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introduction: october 16, 2003

"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 United States.

"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 United States?"

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 investigation.

"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 places.

"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 operations.

"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.

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posted october 16, 2003

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