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How Dangerous Was the Lackawanna Cell?
The arrest of the six men from Lackawanna -- whom the CIA, in the summer of 2002, called the most dangerous terrorist cell in the country -- was hailed as a victory in the domestic war on terrorism. Each of the six pled guilty to material support of terrorism and each has been sentenced to between seven and 10 years in prison. Critics, however, have questioned the relatively light sentences for a group believed to be so dangerous. Here, FRONTLINE's experts discuss the danger of the Lackawanna group.

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David watson
FBI assistant director for counterterrorism, 1999-2002
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What we were told is that [the Lackawanna men] were described to the president as the most dangerous terrorist cell.

I have seen that reported that way.

The most dangerous terrorist cell inside the United States.

At the present -- at the time, it was stated, yes.

In June, or so--

June. Yes. June or July -- sometime in that time frame. That's correct. ...

All of a sudden, the eyes of the president and the White House are on Lackawanna?

Lackawanna. What in the world is going on up there? Who are these people? How much longer are they going to be able to run loose, so to speak? ...

The heat goes up.

The heat, yes.

The heat is, "Get them off the street. Do something."

No. The heat is, what in the world is this group doing? Are they capable of carrying out an attack? Can you guys make sure it doesn't happen? Can you, the FBI, make sure it doesn't happen? That was the heat. No one said, "Get these guys out of here today." Not initially. That wasn't the deal. ...

You have the FBI here, sitting here, almost as a sitting duck. The obvious question -- and likely so -- is, can you guarantee to me that these people won't do something? The answer is, we think we can. We think. Yes, we are probably 99 percent sure that we can make sure that these guys don't do something, if they were planning to do something. Under the rules that we were playing under at the time, that's not acceptable. So a conscious decision was made: Let's get them out of here, or let's get this case resolved. ...

I can hear somebody out there, listening to this, saying it sounds like, because of this "speculative analysis," it's called by the [CIA], this analytical conclusion that they came to that it was the most dangerous terrorist group in America, that therefore, you had to find a case to hang on them. Otherwise, they would still be out there, on the streets. Do you know what I am getting at?

Yes. I understand.

It sounds like the intelligence community is driving the law enforcement activity. ...

Intelligence analysis and criminal investigative analysis are not 180 degrees, but it's a different standard. The agency -- and they are very good at this -- does predictability studies. What's going to happen if Castro leaves office? They have a lot of smart people that do that sort of thing. In the terrorism arena, they also have predictability, and assessment of what Al Qaeda's capabilities are now, as opposed to 9/11. Those sort of things.

The collection method on that, for them to draw some conclusion, is just a massive amount of information from any source, from any place -- not vetted. It can be a newspaper article in Pakistan. Anything that draws conclusions [goes] into this big pot. Then [what] they do is they take it, they sort it all out and they draw some type of reasonable conclusion that the probabilities of North Korea having nuclear weapons is such-and-such. It can be based on real hard facts; it can be based on speculation.

If you are doing that on a criminal case, the Lackawanna case, "most dangerous" -- those terms [are] not necessarily backed up [by] factual information. So if the FBI had to determine how dangerous is this bunch in Buffalo and we were going to do an assessment of that and say, "We are not real sure, because we don't have any factual basis. We have got all this intelligence. We need to take a closer look at it." ...

Historically, traditionally -- and if you look at it in that perspective -- the Lackawanna case, if you eliminate the presidential push on this and the almost constant "not another attack on the United States"... we would have then felt reasonably secure [about] these folks in Lackawanna. We knew where they were. We knew what they were trying to do. If, in fact, they made overt acts to do something, we would have been able to stop that.

This would have allowed us to launch the investigation for a much longer period of time, and hopefully identify other Lackawanna individuals, throughout the United States and overseas, and maybe give intelligence out of it, but with the eventual feel that they would be prosecuted. …

When you heard that the Lackawanna group was characterized as being the most dangerous terrorist cell in America ... did you agree?

I thought there were problems with the six-member group up in Lackawanna. To say that they were the most dangerous terrorist group in the United States -- I wouldn't necessarily approve of that, because I have seen enough to know that they probably didn't have the means or the capabilities at that point to do something.

Were they a clear and present danger to the United States?

In what terms? In inciting people to join the organization? Or to write letters, or proselytize? Yes, they were a threat in that arena, but not big. Were they a threat to obtain a dirty bomb, or chemicals, or get a truck, and go to do it? I said, probably not. I saw nothing to support that they were ready to carry out some attack. ...

But if I understand you correctly, your experience would have been in a case like this [would have been] let's have a little patience. Let's watch.


Let's see where it leads us. Let's see what happens. Let's see what develops. Let's take a closer look.

But understanding fully well that, if this bubbles up, that people above, in high places, probably can't run the risk of me telling them or the FBI telling them, "We think, we are almost sure, that they are not planning anything." So it was a risk not worth taking, in their view.

For political reasons, they don't.

Well, probably for the protection of the country, and just on the small percentage chance that maybe we were wrong; maybe they had something else up their sleeve that we didn't know about.


alice fisher
U.S. deputy attorney general, 2001-2003
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Officials of the government of the United States called the Lackawanna group a sleeper cell. What does that mean?

Well, in the context of the Lackawanna defendants, they had left the United States to go abroad, stayed in Al Qaeda safe houses and then went and trained in Al Qaeda terrorist training camps. And then they came back to the United States after listening to Osama bin Laden on anti-American indoctrination and watching videos about the attack on the USS Cole. To come back to the United States and then, whether they were going to be operatives here or not operatives here, they had already violated the criminal laws and therefore it was imperative on us to incapacitate them.

The FBI officials who have talked about the case publicly say that they were not actively doing anything.

Well, many times people might be here and not actively doing anything. But they have now been trained by the enemy to come back here, and when they may be called upon to do something, we can't wait for that to happen. Once they've violated our criminal laws we have to take action. We must take action.

Does the question of intent, though, get involved in how you charge somebody or what you charge them with?

Well, under the material support statutes, it is a crime to provide material support to the enemy or the foreign terrorist organizations. They intended to go abroad and train with the enemy. That is intent enough to violate our criminal laws.

So it's a crime to attend a terrorist training camp.

It is under the law -- both upheld in the eastern district of Virginia in the John Walker Lindh case and in Buffalo in the case of the Lackawanna defendants -- a crime under the material support statutes to go and provide oneself to the enemy by training in their camps and participating in the anti-American indoctrination.

This is a question from one of the defense attorneys who we interviewed. He asks if they are so dangerous, why didn't you charge them with, for example, training with firearms, machine guns, explosives and so on and give them big sentences? They're going to be out on the street in five, six years.

... The maximum penalty is 10 years in this case.

Right. And they can get out with good time in, let's say, five years from now, some of them.

It is inappropriate to comment on plea negotiations and why the government decided on a particular sentence for these individuals. We were fully behind the charges in this case.

I understand that. But I'm not asking you, you know, on the specific case. But the implication that his question is, if they're so dangerous, why would the government agree to a relatively light sentence?

Well, we don't believe it's a light sentence. But in addition, these defendants are cooperating, as other defendants are, other individuals that have pled guilty. And that cooperation to assist us in intelligence gathering and assist us further on our war on terrorism is a very important factor that we take into consideration at the Department of Justice. So without commenting specifically on the plea negotiations in this case I will tell you that cooperation is very important to us.

In our investigation of these various defendants some of them clearly, once they got to the camp, really didn't want to be there. They have said that. One of them managed to get out by faking an injury. The other one claims that he told Osama bin Laden that his parents didn't know where he was and he needed to write them a letter. That doesn't sound like a bunch of guys who intended to do harm, at least, all of them.

Well, they stood up in court in entering their guilty pleas and admitted to violating our laws and admitted to training abroad in an Al Qaeda camp, which they knew was an Al Qaeda camp, and they admitted to meeting with bin Laden, some of them. That is dangerous. And in an effort to prevent future terrorist acts, people that would engage in this kind of behavior need to be incapacitated through our criminal justice system. ...

Should we feel safer because these six individuals in Lackawanna are locked up?

I feel safer.

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tom mueller
FBI Director
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Are they a terrorist cell?

You could consider them a terrorist cell. They've certainly been to the training camp. They certainly were poised to commit an act. Consequently, I think it's fair to call them a terrorist cell.

Our information is that they never did anything that whole summer you were watching them.

If you look at the 19 hijackers who came to the United States in Sept. 11 to commit those acts, if you'd looked at them before they got onto a plane, you could probably say the same thing. There were various levels of expertise, various levels of competence. There were various roles that each of them played. In this particular group in Lackawanna, you could say that this is a similar, potentially effective, terrorist group. ...

There seem to have been, in the course of the investigation, because the intelligence agencies had access to all the information that the FBI was developing, certain analyses that came back that FBI agents in the field, [that] others felt were extreme, or inaccurate, or misinterpreted some of the information. You may remember some of those incidents.

I would say in just about every investigation we have, there will be differences of opinion, where you have partial facts, as to what those facts mean. That has happened in that case. It happened in another case, where you have partial facts, whether it be within the United States, or developed overseas. And you try to put them together. But you do not have a clear picture, and what you're trying to do is see what that picture means.

There'll be differences of opinion in just about every intelligence analysis that you make. In this particular investigation, there was some. But rare is the investigation where you don't have competing interpretations of the facts, until you get to a particular point where the picture is much more fulsome. ...

There appeared to have been some controversy about how imminent the threat was from this group in Lackawanna in the summer [of 2002], that the analysts at the agency presented ... interpreted some of the e-mails as saying there might be an imminent attack. But no one had checked with the office in Buffalo, to find out, for example, that there had been a wedding, and the wedding didn't necessarily mean attack.

I would hesitate to make conclusions on partial facts that you may be picking up. As I said before, there are often disagreements as to what a particular set of facts mean. That is not at all unusual, and one shouldn't read into it more than is there.

Well, enlighten me, because, I mean, in fact, I'm at a disadvantage. The investigations take place in, necessarily to a certain extent, in secret, or in some in camera form. We're trying to figure out what happened.

All I'm going to tell you is investigations, whether it be this and others, where you have partial facts, analysts, agents are always trying to interpret what those facts mean, extrapolate from them what they mean. There are differences of opinion. You can have a set of facts that changes daily, because you got new facts in, based on the investigation. It may be urgent one day and not so urgent the next day as you get more facts. It's not unusual. It's not something that, in my mind, is tremendously controversial. ...

Was there ever any evidence that these individuals were going to undertake a terrorist attack? Have any of the six pled guilty?

Without getting into that which has not been made a matter of public record, and I'm not certain how much has ... we did not find explosives. We did not find that they'd bought a car to put explosives in. At points in the investigation, there were pieces of evidence and information that gave us some sense of urgency that this group of individuals might be poised to commit an attack.

"Might be poised--"

Might be poised to commit an attack.

Based on our interviews in Buffalo, and with one of these defendants, and one of the FBI agents who debriefed Mr. al-Bakri in Bahrain, there doesn't seem to be any substantive information that they were going to do anything.

Do you and the American people want us to take the chance, 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? Should we take the chance where we believe we have intelligence, we have information, we have evidence, that they're poised to commit an attack, and we just should let it go and wait for the attack, and then conduct our investigation after the fact? I think not. I think the American people expect us to investigate, to develop the intelligence, and to prevent the next attack.

I think the question is, if four of the six, or two of the six, after you arrest them, or after you complete your investigation, appear to definitely be involved in being enemies of the state, or enemies of the United States--

They pled guilty. They pled guilty.

Well, to hear them, they pled guilty to material support.

Material support of a terrorist organization.

OK. And in this case, that meant they went to an Al Qaeda camp.

Yes, and were trained as terrorists.

Well, one of them got out after 10 days.

Trained as terrorists.

Another one is--

Trained as terrorists. They pled guilty to, as you say, material support of a terrorist organization. That is a crime. Congress has passed a statute. It's constitutional. They pled guilty.

So the idea that they might not be a cell, that it might not be all equally guilty, in the sense of actually planning an attack or being willing to do something?

In planning an attack, persons have various roles. The 19 hijackers that came over here to commit the attack on Sept. 11, there were those that were at the bottom of the line. There were those who were the principal conspirators. There were those who were the pilot. Everybody has a role. Not everybody has an equal role. Not everybody has an equal say. What you're looking for is a group of individuals who, together, have the capability of undertaking an attack.

I'm only reflecting on what, as I understand it, is not contradicted in their debriefs or their pleas -- that at least two of the individuals involved had no contact with the rest of the people after they came back, had no further conversations, and have been forthright in saying, once they realized where they were in Afghanistan, they wanted to get out of there, and did.

Mr. Bergman, they plead guilty to providing material support to a terrorist organization.

It's that simple?


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posted october 16, 2003

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