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the closer - an al qaeda recruiter in the united states by jason felch
A profile of Juma Al Dosari, believed to be one of the Lackawanna group's recruiters, who is now an enemy combatant in U.S. custody

In late April, 2001, a traveling imam known only as "Juma" was invited to give the Friday sermon at the Lackawanna Guidance Mosque, a simple place housed in an abandoned Ukrainian Orthodox church that serves as the center of this Western New York town's Yemeni community.

The visiting imam was not known to the community. He had been invited to come from the Indiana mosque where he had been working by one of the Lackawanna's more conservative Muslims, Kamal Derwish. Derwish, a bearded, heavy-set Yemeni American, had been in and out of Lackawanna for years. Though his religious views were more conservative than most in the community, he was respected for his work with young Muslim men, many of who felt torn between their Yemeni roots and mainstream American culture.

That Friday in April, the visiting imam stood before the congregation in a flowing white robe and headdress and delivered his message in Arabic, according to The Buffalo News. Some younger members of the community, second or even third generation and fairly well assimilated, were not fluent in the language and struggled to follow. But many of the elders listened with surprise as the itinerant imam vehemently spoke, not of religion, but of the political plight of Muslims throughout the world. His voice rising in anger, he preached of the need to help brethren in Kosovo, Chechnya and Kashmir. "The Arab world had to wake up and solve this problem," one member of the congregation later remembered him saying. "People were dying on a daily basis and nobody was doing anything about that."

The leaders of the mosque were deeply offended by the imam's radical political message, and say they asked him not to return. But a small group of young men, many of whom had been learning about Islam in evening meetings with Derwish, were intrigued. For two weeks, Juma, who FBI officials say had been introduced as having fought alongside Derwish in Bosnia and Chechnya, spoke of religious obligation during the meetings which were held after evening prayers. A lawyer for one of the men who attended the sessions told The Buffalo News that Juma said the pilgrimage to Mecca would not be enough to save their souls: They must also train for Jihad.

Then, on April 30, the preacher named Juma left Lackawanna. Days later, Derwish and seven of the young men Juma regularly met with traveled to Afghanistan for training in Osama bin Laden's camps.

In interviews with FRONTLINE and The New York Times, FBI officials say this traveling imam was in fact an Al Qaeda recruiter. Currently detained as an enemy combatant and under interrogation at the U.S. Naval Base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, Juma Al Dosari -- a Saudi in his early '30s -- has been nicknamed "The Closer" for the role he played in recruiting the Lackawanna men. His story has given investigators a rare insight into Al Qaeda's recruitment efforts in the U.S., and may lead them to other sleeper cells still hiding here today.

Though Al Dosari himself has been captured, the investigation remains active: The FBI has spent the months since his capture retracing his travels and checking on contacts made during his year in the United States, as well as his prior involvement with Al Qaeda. The bureau is trying to determine if he came to the United States merely to lay low, as some have suggested, or whether he was actively recruiting, and perhaps left other sleeper cells behind. "The recruiters are of great interest to us," Michael Battle, U.S. Attorney in Western New York told The Buffalo News. "We do believe it is possible that the people who did the recruiting for Al Qaeda in Lackawanna did the same thing in other cities."

Travels with Juma

According to the FBI, Juma Al Dosari first trained with Al Qaeda at the age of 16. FBI documents show that from that precocious start he went on to have a long career as a jihadi, fighting in various foreign wars on behalf of Muslims, getting arrested abroad a number of times in association with terrorist acts, and eventually arriving in the United States in 1999. His travels came to an abrupt halt in November of 2001, when he was captured near the Pakistan border in Afghanistan and sent to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where he remains today while the Justice Department and the Pentagon discuss whether his case will be handled as a criminal matter in a civilian court or in a military tribunal.

An FBI chronology of Al Dosari's movements -- detailed in a document obtained by The New York Times and FRONTLINE -- begins in 1989, when Al Dosari spent three days in the Al Sadik training camp in Afghanistan.

Six years later, the document shows, he traveled to Zenica, Bosnia, where he spent time with the Muslim jihadi group known as Kateebat. A year later, Al Dosari surfaced in the United Arab Emirates, and stayed with a companion who was planning to fight in the Chechen war. Together, the two traveled to Baku, Azerbaijan, a logical gateway for fighters bound for the guerilla struggle in Chechnya.

In mid-1996, Al Dosari surfaced in Bahrain, and drove with two companions through Saudi Arabia to Kuwait, where he was arrested for suspected involvement in the Khobar Tower bombing, a June 26, 1996 attack on a military housing complex in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia that left 19 American servicemen dead and hundreds injured. He was released by Kuwaiti authorities 11 days later. Shortly after, he was arrested again, this time in Saudi Arabia, for suspicion of involvement in the same bombing and held for seven months. (In June 2001, U.S. authorities indicted 13 Saudis and a Lebanese man in association with the bombing, which was carried out, the indictment states, by Hezbollah under orders from the government of Iran.)

In early 1997, Al Dosari was hired as imam of the Ghaith Ibn Nassim Mosque in Damman, Saudi Arabia. Later that year, he was arrested again by Saudi authorities for unknown reasons. His passport was revoked for five years, but in December of that year, he was granted dual Saudi-Bahrainian citizenship, which would soon allow him to continue his travels with a new passport.

In 1999, Al Dosari, still in Damman, met a man with relatives in Terre Haute, Indiana, and was encouraged to seek a position at the mosque there. He was granted a five-year U.S. tourist visa in Bahrain and flew to Indianapolis via Istanbul and Chicago. Al Dosari visited a number of Indiana mosques, including the Islamic Center at Purdue University, before returning to Saudi Arabia after two months in the U.S.

A "Mystical" Visitor with a Radical Message

According to the FBI's chronology, Juma Al Dosari returned to the United States nine months later, in the fall of 2000 and secured a position at the Islamic Center in Bloomington, Indiana.

Amr Al-Sabry, the director of the mosque at the time, says Al Dosari was brought in to assist in that year's celebration of Ramadan and to help expand the congregation. The visiting imam was attractive because he could recite the entire Koran from memory, but he spoke almost no English and was only able to deliver sermons with the help of a translator. This presented difficulties for many in the diverse congregation, drawn largely from the Indiana University campus and which included many non-Arabs from Africa and Asia. There was also some concern over his strong rhetoric: Members recall an argument between the imam and an Afghani member of the congregation after Al Dosari praised the Taliban.

Jeremy Burcham, former president of the Bloomington Islamic Center, describes the imam as "moderate" and "apolitical." He recalls that Al Dosari's knowledge of the Koran was impressive, but that he did not have a beautiful voice for recitation. Burcham says his wife described the imam as mystical, or sufi-like.

Closing the Deal

In March 2001, Al Dosari began a series of trips around the Unites States that first took him to Detroit, where he stayed with relatives of an associate. From there, according to the FBI's chronology, he made several attempts to enter Canada, and then caught a Greyhound bus from Detroit to Dayton, Ohio. From Dayton he returned by bus to Bloomington, Indiana, and a few days later caught a flight to Denver, Colorado.

It is in this period that it is believed Al Dosari received a call from his old friend Kamal Derwish, with whom FBI sources say he fought in Bosnia and Chechnya. At Derwish's invitation, Al Dosari boarded a bus for Buffalo, New York, and spent the next two weeks in Lackawanna. Based on interviews with six of the Lackawanna men recruited by Derwish, the FBI believe that Juma Al Dosari was brought in to close the deal.

The pitch was effective. Al Dosari left Buffalo for Saudi Arabia, reportedly because his father had fallen ill, and soon after the seven Muslims from Lackawanna, traveled to Afghanistan, where they entered military training, and, in some cases, had direct contact with Osama bin Laden.

In August, just as the last of the recruits were returning to Lackawanna, the FBI chronology shows that Al Dosari came back from Saudi Arabia and was in Lackawanna on Sept. 11. By the end of that month he told his friends there he was leaving to fight with the Taliban. He flew to Bahrain, then to Iran, where he collected $3000 from an associate and crossed the border into Afghanistan. Little more than a month later, he was detained by a Pakistani border patrol, turned over to American authorities, and sent to Guantanamo Bay.

A senior FBI official familiar with the continuing investigation into Al Dosari and his contacts says that a number of calls made from associates of Al Dosari during his time in the United States have been identified as "hot numbers" by the CIA, indicating possible connections with known terrorists. But because communication between the FBI and CIA is, even after Sept. 11, often a "one-way-street," according to a senior FBI official, there is no explanation of why the numbers are hot. So, often without knowing exactly why, the FBI continues its investigation into Juma Al Dosari's associates, because, as the official said. "We cannot walk away."

Jason Felch is a reporter with the Center for Investigative Reporting.

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posted october 16, 2003

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