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interview: sahim alwan
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Sahim Alwan is an American citizen of Yemeni descent from Lackawanna, New York. In the spring of 2001, he and five friends traveled to Afghanistan, trained in an Al Qaeda camp, and met Osama bin Laden. Alwan was arrested in September 2002 and has pled guilty to material support of terrorism. He is now serving a 10-year prison sentence. In this interview, Alwan explains why he went to the camp, what it was like meeting bin Laden, and the events that transpired leading up to his arrest. This interview was conducted July 24, 2003.

When we hear about you, the paradox, if you will, is you have three children, college educated, family man, religious, a leader in the community. Why did you go?

I've been a Muslim all my life, since I was born. But I really was starting to learn my religion and get into it, I would say, around 1995, '96. And I was always, I was hungry for knowledge of the religion itself. ... And when this opportunity came it was, what my understanding was, you'll go, you'll learn some more of the religion itself. ...

Ižm not a terrorist, I love my country, I would never hurt any fellow American. ... My family lives here.

One time I was in the hospital, and I was reading a journal. An American journalist was writing when he was there, during the war, and miracles he's seen. You know what I mean?

Meaning the fight--

In the fight, yeah, with [the Russians]. So you know, you've heard stories of it. So it was curiosity, I would say, and hunger for knowledge. And obviously when I got there it was a different picture than what I thought it was gonna be. ...

Was the person who you were listening to at that point, was it Mr. Derwish? I mean how did you know about this trip to Afghanistan?

Yeah, from, from Derwish mostly. He talked about it. He's mentioned Afghanistan. Scholars mention Afghanistan. Back in the time [during] the fight with the Taliban and the Northern Alliance and stuff like that. There's a big dispute on, within the scholars about the justification of that war. The Taliban tried to make it like, Islamic government.

And there are some scholars that said, yes. Some, most of them said, not really, because of the, you know, the fight they're doing, I mean, the Muslims against Muslims there, and stuff. So there's a lot of stuff going on there that you know, that any Muslim would be curious about what's going on. ...

And how do you hear about this possible trip to Afghanistan?

Well I heard that some of the guys that were gonna leave, some of the guys from the Lackawanna Six, as they called them right? Called us. [They] were taking the trip. So I asked to go, too. I wasn't come up to and [asked] do you want to go? No, I actually heard about it.

... So is this part of you and your friends, in a sense, you were trying to be born again Muslims in the spring of 2001? Was this a religious quest?

It was a religious quest, and yes, we didn't know about the camp part. But it wasn't, you know, go and learn how to be a terrorist, or go and do, learn how to come back and do, commit a crime here. No. I mean, they, we were told it was obligated that you had that kind of background. I mean, in Bosnia, America was recruiting, too, people to go fight for the Muslims. They even helped the Muslims in Bosnia. ...

But there's the concept of jihad, of struggle. How did that all fit in? And how did you feel about that?

Well one of the things that Derwish talked about also, was the [importance] of learning how to use -- there's a verse in the Quran that says you have to learn how to prepare. Like, you gotta be prepared just in case you do have to go to war. If there is war, then you would have to be called for jihad. And that was the aspect of the camp itself, for going and learn how to use weapons, and stuff like that. ...

Who was Derwish? How long had you known him? What was he like?

He came to Lackawanna in '97. He has family that lived there. His uncle lived there. We know his uncle, and his cousins, all his, I mean, all my life in Lackawanna. And supposedly his father, he was born here, his brothers were born here.

It was adventure.  We were gonna go learn how to use weapons.  That part of it was the exciting part. You're gonna be able to shoot.

And his father moved to Saudi Arabia when Kamal at that time, I heard was five years old, when he left, when his father took them. And they lived in Saudi Arabia all that time. And he came in '97 to Lackawanna. And that's when I met him.

What kind of guy was he?

He had knowledge of the religion... It's very religious over there [in Saudi Arabia]. And he would give us lectures and stuff like that, you know, in the mosque.

He was impressive?

Very impressive.

Articulate?

Yes, very articulate, very impressive, very knowledgeable of the religion. ... He was very likable. He joked a lot. You know what I mean? He was very social, I mean, very social. Young guys, older guys, his age guys, I mean, so yeah, he was a very likable guy. ...

Did he tell you that he had military training, or had fought, or--

No. He talked about -- not specifically saying directly, "I was there," or "I was in the training camp," but he knew quite a bit about it, that if you were, when I listened I can, I picked up that maybe he was there [in the fighting]. You know what I mean? ...

And, and when you talked with him, did he make you feel like you had to go and learn military arts, if you will--

Yeah. Yes.

In order to be a good Muslim?

Obligatory, at least have that kind of background.

But, it says that in the Quran, you say. But is that also because of events going on in the world?

No, what the Quran, the verse in the Quran actually says, [SPEAKS ARABIC] I say it in Arabic, so if you understood, which means, and prepare for them, anything of strength, which can mean, scholars have interpreted that as meaning, if it's military, then it's military. If it's learning the knowledge, so you can spread the word of Islam, because every Muslim's obligated to convey the message of Islam. Whether the person you're giving it to accepts it or doesn't, that's [up to them]. But you're obligated to seek the knowledge, and convey that message. And in some aspects, it can mean militarily like. You know what I mean?

... And I didn't see, I never really saw the mujahedeen part of it, of the--

The mujahedeen are the warrior side.

Exactly.

That's what you wanted to see.

Yeah.

You had heard about them.

Yeah. Oh yeah.

So you knew--

I mean, you've heard about them through the concepts, like I told you, the Afghanistan war, the Bosnian war, and stuff like that.

And so that's something you wanted to check out, or be part of--

Well no, curiosity, when you, maybe that's just me. But, when I want to learn something, I like to be in it. ...

You went to Pakistan and then Afghanistan.

Right.

Did you know that you were going to a Al Qaeda camp?

No. I have never heard of the word Al Qaeda, itself, until I was in Afghanistan, itself.

You had never heard it here?

Never heard it. Never heard of Al Qaeda.

What about Osama bin Laden?

I've heard of Osama bin Laden.

Did you know that he was involved in any way?

Not in this camp. No. I knew he was in Afghanistan. But not, I didn't know I was going to Osama bin Laden's camp.

Derwish never said--

Derwish never really talked about Osama bin Laden, a lot.

Never?

Obviously he'd come up. If you talk, with the world events that's going on. But he never really talked about him.

For example, when the USS Cole happened, we saw it in the newspaper. And he was kind of saying, well, how do we know [bin Laden] did it? ... And he brought a point up that even to my curiosity, is still today. He said, if he did this, how would he know that this ship is coming to Yemen, for example, and plan to hit it so fast. So, stuff like that. But he did talk about him as that he called him sheik. Sheik in Islam means basically three things, either an older person, which is about around 60, 70s. Sheik means someone that's knowledgeable in the religion, like a scholar, or something where they call him Sheik. Or, the leader of a tribe. When he used the word sheik for Osama bin Laden, it was more of a scholar type of sheik.

Did you guys talk together, or and with Derwish about the fact that bin Laden, for instance, was advocating killing Americans, and--

No. I saw one time, a CNN interview with bin Laden where he was denying a lot of the -- I don't know if you remember. It was like a documentary, I think it was. It was a while back. And I remember seeing that, where he was saying. So, even in my mindset, I didn't believe he probably was behind a lot of this stuff, because of him denying. You know, he never came out and said, yeah, I was behind the, for example, embassy bombings, or this bombing, until after 9/11, or, until actually I went there. And I saw that he was behind this stuff. When I was in Afghanistan. ...

What happened that day when you were leaving? ... Were you off on an adventure together? Did you talk about who you were gonna see, where you were gonna go, what was gonna happen?

It was adventure. We were gonna go learn how to use weapons. That part of it was the exciting part. You're gonna be able to shoot and this and that.

And a lot of it too was [Elbaneh] would tell me like, "Kamal told them that once you get to [Afghanistan] you know, some of them, they're gonna be maybe even living there, staying there. If it's nice, if the Taliban is really a good Muslim government, maybe hey, we can live there, if it's nice, and stuff like that.

Derwish told you, you might like it so much that you would stay?

Well he was telling, he told Elbaneh this. This, this was Elbaneh. But he did tell me that when I saw him in Karachi. Because we knew that he was gonna meet us in Karachi, which is in Pakistan. ...

But did everybody know you were going? Or was this--

We were going to Pakistan. ...

Why was it so secret? Did you ask them why you couldn't tell your wife, or your family, or--

Maybe because it was we were going to the camp, or maybe ... because the mujahedeen, for example, a lot of the guys that were in Bosnian war, the mujahedeen, when they came back, this is what Kamal even told me, was that when they get back to Saudi Arabia, they were in prison and so forth like that. Because of the extremism mentality. You know what I mean? So a lot of things that they did was quieted. ...

So you guys knew that what you were doing might get you in trouble.

Yes. That's why I said it was naïve. It was dumb, you know.

Yeah, but that's the question, I think a lot of people have.

Why did you do it?

Why did you do it?

I mean, you know, it's just like you know, hey let's go steal that car. It's wrong, you know, excitement, you know. You do it. And then you know, you realize it was wrong. And you just want to you know, repent from it. ...

I've been standing here for about 11 months now, saying the same thing. I think back, like, what life did you have, and what the hell did you do? I tell myself that every day. If I could change anything in my past, it would be that trip. ...

Did you get a sense when you got to Afghanistan, that Derwish was an important guy, that he was not just another person?

Yes.

Well, give me a sense of what his role was once you got there.

Well not even when we got to Afghanistan, before we got to Afghanistan, we were in Quetta, Pakistan, where they had a guesthouse there. He knew a lot of people.

He'd been there before.

Yeah, he knew people that even who were running the guesthouse. Yeah, you can say he was [well-known]. At a point, I even asked him, I was like, you know, who are you? You know? Because I realized that he knew a lot of people, you know.

At a point, you asked Derwish how come you know all these people?

Yeah.

And what's going on?

Right.

And what did he say?

He just, he smiled, like, smart grin, smile. ...

And people knew who he was.

Yeah. ...

So you got to Afghanistan. What was it like?

When we first got there, we got to the guesthouse. They had two guesthouses there. Because when we got there, we arrived at what they called the old guesthouse. They call it in Arabic, you know. Derwish had to stay there, I guess, because he was already there. And he was old. And the new guys have to go to another guesthouse. And the new, what they called it, the new guesthouse, you couldn't leave. You had to stay there. You ate there. You drank there. You slept there. You know what I mean? They prepared the food there.

The people that were running the guesthouse were Arab Muslims. People that cooked, for example, and cleaned and stuff, were Afghan Muslims. And you weren't allowed to talk with them, and stuff like that. Why, I don't know. But it was fine. And once they started talking about, for example, there was this kid that used to come by the guesthouse, who's been there for a while. And he argued with a couple of guys. Because not everyone sees, most Muslim see the suicide mission, as they call them, they don't call them suicide missions, they call them martyr missions.

Martyr missions?

Martyr operations are justified, and he would justify that. They would be arguing, for example, one of the kids, [who] has a pretty much good knowledge of the religion was like, "how can you justify that, killing yourself. I mean, it's different when you're fighting in a war, and then you get killed. Yeah, you're a martyr. But to kill yourself," and he was trying to justify it. ... So he jumped in there, which is not really a strong argument, you know. They were arguing back and forth. And then, I can see now, that this stuff is real. They're real. It's not just -- it's real.

There was a book there by Osama bin Laden. And that's when I actually heard of Al Qaeda, because of the book, it said, "Al Qaeda." At that time, I didn't say, "ooh, Al Qaeda." It didn't mean anything, really anything to me, to be honest with you, because I've never really heard of Al Qaeda. But reading through his book, I mean, he had, for example, a map in the book and it had certain flags, American flags, and British flags. And it was supposed to represent the bases where the American military bases and things are in the Middle East and stuff like that.

And the book basically focused on the concept of the, I don't know if you ever heard of the concept of the snake. The head of the snake is America. So if you kill the head, then, you know what I mean? And it focused on how all Muslim governments are hypocrites, because they don't follow the examples of Islam, and stuff like that. So that kind of started working through me.

And then they brought a videotape, they called it the "USS Cole." But basically what the tape was, it was news clippings of the time the USS Cole [bombing], the news clippings of the embassy bombings, and afterwards. News clippings of stuff that happened in Indonesia to some Muslims, news clippings of the Lebanon, Afghanis, of Palestine, and stuff like that. And, you could see through the message now that this is radical. And that's what was going through my head, is, "this is wrong. This is--"

Didn't bin Laden show up? … What was [bin Laden] like? ...

He's tall. I mean, he stood up. You know, we all walked in, you know. We shook his hand. He sat down. He was, I mean, quiet. He asked, who are you, your name. And of course, we already knew that we weren't to say we were from America and stuff. He didn't speak English. ... And he was calm.

After he asked, who are you guys, and [how] is everything, one of the guys asked him, he goes, you know, we're hearing things are gonna happen. Something, you know what I mean, there's big, there's conflict, you know, something's gonna 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 threat, 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, meaning are willing to die for the religion, you know. ...

And what did that mean to you?

Brothers really willing to die. You know what I mean? When you say, carry their soul, meaning you're willing to, to go die, you know, to fight, you know. You know what I mean? That's it.

What was going through your mind?

I was just, I was astonished of what I knew. I've heard of like the extremism. But hearing something, and seeing it first hand, and you know, hearing it from someone that is like that is different. It really is different. At that point, I was like, I knew I was in shit. Excuse my language. But, you know, and I was like, wow, you know, this is, you know, it's real, it's real stuff.

The next day, I kept talking to Elbaneh. I was like, "this is[n't] right, do you want to stay?" And he liked Kamal a lot. He was excited, too, about the weapons and stuff like that.

And he more wanted to, his mindset was to fight in jihad. He was planning on going to the fighting against the Northern Alliance, and stuff like that. Basically his mindset was "I want to be a martyr. I want to die."

This is a man you knew.

Yeah. Right. It's not odd to say, "I want to be a martyr." I mean, anyone in any religion would want to be a martyr. But the question is, what constitutes, what interprets, what is it, who is a martyr, and who isn't? You know what I mean?

So the next day, I was talking to one of the guys and I told them, I just said, I said, if someone wanted to leave, because of -- now understand, like the second day we were there, they come up to you, and they tell you, you gotta give your passport up, and any money, anything, because you don't need anything in the camp. Your, passport, and visas, because no one knows who you really are. So just in case anyone you know, gets a hold of your passport, we hold it, as, as a trust to you, I mean. It, count your money right there. And they put it in a envelope. ...

When you were introduced to bin Laden, did he know you were from America?

At that point I didn't know. Later on, I mean, when I came out, yeah, when I was leaving the camp, you know, I--

OK. But at this point, he doesn't know.

I don't know if he didn't know. I didn't say. I don't know that he knew. I would assume he would.

So you're now on the way to the camp. You've given up your passport. You've given up your money. And whatever second thoughts you had, it's too late now.

Well no, I did ask one of the guys. Not asked him but kind of questioned just to see, if someone wanted to leave, you know, if you don't want to go. He goes, 'well you came with [Derwish]. He was already at the camp.' They said, 'he's already left.' So, he goes, 'you'll see him over there, and talk to him if you're thinking of leaving'…

So, when I got there, I didn't see him. We had to sit outside. Because before you get to the camp, I mean, it's probably part of the camp, but right before the gate of the camp, you stay outside. And I don't know why they let you sit out there. We sat out there for like three days. You know, there's tents and stuff. I mean, they bring you food there. I think it's because it's crowded. Because one group left, then they let us go in...

Then, bin Laden shows up in the camp. It was in the afternoon. Because they were like, all right, everybody go in. And if you guys want to cover your -- because you always had to cover your head -- but they said, you know, if you want to cover your faces, because there are gonna be cameras too. Everyone, basically, you know, covered their face, even his guards' head, all you see is their eyes. ...

And two vehicles, two four-wheel drives show up, you know, pickups, four door. And he came out. I mean, the guards first come out. And there was some guys, the trainers, they're on like some hills. And one of them was on the rooftop of a mosque, you know. And they had weapons. And when the vehicles came in, they were like, shooting everything, you know. They didn't tell us you know, bin Laden's coming. They just you know, but you could tell. You know, when the guards are coming, OK, we know who's coming.

So he came out. It was him, and Ayman al-Zawahiri. He was there also, and his guards, and stuff. And when he came, you know, everyone was lined up. And some guy wrote a poem, you know, some kind of poem.

And then, he went into the mosque. And then, we went in the mosque. ... He was, you know, "You guys are here to train. It's obligated, you know, that you train." And then he goes, "There's Al Qaeda, and Islamic Jihad." And the Jihad he was talking is not the Palestine Jihad, [it's] the Egyptian jihad group.

So Zawhiri was there, who's the Islamic Jihad, right the Egyptian?

The Egyptian guy, right. ...

Right. And bin Laden.

Bin Laden was there. Yeah, bin Laden was reading [a speech].

And his speech was about this?

Well he said that they united, or became allies. And that's what he was reading, you know, that Islamic Jihad gave him a letter, saying that you know, they are with them, in the same cause, and so forth. And then, you know, they said, everyone stay. And he left out with his, you know, guards and stuff.

At this point, you, did you feel like you were a member of the organization?

No. No. At this point, I said I'm leaving regardless. I gotta get outta here. The next days, when we did, we were supposed to do this walk. And I pretended like I hurt myself.

You're supposed to do what, a march, or--

Yeah.

And what happened?

I pretended like I hurt my ankle. So I went back and I told the guy that was running the camp ... I said, "I want to leave, you know. You know, I hurt myself." He goes, "Ah, you didn't hurt yourself. Just go back to your group." I was like, "No, I want to leave, you know. I wanna leave the camp."

Now, at the camp, only certain times you can leave. Because certain vehicles came. It was in the middle of nowhere. I mean, so vehicles came like once a week to take whoever finished. And they go. Or if there was medical concern that they needed to go into the city of Kandahar. And I kept telling him, "I want to leave." And he just kept saying, "go back to your group. Go back to your group."

At this point I was, I had enough. ... I went to see Kamal. That was the day before I was leaving. ... I said, "Kamal, I know there's a vehicle leaving tomorrow. I want to leave. You know, talk to these guys. Talk to them." ... He goes, the condition is you can't tell these guys that you're leaving. You know, if they see you leaving, you're just going into Kandahar," because people used to go in there, you know, if they just needed some medical attention, or something. He goes, "Don't tell them you're leaving. Because if you tell them you're leaving, they're gonna want to leave."

That's your friends.

Right, he, the other Lackawanna guys. I said, OK. ... And he sent one of the trainers there, to talk to me. ...

So what I kept telling them is, look, my family, I even told them, look, I said, I go, please, I left sudden, you know, I don't know how my family's doing. I want to go back, straighten everything out. And then I'll come back, you know, if everything's straightened out. He said ... patience. He goes, I know you're worried about your family. Everybody [is], you know. I said, no, I gotta go. I wanna go. I said, if Abdul does not let me go, I'm just gonna jump on the car, and go. So, he goes, ah, I'll tell him.

The vehicle then you know, it came. It was in the afternoon. ... So I got my bag, got in the car. Elbaneh was standing there. You know, he was like, where are you going? I said, yo, I said, I'm getting the fuck outta here. I said, you know, I'm leaving. And, I left.

Did you talk to any of your friends about why you were leaving, or that you were leaving, and that this wasn't what you expected?

... The only one that I told was Elbaneh. I didn't tell them. I mean, Kamal told me not to say anything. I didn't say anything. I didn't want anything to stop me from leaving. ...

So you got out.

Yes. Well, I got out of the camp. And then I went to -- you have to go to the guesthouse, which is the old guesthouse, not the new guesthouse. Only the newcomers go in there. ...

I saw a guy there that was Kamal's friend. And we met him in Karachi. ... He knew we were from America. I said, "I gotta go back. I left my family. I didn't know it was gonna be this long. I wanna go back. " ...

He goes, do you want to see you know, [see bin Laden], which is the [sheik]. I was like, no. He goes, no, he'll be excited. I mean, he knows you. He knows you know, that you guys are from there.

He knows you're from America.

Yeah, he'll like to see you, and stuff like that. ...

That night, a gentleman ... came up to me and he said, "They're gonna pick you up tomorrow. I already set up the meeting." He said, "[Derwish's friend] told me you wanted to [see] you know, the sheik." I said, "no, I told [him] I didn't want to see the sheik. I'm not gonna give him no pledge, and stuff like that." Because usually I guess that's what they see him for, to give them a pledge. Because they did talk to you about, giving the pledge. ...

So they thought you wanted to give a pledge to bin Laden?

No, no. That's what I thought, that's what. But he goes, "Don't worry, he's not gonna ask you for a pledge. It's not a big deal. You're just gonna see him. He knows you're going back." I said, "OK." What am I gonna tell him? OK.

So the next day ... there's another guy that came with me from the guesthouse, and one guard took us to the vehicle. And we went to this place that was, I don't know if it was a residence. But it was a big courtyard opening, surrounded by a wall. Most of the houses [in the camp] have got walls around them. Walked in. We were sitting down. The ... one that saw me last night, [came up to me], shook my hand, "how you doing." It was good. He goes, OK, just give me a minute. Let me see if he's ready. So he went in, came back out. He said, "go ahead."

So I walked in. There was one guard out. The door was right here. There was a guard right here. And then there was one out here, in the middle of the courtyard. And the guy just waved me to go in. It was like a room. You know, [he was] just sitting, sitting on the floor.

Did he search you, or anything?

No. No. Didn't search me. He just walked in. And, you know, bin Laden was there. He stood up, and shook my hand. Made me sit down. He said How you doing?" And he asked me, "How are your brothers?" I assumed he was talking about the guys that were still in the camp. I said, "good." He goes, "Did you finish the [training]?" I said no. He asked why? I said, "Because I left suddenly, I left my family. And I didn't know it was gonna be this long, and I want to go back. Then maybe I'll come back." And he goes, "You came through Pakistan right?" I said, yeah. He goes, "Do you need to clean your passport?" I said, "No, it's, it's fine, I think, because even, I, my visa's already in the past. I don't need to clean it. "

And then he goes to me -- I'm trying to think, you know -- he said, "How are the Muslims there?" You know, I assumed he talked about America. I said, you know, good. I said, "We have more freedom over there to practice our religion. We're free to practice our religion. Even it's better than some Muslim countries. You know, we're allowed to do, you know, whatever we want." And he didn't really look at you. He seemed very like, like a really quiet, humble guy. He gazed down.

And he said, "How [are] the youth?" I said, "They're good. Like I told you, they're, we're free to practice the religion."

He goes, [SPEAKS ARABIC], meaning what do they think of the operations? ... I said, you know, we don't even think about it. And, I wanted to like change the subject and stuff. I mean, he didn't, he would say a word, and just, that's why I say he was very humble. I mean, didn't really like, you know, la da da da da you know, it was just a word, and then, just a smile.

And then I said, "I'm hearing there's you know, this conflict or something. Because in the camp they kept saying America's gonna, the ports of Karachi, and they're gonna strike." And there are threats saying that, he's threatened the United States, and stuff.

And he goes, "There's been threats back and forth." And then he said, "When are you supposed to be leaving?" I said, "They told me that I can leave tomorrow. They're supposed to give me my passport tonight. And I can leave tomorrow." And then he just said, [SPEAKS ARABIC], meaning you know, may God make you successful. And he stood up. And I stood up. Shook his hand. Walked outside. And then this other kid went in.

And then they were saying, just wait. Before you leave, we'll just eat. It was lunchtime. And when we ate, it was just his guards, and some other guys there. He didn't eat with us. We ate, prayed, and then they took me back to the guesthouse. That night I got my passport and my money and stuff. ... And I just, and I left.

You had to carry some videotapes? Or they asked you?

Oh, yes, yes. I'm sorry. After I met you know, with [bin Laden], and then I came out, we're sitting outside, while this other kid went in, the guy that came to me that night, came and he goes, "You're gonna go to Karachi right?" And I said, "yeah." He goes, "This kid is there. Can you give him something?" And he gave me the two videotapes. And I'm like, what is it? He goes, "it's the Cole.'" They called it "The Cole." I said "OK, what do I do?" There was two. I said, two of them. He goes, "yeah, do you want one?" I said, "what am I gonna do [with it]?" And he said it, smiling, so I don't know if he was joking -- he goes, "You can give it to the government. When you get there, send it to the government, or government offices," you know, that's what the Arabic word meant. ... I don't know if they were trying to feel me. I mean I was the last one there, first one to leave. So I just took the videos, and I said fine. …

So you get out.

Right.

Get to Karachi.

Yes.

You get on the plane. You fly back. And what's on your voice mail when you get home?

On my voice mail? Nothing yet, not on the first [day back] But four days later, my wife told me, she said, four days, five days later, she said "some guy from Allstate called you." I said "Allstate? I don't have Allstate Insurance." Now, I already got back. And there's already rumors that you guys went to Afghanistan.

Rumors in the community.

Right. So I'm like, Allstate? There's nobody from Allstate. And she gave me the number ... and I called it. ... He said, "My name's Edward Needham. ... I just want to talk to you about a couple things." He didn't say why. I kind of assumed that he, that if the rumors are already out, then they probably know. ...

I was scared. The next day I met him and he asked me about the trip and stuff. And I told him, I said, because it was a story that we talked about before we left, that we went to Pakistan, we were going to Pakistan for [religious training]. When we were there, [we said] if we ever get back, that's the story we stick to. Everyone agreed to that. I'm talking about the Lackawanna guys.

Before you went, you, guys together agreed, that if anyone asked you, you went--

Well that's what we [agreed]. That's what we were told yeah, that's what we said [we were] going to Tablighi Jama.

To just learn religion, and preach.

Right. Right. And that's what we all agreed on, if we get back, that's what the story's gonna be. ...

And what did he say?

He said, well we heard [the] rumors, he said that you guys went to Afghanistan, and stuff like that. I said, no, no. And he had all of our names. Because we [knew] so and so, and so and so, and so and so. He even heard that Kamal was, and Yahya were the leaders, and stuff. But I said, no.

So he knew about Kamal?

Yeah, he knew that Kamal--

And he had the whole list of all of you?

Yeah, all of us. I mean he knew the names, yeah.

And you said, no, we went to Pakistan.

Yeah.

And what did he say, when you said that?

I don't remember exactly. He just said, OK. He was writing stuff down. He didn't [say], "You're lying to me." ... He was just [saying], "Keep your eye out, when these other guys, are they supposed to come back? " He did ask me, he goes "why did you leave?" I said, "I didn't really like it, so I left early. We were supposed to stay," I said, "The other guys are probably gonna stay there longer." He goes, "well you know, just keep your eyes and ears open for me." I said, "OK." ...

Were you scared now?

Well, yeah.

You've now lied to the FBI, right?

Yeah, I mean, mostly, I was scared. This whole thing, you know, I knew it was a mistake. It was wrong. And I just wanted it to be forgotten. You do something wrong. And you know you did it wrong. And you just want to, like repent from it, and just say, " hopefully it'll all just go away." ...

Who is Juma al-Dosari?

He was a friend of Kamal's as far as we knew. He was Saudi. He lived in Indiana. He was imam of a mosque there. And he was very knowledgeable of the religion, I mean, from what we were told from Kamal. He and Kamal were from Saudi Arabia. That's all we really knew about him. ...

And you never met with him. He never tried to get you to go to Pakistan or--

No.

The summer, when your friends come back, do you talk to them?

Yes. Well, the three guys came back first from Pakistan. And they were questioned in New York City, about the trip. I don't know who questioned them. But they said it was the FBI, who questioned them about the trip. And they told them "no, we were in Pakistan." And [they told me] we stick to the same story. And I was like, "OK, good. I was questioned too, and I told the same story." So we stick to the same story. We went to Pakistan, and that's it. And that was it. ...

And when they came back, did you all guys ever get together again, and talk about what happened?

When we got together, we talked about keeping your mouth shut, and just letting this thing die out. You know what I mean? Just, it was wrong, you know what I mean?

Everyone agreed it was wrong.

As far as, yeah, because everyone came back. You know, supposedly they were gonna stay there, and you know. But no one stayed there.

You've all been described as this sleeper cell.

I don't know where that came from. I really don't know. I mean, sleeper cell. We were definitely no sleeper cell. You know what I mean?

You don't stay in touch with each other?

I mean we lived in the same community. I mean, we ran into each other in the mosque. You know what I mean? But, you know, we run into each other, like we run into anybody. You know what I mean? But nothing like, you know, like conspiring, or the, you know what I mean? That was it. No one even talked about, especially after 9/11. No one, that's it, you know, you are, pshee, just forget about that.

What was your reaction when 9/11 happened?

I was at work. ... A plane just ran into one of the towers. And it was like an accident, that's how [my boss] made it [sound], it's an accident. It's like, oh. And then he goes, oh, wait. They were listening to the news. He goes, another plane went into it. I'm like, I went to the kitchen. And then we had the TVs, we had TVs in the kitchen for the students and stuff. And then we were looking. And when I heard the third plane, this is bullshit. This is no accident, you know. I was like, I was devastated. I mean, I was. It was, you know, then they started, they said, bin Laden this. And I says, "oh, shit, my kids are in school." I was worried about my kids. And I knew it was you know, it was gonna be big problems here, you know, with Muslims. ...

So yeah, I was definitely [scared]. And I did, what I did when I got home, too, I called Ed Needham.

On 9/11?

Oh yeah. I called him. I said, Ed, I know you're busy. Whatever you need, whatever it is, assistance. He said, all I need you to do is keep your eyes and ears open. I said, whatever you need.

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

Well they already said that. You know, and like I told you they were, they kept saying that there's gonna be a conflict. But, I'm gonna be honest with you, I, even 'til today, how the hell did they pull something like [that], you know, how I don't know.

I mean, but, what, did I think that their mindset, they would do something like that? Yes. That's what they, I said, you know, if, if they're saying it's him, I mean, from what I saw, they would do something like this. You know what I mean?

What they say is, you got to the camps, you met bin Laden. They, meaning the government.

Right.

Right. So why on 9/11, didn't you tell Needham, look--

--I was there? You know why? Because I was scared. As, who's gonna believe me? I said, if I go in -- I mean, people are hurt right now. And when people are hurt, and something's wrong, somebody gotta take the blame. Someone's gotta take the fall. And I'll be honest with you. I was afraid. I was afraid of jails. I was like, if I tell them, they're not gonna believe me. "Oh, you went there. You didn't like it. You came back here." I don't know what they were gonna believe. Too much tension. This is a devastating incident that just happened. It's crazy. So I was afraid. ...

I understand. But you've got inside information.

What kind of inside information?

How they recruit people. Derwish, 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.

To be honest with you, actually I think the government knew more than I can tell them. That's how I felt. Really. I think they knew about him. They hit the first camp. Like I said, when we were at the camp, they kept saying, "they know where the camp is. The ships of America are already in the ports of Karachi." You know what I mean? And they were saying that they knew this, and they were gonna hit the camps. And America already knew where the camps were, then why didn't they hit them? You know what I mean? I don't know if this was true what they did. But this is what we were hearing. They know. They're gonna hit.

You were scared.

I was scared. Oh yeah. Definitely I was scared. I'm not gonna, of course I was scared.

You were afraid that if you told the FBI--

That I was there, that I was gonna be blamed for it, you know.

And your friends would get in trouble?

More. Yeah.

You would have to give up their names.

Yeah. Yeah. Of course. But, more, I was fearful for myself, mostly. And yes, for, for them, too.

Did you and the others ever get together, with any of them, after 9/11, in the months after 9/11, and say, boy, did we make a mistake?

We already knew we made a mistake. But I'm gonna be honest with you. We didn't talk about. We didn't. I tried to forget about that whole thing so bad that I had, after, when I was arrested, I had to remember things over, and over, and over. Even 'til now. I just, it's, it's a part of my life that's, I told you if I want to change it, I really, I wish I can change it. And you try to do that. I don't know if that's psychological. But you try to forget. You force yourself to forget it. ...

So you felt when you were back that when the FBI asked you for cooperation, that's something you wanted to do, to help the FBI.

Right. Right. And I wanted to do as much, but not enough to put me in jail. You know what I mean? You know, where I'm coming from.

You didn't want to implicate yourself.

Right. And I didn't want to implicate anybody else. Because if I implicate anybody else, it was gonna implicate myself. And I tried to help. And I'm gonna be honest with you. I know, Ed Needham, I can say that he tried to, he gave me a lot of opportunities. And I regret that too, very much.

A lot of opportunities to?

To come forward. You know what I mean? I regret that very much. Because I feel bad. I mean, every time, when I saw him, every time I saw him at court, he tried to. And I screwed it up for myself. ...

Tell me what happened that day, the day that you were arrested.

The day I was arrested?

Yeah.

Well, the night before, it, I gotta tell you the night before that. Because the day before that Ed Needham, and another agent showed up at my job. ... And they told me, look, you know, Sahim, you know, we know you were there. Just, just tell us. You know, we know about [Al-Farooq]. We know you were only there for like two weeks. And, you know, someone was arrested overseas, and so forth. ...

And then, then I said, OK, yeah. You know, I was in there. And I told him everything. He goes, "I'm gonna need a statement. When do you get off of work?" I said, "probably like an hour." He goes, "call me when you get out." I said, "am I being arrested?" He said, "no, if you wouldn't have told me, yeah, you would've been arrested. But I need to you to call me as soon as you get out of work." And I said, "OK." And then he, I don't know how the passport came up. But then he goes, "bring your passport, when you call me. We're gonna meet. Bring your passport with you." I said, "oh, so I am being arrested. Since, since I'm bringing you the passport." He, he goes, "no, we just gotta [have it]." I said, "OK, no problem." ...

And the next morning, I was supposed to go into work that morning. I was just, that night, I told my wife, "I think I'm gonna be arrested." I just had a feeling, you know. I didn't sleep that night.

The next, I had, five o'clock in the morning, I went to pray to the mosque. And I go pray to the mosque every morning. And no one follows me. But that morning, I left the car, and there was a car, there was a parking lot, across from where my apartment was. And a vehicle came out and followed me, and parked right across from the mosque.

I called my supervisor at work. He's the safety manager. And he goes, "how's everything? What's going on? Why aren't you at work?" I said, "I'll come in later on." He said, "what's going on?" He goes, "those were feds that were out here, yesterday, weren't they?" Because I guess, they, he goes, "I know, I saw the cars. I saw them." He goes, "are you getting harassed, you know? And what's going on?" I said, "no," I said, "I'll talk to you when I get in."

When I left to go to work, I noticed four vehicles now behind me. I went into work. I wasn't even in there like, a half hour. I just, I'll tell you, I gotta go home. I left. I picked up the phone to call [Ed], and there was a message. And it was Ed Needham, "Sahim, you know, give me a call." So I called. I said, "Ed, what's going on?" You know? He goes, you know, "they're gonna arrest you." I said, "OK. You know what? I can come in. They don't have to [come get me], I'll come right in." ...

What people in the government tell us is that you guys were a sleeper cell, that you were ready, if somebody called you up, if Derwish or somebody called you up and said, pick us up at the airport, or move a package from point A to point B that that's what you guys were. You guys were ready to, to do something if you were asked.

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, he used to talk to Kamal. He was like, yo, "Kamal says 'hi,' and I was like, "look man, stay away from the guy." I didn't even want to hear, don't talk about him, I don't want to hear it. ...

As far as you know, nobody was really in close contact with him afterwards?

Right. Except for one guy. Not one of the Lackawanna Six, another gentleman from Lackawanna. You know.

But in the community, was Derwish seen as just a religious worker, or was he seen as someone also with radical politics?

He didn't speak a lot publicly. The more lectures and stuff he gave were within, like the youth and stuff like that. He'd give a lesson or something. But not publicly.

This was at his apartment, or this was--

Sometimes at his apartment, or sometimes in the mosque, like after the prayers and stuff, we'll just hang out there, just come. He also taught Koran, to the kids in the mosque.

Because the government says that he was the recruiter, if you will, along with Juma, of you, of the Lackawanna six. How did you look at them?

Like I told you, I found out that these guys were going, and I went, said I wanted to go. But now looking back at it, you know, and this is opinion, right, on my part, you can say yeah, maybe that was the purpose. Maybe.

That all along he was out to recruit people.

I don't know if that's why he came here, for that reason. Maybe at some point he thought, "Wow, you know, these guys are really learning the religion, they don't know really much, but they're hungry for it. So, let's give them our part of the religion." ...

Maybe you're not one of the people who could have been part of the sleeper cell, but do you think maybe some of your friends were deeply involved? Well one of them, Elbaneh is still over there, right?

Right, he didn't come back. So I don't know what to say about him. I don't really know. He's in Yemen. Supposedly. But, these guys are back, they're back to jobs, and to soccer. That's an opinion question, I don't want to say some, I can only speak for myself. I don't think they're up to anything. But I don't [know]. ...

You know that in the summer of 2002 the Central Intelligence Agency did an analysis and it said that you guys were the most dangerous terrorist cell in America?

No, this is the first time I heard that. ...

We know today that apparently the U.S. government had no informants who ever got into those camps, who ever came out, apparently, and told them what was going on prior to 9/11.

I didn't know that.

You're saying it wasn't so hard to go. All you had to do was say, was show up.

I mean, through Kamal, I guess, and, that's why I tell you I think he was a key person, yeah. Because I don't think anybody can just walk in there. They seem to be a very well organized, very well. I told you, they take your passport, they don't tell you they take, right now, I'm thinking they take your passport because you can't just [go] in and out just like you want to, but that, that's not what they tell you. They tell you, well, it's because no one knows, so no one can get a hold of it and see who you really are and stuff like that.

Did you have a sense that you were valuable to them because you were from America?

I don't know, because I wasn't there long enough. Like I said, the reason why I think, on my way out [bin Laden] wanted to meet with me, I thought it was because I felt maybe because of suspicion, he wanted to feel me, because I was the last one there, first one out. Never finished even weapons training.

Why are you talking to us?

Why am I talking to you? That's a psychological question. Because there is an image that was put out there about me. And the only people that know the real me is people that were close to me that, that were my friends, either my co-workers, my family. And I want everyone to know that, you know, that's not who I am. I consider myself, you know, that's my ancestors, Muslim is my religion, America is my country. I was born here. I lived here all my life. I love my country as much as I love my religion. I have all kind of friends, Christian friends, white, black, all kinds of friends. 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. My kids could have been on that plane, I could have been on that plane. I could have been in the towers. My family. I have friends in this country. You know what I mean?

[The thing that hurts most] out of the whole, this whole thing is when you know who you really are but the public, and people outside are only going to see what they, what they see on TV. And that hurts more, it really hurts. That's what scares me the most, and I don't know. What I can do to, to show, to prove that? ...

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posted october 16, 2003

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