas.

NARRATOR: With the first anniversary of September 11th approaching, there was anxiety inside the government about another al Qaeda attack, fed in part by the Lackawanna situation.

CBS NEWS: Security is tight all over for the 9/11 anniversary. Vice President Cheney is in hiding--

NARRATOR: In Washington, there were increasing concerns about how to resolve the Lackawanna case. With strong intelligence but not enough evidence of a crime to arrest the men, officials involved in the case say the Justice Department was engaged in secret discussions with the Pentagon. Should the six Americans be classified as enemy combatants, removed from the judicial system and sent to a military prison?

On the eve of the first anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, as Secretary Ridge raised the national threat level--

TOM RIDGE: We are now at high risk of a terrorist attack.

NARRATOR: --there was a potential breakthrough in the Lackawanna case 6,000 miles away. Mukhtar al Bakri was detained on his wedding night at the request of the CIA in the Persian Gulf nation of Bahrain. Gamal Abdel-Hafiz, then one of a handful of Muslim FBI agents, was dispatched from Saudi Arabia to interrogate him.

GAMAL ABDEL-HAFIZ, Former FBI Agent: He was in a daze, he was so scared.

LOWELL BERGMAN: In a daze.

GAMAL ABDEL-HAFIZ: Yes. He was so scared. And he-- he didn't know why is he arrested in Bahrain.

NARRATOR:  To charge al Bakri and his Lackawanna friends, Agent Hafiz needed to obtain a confession that could be used in court.

LOWELL BERGMAN: They wanted to know if he had gone to Afghanistan,

GAMAL ABDEL-HAFIZ: To Afghanistan.

LOWELL BERGMAN: That was the key question.

GAMAL ABDEL-HAFIZ: Yes. Yes. And luckily for me, he had given his email address and password to Bahraini authorities, and they downloaded his emails. And I used his own emails to ask him questions, and he lied to me while I was asking him. And I told him, "It's obvious that you are lying because here's your own emails." And he said, "OK, I'm not going to give you the runaround about this." I said, "I want you to think about it. If you're going to tell me the whole truth, come back." He came back, and he admitted that he went to Afghanistan, along with other five individuals. And he named them for me.

PETE AHEARN: And once we had that information back here, that was one witness. I mean, that was one nail in the coffin.

SAHIM ALWAN: They told me, "Look, you know, Sahim, you know, we know you were there, and just tell us." You know, someone was arrested overseas, and so forth. And then I said, "OK, yeah." You know, "I was in there." And I told them everything. That night, I told my wife, "I think I'm going to be arrested."

NARRATOR: The arrests began early in the evening of Friday, September 13th.

Chief DENNIS O'HARA: The FBI came in with a task force, with evidence technicians and countless investigators.

LARRY THOMPSON, U.S. Deputy Atty. Gen.: [press conference, September 14] Good afternoon. In the past 24 hours, United States law enforcement has identified, investigated and disrupted an al Qaeda-trained terrorist cell on American soil.

Chief DENNIS O'HARA: Right here in our neighborhood, we have terrorists. That was the perceived notion amongst the community. Shock and probably fear. What were they up to? What were they going to do?

NARRATOR: Sahim Alwan and five of his friends from Lackawanna were charged with providing material support to a terrorist organization for having trained at an al Qaeda camp. At the last minute, on urgent orders from Washington, Kamal Derwish's name was removed from the indictment and he was labeled "uncharged co-conspirator A." The FBI was then ordered not to talk about Derwish, who was believed to be in Yemen.

[www.pbs.org: Read a profile of Derwish]

The Lackawanna case was hailed as a victory in the war on terror in the president's State of the Union address.

Pres. GEORGE W. BUSH: [January 28, 2003] We've broken al Qaeda cells in Hamburg, Milan, Madrid, London, Paris, as well as Buffalo, New York. We have the terrorists on the run. We're keeping them on the run. One by one, the terrorists are learning the meaning of American justice.

LOWELL BERGMAN: Do you believe that they're a sleeper cell, that this was a sleeper cell?

PETER AHEARN: Yes.

LOWELL BERGMAN: They were ready, on command, these individuals, a phone call, to do the bidding of al Qaeda.

PETER AHEARN: Worst case, whether it be witting or unwitting, they were a danger and I believe part of a cell. No doubt about it.

LOWELL BERGMAN: You've all been described as this sleeper cell.

SAHIM ALWAN: I don't know where that came from. I really don't know. I mean, sleeper cell. We were definitely no sleeper cell.

LOWELL BERGMAN: You didn't stay in touch with each other?

SAHIM ALWAN: I mean, we lived in the same community. I mean, we ran into each other in the mosque, you know, I mean-- but nothing like, you know-- like conspiring or the-- you know what I mean?

LOWELL BERGMAN: If somebody called you up, if Derwish or someone called you up and said, "Pick us up at the airport," or move a package from point A to point B, that's what you guys were. You guys were ready to do something, if you were asked.

SAHIM ALWAN: No, I wasn't-- When I got back, I didn't even stay in contact with Derwish. And I advised everyone else to stop contact with him. Actually, there was one gentleman in Lackawanna, you know, he used to talk to Derwish on the phone. He was, like, "Yo, Kamal said hi." I said, "Look, man, stay away from the guy." I didn't want to hear-- "Don't talk about him. I don't want to hear it."

NARRATOR: Alwan says he panicked when Ed Needham called, when he lied in their first interview. He says he didn't stop lying even after the attacks on 9/11.

SAHIM ALWAN: I knew it was a mistake. It was wrong. And I just wanted it to be forgotten, you know, just-- especially after 9/11, no-- that's it, you know? Just forget about that.

LOWELL BERGMAN: What was your reaction when 9/11 happened?

SAHIM ALWAN: I was devastated. I mean, what I did when I got home, too, I called Ed Needham.

LOWELL BERGMAN: On 9/11?

SAHIM ALWAN: Oh, yeah. I called him. I said, "Ed, I know you're busy. Whatever you need. You know, whatever you need assistance." He said, "All you need you to do is keep your eyes and ears open." I said, you know, "Whatever you need," you know?

LOWELL BERGMAN: But you knew that it might be bin Laden on 9/11.

SAHIM ALWAN: Well, they already said that, you know-- I said, you know, if they're saying it's him-- from what I saw, they would do something like this, you know what I mean?

LOWELL BERGMAN: What they say is, you got to the camps, you met bin Laden-- "they" meaning the government.

SAHIM ALWAN: Right.

LOWELL BERGMAN: Right? So why on 9/11 didn't you tell Needham, "Look"--

SAHIM ALWAN: "I was there." You know why? Because I was scared. Who's going to believe me? I said, If I go in-- I mean, people are hurt right now. They're-- you know, some-- I mean, and when people are hurt and something's wrong, someone got to take the blame. Someone-- I mean, someone-- someone's got to take the fall, you know what I mean?

LOWELL BERGMAN: I understand. But what I'm-- what I'm asking you is-- you've got inside information.

SAHIM ALWAN: What kind of inside information?

LOWELL BERGMAN: How they recruit people, Derwish, that he was a-- that he was somebody of importance in the organization, what the method was of getting into the camps and out of the camps-- possibly useful to people who wanted to hunt these people down.

SAHIM ALWAN: To be honest with you, I think the government knew more than I can tell them. When we were at the camp, they kept saying, you know, they know where the camp is.

LOWELL BERGMAN: Did you know that you were going to an al Qaeda camp?

SAHIM ALWAN: No. I never heard about the word al Qaeda itself until I was in Afghanistan itself.

NARRATOR: While Alwan insists in sworn statements that he did not know he was going to train in an al Qaeda camp, others in the group have admitted that they did know. And within days of his arrival in Afghanistan, Alwan and one of his friends were summoned to a meeting with Usama bin Laden, and the conversation quickly turned to suicide missions.

SAHIM ALWAN: One of the guys asked him-- he goes, you know, "We're hearing things are going to happen. Something"-- you know what I mean? "There's a big-- there's conflict." You know, something's going to happen. He said, "Well"-- I mean, he made the comment, he just said-- he goes, "Well they're"-- and he was talking about America-- "They're threatening us, and we're threatening them," he goes, "but there's brothers that are willing to carry their souls in their hands."

LOWELL BERGMAN: And what did that mean to you?

SAHIM ALWAN: Brothers really willing to die, you know what I mean? When you say, "carry their soul," meaning you're willing to go die, you know, to fight.

[www.pbs.org: Read the full interview]

NARRATOR: A week into his training, Alwan and the other recruits were told to cover their faces so they wouldn't be identified as an al Qaeda camera crew made this tape of Usama bin Laden's arrival in the camp. When bin Laden revealed at this meeting that he had 40 men who had pledged to die for jihad, Alwan says he made a decision.

SAHIM ALWAN: At this point, I had, I said, "I'm leaving, regardless. I don't-- I got to get out of here." The next day, when we did-- we were supposed to do this walk, I pretended like I hurt myself. I pretended like I hurt my ankle. So I went back and I told the guy that was running the camp -- his name was [unintelligible] I said, "I want to leave," you know? You know, "I hurt myself." He goes, "Oh, you didn't hurt yourself. Just go back to your"-- you know, "your group." I was, like, "No, I want to leave."

NARRATOR: He sought out Kamal Derwish for help. He says Derwish was taking advanced training in another part of the camp.

SAHIM ALWAN: I said, "Kamal, I'm going to just walk away. I'll walk. I'll take off." He goes, "Don't." He goes, "Do not walk." He goes, you know, "If you do, they will"-- I mean, "if they think you're walking away from the camp, they'll shoot you down." You know, "Don't do that." I said, "Well, I want to leave." He goes, "At least finish your weapons training." I said , "No, I want out. I want to get out."

NARRATOR: Derwish said he would help, and a day later, Alwan got a ride out of camp to Kandahar. But there was one last hurdle. He was asked by a bin Laden aide to go to al Qaeda headquarters for a final meeting with Usama bin Laden, this time alone.

SAHIM ALWAN: He goes, "Oh, he'll be excited. I mean, he knows you. He knows, you know, that you guys are from there," you know?

LOWELL BERGMAN: He knows you're from America.

SAHIM ALWAN: Yeah, "He'll," like-- you know, "He'll like to-- he'll like to see you," and stuff like that. And I was, like, "No, no," you know. I mean, I didn't, like, "No, no, no!" And I was just, like, "No. No," you know, what I mean? Like I said, you got to be careful of what you say to them, how you say it to them.

NARRATOR: Alwan says he was worried he would be considered a spy and wouldn't be allowed to leave. But when they finally met, bin Laden was more interested in what American Muslims thought of al Qaeda suicide operations. It was just three months before the 9/11 attacks.

SAHIM ALWAN: He goes to me, [speaks in Arabic], meaning, "What do they think of the operations?" And I assume he's saying, "What"-- like, because a lot of people, like I said, no one sees that that's justified. I said, you know, "We don't even think about it." And I wanted to, like, change the subject and stuff. And I just kept thinking-- I just-- are they suspicious? Are they now? You know what I mean?

NARRATOR: In the end, bin Laden allowed Alwan to leave after he had completed just 10 days of the 6-week training. Gamal Hafiz says Mukhtar al Bakri, who had traveled with Alwan, had less success when he met with bin Laden.

GAMAL ABDEL-HAFIZ, Former FBI Agent: He told me that the concern on his mind when he met Usama bin Laden, that he-- he told them, "I'm here without my parents knowing."

LOWELL BERGMAN: He told bin Laden this.

GAMAL ABDEL-HAFIZ: Yes. And Usama bin Laden, according to him, told him, "That's no problem. Just send them a letter and let them know that you're here."

LOWELL BERGMAN: Just write them a letter from my training camp and tell them you're here for the summer?

GAMAL ABDEL-HAFIZ: And tell them that you're here. And I believe that he was telling Usama bin Laden this, so he can tell him, "If your parents are not-- don't know that you are here, you should leave." But that didn't happen.

LOWELL BERGMAN: Were you surprised that a group of American citizens would go to an al Qaeda training camp in Afghanistan?

GAMAL ABDEL-HAFIZ: Yes, it's a surprise. It's a shock, especially of someone, when we got on the plane on our way to the States, and he met the case agents from Buffalo, one of his biggest concern were, "How are the Buffalo Bills doing?"

LOWELL BERGMAN: Doesn't sound like a committed warrior for the jihad.

GAMAL ABDEL-HAFIZ: I didn't see him as a committed warrior.

LOWELL BERGMAN: Based on our interviews in Buffalo and with one of these defendants and one of the FBI agents who debriefed Mr. al Bakri in Bahrain, there doesn't seem to be any substantive information--

ROBERT MUELLER, Director, FBI: Well, do you wish us--

LOWELL BERGMAN: --that they were going to do anything.

ROBERT MUELLER: Do you and the American people want us to take the chance, if we have information where we believe that a group of individuals is poised to commit a terrorist act in the United States that'll kill Americans, and we just should let it go and wait for the attack, and then after the fact, conduct our investigation? I think not.

JOHN MacGAFFIN, Fmr Deputy CIA Spy Chief: That's the crux of the war on terrorism writ large, is, Are we going to put our defenses, based on we can catch them before they do it, or do we say, You know, it's not a matter of law enforcement.

NARRATOR: John MacGaffin says the FBI, with its new focus on prevention, squandered an opportunity to gather much-needed intelligence on al Qaeda.

JOHN MacGAFFIN: You wanted to put these guys-- you know, they went to the wrong summer camp, you want to keep them in jail? No. I would have put the best minds I had, who understood Yemenis, who understood Islam, who understood al Qaeda, who understood all those things, and had them attempt to establish a relationship with these six, and see if there was someone who had the spine and guts to help their country by helping us penetrate the innermost councils of al Qaeda. If they couldn't do it themselves, did they know others who we could induce?

DAVE BRITTEN, FBI Buffalo: They weren't going to play. They lied to our face. We did try to develop them and try to possibly roll them. We did. I mean, within the United States and within the boundaries of the Constitution, there's only so much we can do.

ED NEEDHAM, FBI Buffalo: I mean, we were looking to prevent something. And we did. Obviously, nothing happened. So we all did our job.

NARRATOR: Ed Needham, Dave Britten and the team in Buffalo were singled out for the Justice Department's highest honors for the Lackawanna case. Gamal Abdel-Hafiz, the agent credited with breaking the case, was fired from the FBI -- unjustly, he says -- for personal reasons unrelated to the case.

[www.pbs.org: More on More on Abdel-Hafiz's story]

Facing additional charges and a possible 30 years in prison, Sahim Alwan, Mukhtar al Bakri and four of their friends pled guilty to aiding a terrorist organization. All six may now spend up to 10 years in prison and are cooperating with the government. Jaber Elbaneh is a fugitive, believed to be in Yemen, with a $5 million reward offered for his capture.

The government says the Lackawanna case is a significant win in the war on terror, largely due to the intelligence sharing now allowed by the Patriot Act.

ROBERT MUELLER: Prior to the passage of the Patriot Act, it was very difficult, often impossible, for us to share information with the Central Intelligence Agency, with NSA, with the other intelligence agencies, and likewise, for them to share information with us. The principal benefit to us of the Patriot Act is to break down that wall and allow that sharing of information.

NARRATOR: The wall FBI Director Mueller is talking about was created 25 years ago to protect Americans from domestic spying abuses.

Sen. WALTER MONDALE (D-MN): [Sen. Select Cmte on Intelligence Activities, 1975] We now have your statement that we were fearful that some communist might have influence over Dr. King, and therefore he was thoroughly investigated. Are there any limits, then, on who can be investigated?

NARRATOR: Now that the wall has been removed under the provisions of the Patriot Act, information from secret national security investigations can be used more easily in unrelated criminal investigations of American citizens. And that is what is happening today in Lackawanna, where there is anxiety on the streets.

MOHAMMED ALBANNA, VP, American Muslim Council: There is a fear in the community that this thing is not over and that there might be some other charges or indictments because the government will continue until they are satisfied there is nothing else left.

NARRATOR: In fact, Albanna and two other men have been charged with illegally transferring money to Yemen, a charge unrelated to terrorism.

LOWELL BERGMAN: You've had criminal charges filed?

MOHAMMED ALBANNA: Yes. But I am under instruction from my attorney not to say anything with regard to my case.

NARRATOR: And there are other cases now being pursued that are related to the intense law enforcement focus on the community brought on by the Lackawanna six terrorism investigation.

The secrecy that shrouds the war on terror and the new tactics that are being employed were underscored by President Bush in his State of the Union address.

Pres. GEORGE W. BUSH: More than 3,000 suspected terrorists have been arrested in many countries. Many others have met a different fate. Put it this way, they're no longer a problem to the United States and our friends and allies.

NARRATOR: In the days following the 9/11 attacks, sources say, President Bush signed a presidential finding authorizing the CIA to utilize extreme measures-- to kill members of al Qaeda. That finding would lead to an officially secret incident involving the al Qaeda recruiter whose name was removed from the indictment, "A," Kamal Derwish.

LOWELL BERGMAN: This key figure, "A," we call Derwish-- is he still at large?

PETER AHEARN, Special Agent in Charge, FBI Buffalo: It's a good question.

LOWELL BERGMAN: OK, that's your answer?

PETER AHEARN: I don't know the answer. Nobody has officially told me anything that would tell me that he's not, officially.

LOWELL BERGMAN: And Mr. Derwish?

DALE WATSON: Don't know for sure. Well, there's still some question about where he is or what happened to him.

LOWELL BERGMAN: You don't have any question as to what happened to him.

DALE WATSON: He's not indicted. So from a law enforcement perspective -- you know, for this case -- it doesn't matter.

NARRATOR: Kamal Derwish's connection to al Qaeda has never been officially disclosed by the U.S. government.

LOWELL BERGMAN: Mr. Derwish-- do you know the name?

ROBERT MUELLER: Yes, I've heard the name.

LOWELL BERGMAN: Do you know why no one would talk with us about Kamal Derwish?

ROBERT MUELLER: Well, there are certain parts of the investigation that are still not made public.

NARRATOR: And the CIA would not talk to us at all about Derwish or Lackawanna, or what happened on November 3, 2002. On that day, a CIA Predator drone was tracking a vehicle in a remote section of Yemen. The intended target, according to Yemeni government officials, was one of the al Qaeda planners of the Cole bombing. A Hellfire missile was fired from the Predator, destroying the vehicle. Six people died in the explosion. Kamal Derwish was one of them.

LOWELL BERGMAN: About two months after they were arrested, the ringleader of the group is identified, apparently, in the remains of a vehicle in Yemen that's blown up, we're told in press reports and by the Yemeni government, by a CIA Predator. It's the first time that we know of that an American citizen has died who is apparently a member of al Qaeda. Was that a subject of discussion?

TOM RIDGE, Secretary of Homeland Security: The death of this individual?

LOWELL BERGMAN: Well--

TOM RIDGE: Of course. Of course.

LOWELL BERGMAN: The fact that an American citizen has been killed in our counterterrorism war by us.

TOM RIDGE: Correct.

LOWELL BERGMAN: How are decisions like that made?

TOM RIDGE: Well, I think, for me, the decision to engage that vehicle or to engage militarily or using any military assets, that's-- those are decisions made by other individuals and other entities outside of Homeland Security. But make no mistake about it, I don't think anybody in the government, in terms of prosecuting the war, as horrible as these terrorists are and the tragedy that befell upon us on 9/11 and whatever we feel about them, still considers it an easy thing to-- to take somebody's life. But if that's what you have to do, under these circumstances of 9/11, to protect America, that's what we have to do.

UPDATE - January 29, 2004: In December 2003, the Lackawanna Six were sentenced to prison terms between seven and ten years long. Sahim Alwan received nine and a half years for obstructing justice and providing material support to Al Qaeda. It was a stiffer penalty than expected. The one remaining fugitive in the case, Jaber Elbaneh, is now in custody in Yemen. U.S. officials are negotiating for his extradition.

 

CHASING THE SLEEPER CELL

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ANNOUNCER: This report continues on FRONTLINE's Web site with profiles of the "Lackawanna Six" and the men who recruited them, an interview with law professor David Cole on the war on terror's threat to civil liberties, a debate over whether America needs a new domestic intelligence agency modeled on Britain's MI5, extended interviews and more. And you can watch the full program again on line. Then join the discussion at pbs.org or write an email to frontline@pbs.org.

 

Next time on FRONTLINE:

CHRISTY MARR: Where'd that Logan girl go?

ANNOUNCER: Logan Marr was taken from her mother three times.

CHRISTY MARR: I was never accused of being an abusive or an unfit mother.

ANNOUNCER: Twice by the foster care system--

CHRISTY MARR: Logan started screaming, "No, Mommy! Please don't let them take me."

ANNOUNCER: --and once for good.

CHRISTY MARR: I fell to my knees and I cried, "Dear God, no!."

EXPERT: If the state had not involved itself, Logan Marr would still be alive.

ANNOUNCER: The Taking of Logan Marr next time on FRONTLINE.

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