"In the past 24 hours, federal authorities have identified,
investigated and disrupted an Al Qaeda-trained terrorist cell on
American soil," Deputy Assistant Attorney General Larry Thompson
announced on Sept. 14, 2002. It was a sobering announcement that sent
shockwaves through America.
They were dubbed "The Lackawanna Six" and they were American citizens
accused of aiding Al Qaeda and having personally met with Osama bin
Laden. The case was hailed as a victory in the war on terrorism.
Combining the forces of the FBI and CIA under the new powers of the
Patriot Act, the federal government brought all its counterterrorism
resources to bear on the "Lackawanna Six."
But were these Americans really an Al Qaeda "sleeper cell" ready to
strike at bin Laden's command? Or were they, as one alleged terrorist
claims, merely unwitting pawns whose desire to become more deeply
immersed in Islam landed them in the wrong place at the wrong time?
FRONTLINE and The New York Times join forces to go deep inside
the war on terror at home in "Chasing the Sleeper Cell." With remarkable
access to top government officials and counterterrorism investigators --
and featuring an exclusive interview with a member of the alleged
terrorist cell -- the report takes viewers inside a
secret national security investigation to witness how America's
intelligence agencies pursued an alleged Al Qaeda cell operating in the
"For the first time, both the counterterrorism cops and their quarry
talk on the record and on camera about a case that the U.S. government
says was the most important and decisive blow against Al Qaeda here at
home since 9/11," says Lowell Bergman, who, with Matthew Purdy, reports
the story for both FRONTLINE and The New York Times. "But many
in the intelligence community disagree. They say the way this case was handled is a
prime example of why the FBI is not up to the job and that we need a
new domestic counterintelligence and counterespionage agency."
In spring 2001, FBI officials say they had no intelligence that would
indicate U.S. citizens were attending Al Qaeda terrorist camps. Part
of the problem, some officials say, was the lack of resources then being
devoted to terrorism.
"Everybody wanted to talk tough about terrorism, but when you came
right down to it the political will was not there," says Dale
Watson, the FBI's top counterterrorism
cop until late 2002. "We were very, very concerned about the [terrorist
training] camps. The basic question of the camps was who's graduating
from those camps and where are they going? Did they come back to the
In the summer of 2001, just months before Sept. 11, an anonymous
letter from Lackawanna, New York's Yemeni community arrived at the FBI's Buffalo
office. The letter claimed that a group of Lackawanna residents had
traveled to Afghanistan to "meet bin Laden" and train in his camps.
Interviewed by the FBI after their return, the suspects denied having
made the journey. With no other evidence to refute their story, the
FBI's investigation was effectively at a standstill.
Watson, the former counterterrorism agent, staunchly defends the
FBI's actions. The fact that the suspects in question were American
citizens who could not be deported, he says, complicated the FBI's
"We just couldn't round up individuals because someone sent an
anonymous letter that says, 'A, B, and C are doing something illegal and
are terrorists,'" Watson says. "That would give us cause to take a
closer look at them. But you had to have probable cause to arrest
somebody in this country."
The rules of the game changed, however, after Sept. 11. Suddenly
terrorism and Al Qaeda sleeper cells were priority number one, and the
Lackawanna group began to draw the attention of people in very high
"There were discussions about what these people were doing," says
Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge.
"I know the president asked questions about that. What are the leads?
Where they've been. Have we found any sources to corroborate it?
What's their legal status?"
That high-level concern became even more pronounced when U.S. forces
captured a jihadi warrior named Juma Al Dosari as he was fleeing Afghanistan following the war with the
Taliban. During his interrogation, Al Dosari revealed that he had lived
in Lackawanna with one of the suspected cell members before leaving the
country two weeks after Sept. 11 in order to fight alongside the Taliban
in Afghanistan. He also confirmed that, contrary to the group's
assertions, its members had indeed attended an Al Qaeda training camp.
"It was a concern that we could possibly have something here," says
Peter Ahearn, special agent in charge of the FBI's operations in Buffalo
and Western New York. "A very active cell planning to do something in
the United States -- that's your worst nightmare."
After one of the Lackawanna Six was detained in Bahrain and confessed to having attended the camps, the others were arrested in the U.S. on Sept. 13 and Sept. 14, 2002.
Intelligence experts, however, have criticized the FBI for becoming too focused on finding an actual crime with which
to charge the Lackawanna suspects instead of attempting to infiltrate
the cell in order to gain valuable information about Al Qaeda's
"The bureau has done it in the past," says John MacGaffin,
a 30-year veteran of the CIA. "It does not do it
now as well because it approaches [investigations] in a law enforcement,
criminal conviction mentality. And that's unfortunate, because we're
taking a chance. We're taking a chance because we're not going down the
road that's likely to get us inside the innermost councils of those who
would wish us harm."
Some FBI officials contend, however, that it was the CIA's
misinterpretation of one suspect's e-mails -- and its failure to thoroughly vet the information --
that led Washington to believe the Lackawanna suspects were a far
greater threat than they actually were. In "Chasing the Sleeper Cell,"
FRONTLINE and The New York Times speak with FBI and local law
enforcement officials who say their investigations into the Lackawanna
group found no evidence that the men were plotting an attack.
"We did not develop something here that was a direct threat, that
there was a plot," Ahearn says. "There were some indications that would
make you a little concerned. Then, we would vet that out and say,
'Well, that is not something we are concerned about.'"
Lackawanna Police Chief Dennis O'Hara agrees. "Were they a sleeper
cell?" he asks. "If they were, they were deep asleep."
However, FBI Director Robert Mueller
defends the decision to arrest the men. "Do you and the American people
want us to take the chance," he asks correspondent Lowell Bergman, "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 ... [that] we just should let it go and wait for the attack?
And then, after the fact, conduct our investigation?"
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.