Kamal Derwish arrives in Lackawanna, N.Y.
A working-class town just south of Buffalo, Lackawanna is home to 3,000 Muslim Americans whose families come from the small country of Yemen, on the Arabian peninsula.
Born in Buffalo but raised in Saudi Arabia, Kamal Derwish, is steeped in that country's fundamentalist breed of Islam, known as Wahhabism. He is an intriguing figure to the young Muslim men of Lackawanna, who struggle to reconcile their Muslim and American identities. However, as investigators later discover, Derwish previously had trained in Al Qaeda camps in Afghanistan and fought with Muslims in Bosnia. After returning to Saudi Arabia in 1997, he had been jailed for extremist activities.
Upon arriving in Lackawanna, Derwish begins giving informal talks between nighttime and evening prayers at the mosque, attracting a core group of followers.
Lackawanna group decides to travel to Afghanistan
The trip grows out of the spirited religious discussions led by Kamal Derwish. The group meets in his apartment, where he tells them that attacks on Muslims around the world obligate them to train for jihad to defend their Muslim brothers.
Derwish's preaching is persuasive enough to convince seven friends -- Mukhtar al-Bakri, Sahim Alwan, Jaber Elbaneh, Faysal Galab, Yahya Goba, Shafal Mosed, and Yasein Taher -- to leave for jihad training in Afghanistan. However, the group keeps the trip a secret and tells others that they are going to Pakistan to study with the Islamic evangelical group Tablighi Jamaat as part of a search for their Islamic faith.
Juma Al Dosari arrives in Lackawanna
A friend of Derwish, Al Dosari is a Muslim fighter and itinerant imam from Saudi Arabia, who previously had been living in Indiana for about six months. Al Dosari is believed to have fought with Derwish in Bosnia.
Upon his arrival in Lackawanna, the charismatic Al Dosari gives a memorable sermon, railing against Arab governments who do nothing while Muslims died on a daily basis. According to people in the community, the leaders of the Lackawanna mosque were troubled by Al Dosari's militant tone and he was not invited back.
Lackawanna men leave for training camp
The men travel in two groups. Yasein Taher, Faysal Galab and Shafal Mosed leave in late April and arrive in Pakistan on or around April 29. They travel to the Al Farooq training camp, near Kandahar, Afghanistan, a few days later.
The other group -- Sahim Alwan, Jaber Elbaneh, Mukhtar al-Bakri, and Yahya Goba -- board a May 14 flight in Toronto, and connect on to Pakistan. In Pakistan, they are met by Derwish, who leads them to Al Farooq.
Prior to arriving at the camp, however, Alwan and Elbaneh stay at an Al Qaeda guesthouse in Kandahar, which is visited by Osama bin Laden. According to Alwan, during this visit, a recruit asks bin Laden about rumors of an impending conflict with the U.S. Bin Laden's response, Alwan says, is that Al Qaeda has "brothers that are willing to carry their souls in their hands."
At the camp, the men are trained in the use of automatic weapons, including Kalashnikovs, M-16 rifles and rocket-propelled grenade launchers, and explosives.
A few days after their arrival, bin Laden makes an appearance at the camp with Ayman al-Zawahiri, the leader of Egyptian Islamic Jihad. The recruits are warned to cover their faces and a video recording is made as bin Laden and Zawahiri announce the merger of their two organizations.
U.S. officials concerned about Al Qaeda attacks
Following the 1998 U.S. embassy bombings in East Africa and the 2000 attack on the USS Cole in Yemen, the U.S. counterterrorism community, including FBI Assistant Director Dale Watson, becomes increasingly anxious about where Al Qaeda will strike next and whether the U.S. is prepared to stop an attack.
Watson tells FRONTLINE that the Al Qaeda training camps were particularly worrisome. "We were very, very concerned about the camps," he says. "The basic question of the camps was who's graduating from those camps and where are they going? Did they come back to the United States?"
However, Watson says there is no intelligence in the spring of 2001 that a contingent of Americans is in the camps, or that Kamal Derwish is recruiting for Al Qaeda in the United States.
Anonymous letter sent to FBI
While the Lackawanna group is still in Afghanistan, the FBI's Buffalo field office receives an anonymous, handwritten letter from someone in Lackawanna's Yemeni community. The letter says that a group has traveled to "meet bin Laden and stay in his camp for training." The author also writes, "I can not give you my name because I fear for my life."
The letter is routed to FBI field agent Edward Needham, who, at the time, is the only agent from the Buffalo office assigned to counterterrorism. Needham follows up on the letter by interviewing Sahim Alwan when he returns from Afghanistan; however Alwan, sticking to the group's cover story, maintains that he had only traveled to Pakistan for religious training.
June 20, 2001
Sahim Alwan returns to the U.S.
Having completed only 10 days of the six-week training, Alwan tells FRONTLINE that he realized he was in over his head. He feigns an ankle injury to get out of the training and asks Derwish to help him leave. Derwish agrees to help and manages to get Alwan a ride to Kandahar.
Waiting at a Kandahar guesthouse for a ride back to Pakistan, Alwan is summoned to a personal meeting with Osama bin Laden. Bin Laden asks him why he is leaving and Alwan replies that he needs to get back to his family. The Al Qaeda leader also asks about the status of Muslims in America and what they think of martyrdom operations. Alwan says he changed the topic and asked about the rumors of conflict with the U.S. "There's been threats back and forth," bin Laden answers, according to Alwan, before blessing him and bidding him farewell.
Before leaving Afghanistan, Alwan is asked by a bin Laden associate to deliver two copies of a videotape showing the bombing of the USS Cole to a contact in Pakistan. Alwan agrees and delivers the tapes.
Others return to U.S.
Like Alwan, three other Lackawanna men leave before the completion of the six-week training course. By the end of June, four men have returned to the U.S. Yahya Goba and Mukhtar al-Bakri finish the training and travel in the Middle East before returning home in August. All repeat the same cover story to anyone who asks -- that they had traveled to Pakistan for religious training.
Kamal Derwish remains overseas, as does Jaber Elbaneh, who had told Alwan during the training that he was intent on becoming a martyr.
Although they remain suspicious of the Lackawanna group's cover story, the Buffalo FBI office lacks any hard evidence of a serious crime and therefore has no reason to detain the group.
Sept. 11, 2001
Attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon
Although Sahim Alwan calls FBI agent Ed Needham on the day of the attacks to offer assistance, he says he did not admit to the trip to Afghanistan because he feared reprisals against Muslims. Interviewed by a reporter for The Buffalo News on Sept. 11, Alwan says, "The Koran says one of the greatest sins in our religion is to commit suicide. The Prophet Muhammed says, 'Let he who kills himself know that he is in the deepest of hellfire.'"
Two weeks after Sept. 11, Juma Al Dosari, unbeknownst to the FBI, leaves Lackawanna to fight with the Taliban in Afghanistan.
The Buffalo FBI office begins to investigate allegations that the Lackawanna suspects are involved in criminal activity. But for the next year, the case progresses slowly.
Juma Al Dosari captured
Al Dosari is captured sometime in the fall of 2001 while fighting with the Taliban in Afghanistan and is declared an enemy combatant. In December or January, he is sent to the special prison camp at the U.S. Naval Base on Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where he is questioned. Al Dosari's interrogation confirms that the Lackawanna suspects were the targets of an Al Qaeda recruitment operation.
The FBI receives information obtained during Al-Dosari's interrogation in the spring of 2002.
New intelligence on Derwish
U.S. intelligence learns that Derwish uses several aliases and realizes that it has intercepted communications between him and two important Al Qaeda figures: Osama bin Laden's son Saad, and Tafiq bin Atash, known as "Khallad," who was a suspected intermediary between bin Laden and the USS Cole bombers. Bin Atash was believed to have attended a January 2000 Al Qaeda meeting in Malaysia, which was also attended by two of the Sept. 11 hijackers. Officials find the connection between bin Atash and Derwish particularly alarming.
The information on Derwish is sent to the FBI's Radical Fundamentalist Unit and reaches the Buffalo field office on May 17. Combined with the intelligence obtained during Juma Al Dosari's interrogation, officials begin to fear that the Lackawanna group is a sleeper cell waiting for instructions to strike.
FBI director becomes involved
By this time, dozens of FBI agents are working on the Lackawanna case and the Buffalo field office is required to send two daily briefings to FBI headquarters, at 6 a.m. and 2 p.m. The briefings are sent to FBI Director Robert Mueller and often are passed on to the White House in the president's daily threat briefings. According to Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge, the Lackawanna case is on the agenda virtually every morning during this period, and the president asks specific questions about the case as the investigation progresses.
Early Summer 2002
Lackawanna investigation heats up
A special FBI counterterrorism team is sent to Buffalo, along with reinforcements from around the country. The FBI is granted dozens of wiretaps by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance (FISA) Court in Washington to conduct round-the-clock surveillance.
In an electronic intercept, investigators overhear what they describe as "assessment calls" between Derwish and some of the Lackawanna suspects. Officials fear that Derwish might be activating the recruits.
However, despite the round-the-clock surveillance, there is no evidence that the Lackawanna group is engaged in anything other than their daily normal routine.
Things become particularly tense as July 4 approaches. Terror warnings are issued throughout the country and the Lackawanna police receive a warning that men disguised as Arab women might set off a suicide bomb, although there is no location given for a possible attack. The suicide bombing never occurs.
Late Summer 2002
E-mails from Lackawanna man trigger suspicions
A series of e-mails from Mukhtar al-Bakri, who has traveled back to the Middle East, set off alarm bells in the U.S. intelligence community. In one group of e-mails he discusses an upcoming wedding -- a word that disturbs CIA analysts, who know that in the past Al Qaeda had used the word "wedding" as code for an attack. The warning reaches the White House before the FBI in Buffalo -- who know that al-Bakri is, in fact, preparing for his wedding in Bahrain -- has a chance to comment.
Another e-mail from al-Bakri, however, sounds equally suspicious to U.S. authorities. Entitled "Big Meal," the e-mail reads:
How are you my beloved, God willing you are fine. I would like to remind you of obeying God and keeping him in your heart because the next meal will be very huge. No one will be able to withstand it except those with faith. There are people here who had visions and their visions were explained that this thing will be very strong. No one will be able to bear it.
Communications like these heighten concerns at the CIA, leading CIA Director George Tenet to warn the White House that the agency's analysts believe the Lackawanna group to be the most dangerous terrorist group in the U.S.
In Washington, there are increasing concerns about how to resolve the case. With strong intelligence, but not enough evidence of a crime to arrest the men, the Justice Department engages in secret discussions with the Pentagon about whether to classify the Lackawanna group as enemy combatants.
Sept. 10, 2002
U.S. threat level raised
On the Department of Homeland Security's color-coded threat advisory system, the threat level is raised from yellow, or "elevated," to orange, or "high." According to sources, the Lackawanna case is part of the decision to raise the threat level.
Sept. 11, 2002
Mukhtar al-Bakri interrogated in Bahrain
On his wedding night, al-Bakri is detained by Bahraini police, at the request of the CIA. FBI agent Gamal Abdel-Hafiz is dispatched from Saudi Arabia to interrogate him and al-Bakri admits to having traveled to the Al Farooq camp. He also provides the FBI with the names of the rest of the Lackawanna group who attended the camp.
Sept. 13-14 2002
Rest of the Lackawanna group is arrested
Based on the information provided by al-Bakri, Sahim Alwan, Faysal Galab, Yahya Goba, Shafal Mosed and Yasein Taher are arrested. They are arraigned on Sept. 14, and charged with providing material support to terrorism. Upon their arrest, the men are dubbed the "Lackawanna Six " by the media.
At the last minute, on urgent orders from Washington, Kamal Derwish's name is removed from the indictment and he is labeled "uncharged co-conspirator A." The FBI is ordered not to talk about Derwish, who is believed to be in Yemen.
The arrests are announced on Sept. 14 by Deputy Attorney General Larry Thompson, who proclaims "United States law enforcement has identified, investigated and disrupted an Al Qaeda-trained, terrorist cell on American soil."
Nov. 3, 2002
Kamal Derwish killed in Yemen
Derwish is killed by a CIA Predator drone that was tracking Qaed Salim Sinan al Harethi, known as "Abu Ali," and believed to be one of the Al Qaeda planners of the USS Cole bombing.
The U.S. government will not discuss Derwish's death, nor his connection to Al Qaeda; however, his death is confirmed by the Yemeni government. Sources say that in the days following the Sept. 11 attacks, President Bush signed a presidential finding authorizing the CIA to use extreme measures, to kill members of Al Qaeda, including American citizens.
Jan. 28, 2003
President Bush hails Lackawanna arrests during State of the Union
"We've broken Al Qaeda cells in Hamburg, Milan, Madrid, London, Paris, as well as, Buffalo, New York," the president announces. "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."
"Lackawanna Six" plead guilty
Facing additional charges and a potential 30 years in prison, one by one the Lackawanna men plead guilty to material support to terrorism. All six cooperate with the government and each is sentenced to between seven and 10 years in prison in December 2003.
As a result of the original anonymous letter that started the investigation, law enforcement is continuing to pursue a variety of terrorism-related and other criminal cases in Lackawanna.
$5 million reward offered for Elbaneh
In May, U.S. officials unseal an indictment charging Jaber Elbaneh, the only member of the Lackawanna group still at large, who is believed to be in Yemen, with material support of terrorism. In September, the FBI announces a $5 million reward for information leading to his arrest.
Update on the Lackawanna investigation
According to U.S. and Yemeni officials familiar with the case, Jaber Elbaneh has been taken into custody in Yemen. These officials gave no details of his arrest, but U.S. officials say that negotiations concerning Elbaneh's possible extradition are under way between the U.S. and Yemeni governments.
Also, according to law enforcement officials, the Justice Department and the Pentagon are discussing whether Juma Al Dosari's case should be handled as a criminal matter in the civilian courts or by a military tribunal.