How Great a Threat Were the Lackawanna Six?

Five years after the arrest of six young men from Lackawanna, N.Y., questions remain about whether the so-called "homegrown terrorists" are as dangerous as authorities initially suggested. The Jihad Next Door, a book by NPR's Dina Temple-Raston, explores the subject. Temple-Raston discusses the case against the Lackawanna Six with Steve Inskeep.

Excerpt: 'The Jihad Next Door'

Jihad Next Door: Book Cover

Prologue: Mukhtar's Big Wedding, September 2002

Life changed for Mukhtar al-Bakri and five of his friends on an otherwise beautiful crisp September day. He could remember the precise moment when he stepped into the gloom: It started with his hotel room door crashing open. September 9, 2002, was supposed to be the most important day of twenty-one-year-old Mukhtar al-Bakri's short life. His wedding to the teenage daughter of a family friend in Bahrain had been an elaborate affair, something beyond what the al-Bakri family could really afford. His arrival at the wedding hall was greeted by the beating of drums and a cacophony of traditional instruments. The sisters of his bride playfully welcomed each guest with a gentle tap, a sort of blessing, from a stick wrapped in flowers. Attendants donned flowing white gowns and long Arabian headscarves. The bride wore a modest white veil. Waiters lurched under the weight of plates piled high with food. There were dutiful prayers to Allah. It was everything Mukhtar al-Bakri had envisioned. The proceedings were dignified yet oddly fun. It marked a fresh start for him: a new, better phase of his life.

Mukhtar's friends had been surprised, even perplexed, at how seriously he was taking his newfound responsibility. The wedding kindled extraordinary emotions and hopes within him. Frankly, it wasn't like Mukhtar; he was generally carefree and hardly one to suddenly reorder his life. That might explain why they were alarmed when Mukhtar called one of them before the wedding to say goodbye. "You won't be hearing from me again," Mukhtar said over the crackling of a long-distance connection. Why he sounded so fatalistic just before what should have been a joyous occasion is unclear. Maybe, like many people his age, he was being overly dramatic, as one phase of his life closed and another began. He said later he just meant it as a joke, that he was going to drop out of sight for a while and try his hand at being a dutiful husband instead of a hard partying twenty-something. To his friends, the message sounded ominous.

When they started calling each other recounting Mukhtar's message, an entirely different audience was also listening. To the ears of the FBI investigators tracking the call, the talk of a big wedding indicated not a blow-out party in Bahrain but something else entirely. What they thought they heard, all too clearly, was the signature farewell of a suicide bomber — the dialogue of a young man about to meet his maker. As the first anniversary of the September 11 attacks drew closer, America was on high alert. It appeared her enemies — Islamic fundamentalists bent on destruction — were gearing up for something.

Mukhtar's phone call fit neatly into a perceived pattern of events. The FBI had worked up a list of potential targets in the days leading up to the anniversary. Attacks on military bases in the Middle East were at the top of the list, and Mukhtar's phone call seemed like a break, a clue amid an ocean of information pouring into the American intelligence community. The military went on Delta Alert — its highest state of readiness — shortly after the intercept. The young man from Lackawanna who was determined to reorder his life had no idea what his talk about a "big wedding" had set in motion.

* * *

Mukhtar al-Bakri was settled under the sheets for the first time with his teenage bride just before police burst into his hotel room. He had no idea that only hours earlier his name was on the lips of officials at the highest levels of the U.S. government. The FBI and CIA had been briefing President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney regularly about al-Bakri and his friends. Bush and Cheney then gave the order that would make Mukhtar's big day memorable for all the wrong reasons.

Bahrani police officers swarmed around al-Bakri's wedding bed with their guns drawn, sights trained in his direction. They hustled him from his hotel bed, and snapped on handcuffs. He recalled the sound of his teenage bride in tears as the police bundled him down the corridor, lamenting that he never had the chance to consummate his marriage. He knew that there must be some mistake. It never occurred to him that the Bahrain commandos who arrested him had burst into the room expecting to find guns and explosives, perhaps even a suicide vest instead of a terrified young man.

A short time later, and nearly halfway around the world, other arrests followed al-Bakri's. Unmarked sedans and police cars came to quick stops in front of houses and malls and delis. One by one, police and FBI agents rounded up al-Bakri's friends and pushed them into the backseats of cruisers. Anyone watching would have said they all looked scared and baffled. To a man, they were all obedient and compliant, nodding numbly when they were advised of their rights. It took only minutes for news of the arrests to filter through the tightly knit Yemeni community. The bulletins were met instantly with shaking heads and clicking tongues. It wasn't the boys about which the residents were worried, it was the authorities. This was racial profiling, neighbors said. We know these boys. They are just like us. We watch them play soccer. We pray with them. We know their parents and their brothers and sisters and wives. If these six are suspects, then so is everyone else.

Someone said something about terrorism. Neighbors were sure that couldn't be right. These men were native-born or naturalized U.S. citizens. Four were married. Three had children. One rode a motorcycle. Another was voted "friendliest" of his graduating class at the local high school. One sold used cars. Another was a telemarketer. They were all registered Democrats. Why had the authorities singled them out?

Mukhtar al-Bakri was a twin, one half of a pair of Yemeni brothers who had lived with their family in a small, two-story, yellow and green wood frame affair on Ingham Avenue. They were part of the second largest Yemeni community in America, just a stone's throw from Buffalo, New York. The al-Bakri household was actually made up of two families: Mukhtar, his twin brother Amin, their mother and father occupied one part of the house; and his older brother, his wife, and their two children comprised the other. It was a typical arrangement. There was no pressure in this community to have the elder sons marry and go off to make their own way. Instead, the families stayed together with succeeding generations and new members — wives, babies, sisters-in-law — simply folding themselves into existing households the way they did in the old country. Home was a place where meals were big raucous affairs with the men of the house eating in one room and the women, more traditionally, taking their meals in another. A look at the al-Bakris during the dinner hour revealed that all the men resembled each other. Mukhtar and Amin were tintypes. Standing five-feet-seven with wiry frames, they looked younger than their years. Their faces were dominated with oversized brown eyes, and they had ears that stuck out at odd angles from their heads. They carried a perpetually vulnerable look, like someone had just struck them from behind without warning.

Their father, Ali al-Bakri, was working class, a twenty-fiveyear employee at the Sorrento Cheese Factory off Ridge Road downtown. His story was a template for many of the men of his age in Lackawanna's First Ward. He had come to America from Yemen, hoping to find work in the steel mills and to create a better life for his family. The mills inspired such extraordinary hopes that entire clans uprooted themselves for the promise of a better life than the one behind them. The al-Bakris weren't rich, but they had what they needed. The al-Bakri sons had graduated from an American high school with decent educations, and while they didn't have steady work, exactly, they were good boys — or so their father thought.

The truth was that throughout their teenage years the younger al-Bakris were more than a little wild: more of a product of Lackawanna than their native Yemen. Most of the time, their dueling identities hardly bothered them. They played on the Lackawanna High School soccer team (goalie and forward) and drove around the neighborhoods in the rickety cars that teenagers favor. They wore the baggy training pants and hoodie sweatshirts that had become the inner-city uniform among young toughs. They played concussive hip-hop music at earsplitting levels. They ran with a crowd that paddled through life largely unnoticed. They got by doing itinerant day labor, dabbling in petty theft, trying their hand at drug dealing, laundering money. They gambled with friends across the border in Niagara Falls and smuggled cigarettes from Canada. In the early days, the trouble they got into was of the low-level variety where young men in depressed towns often find themselves: there was pot smoking, carousing, and clubbing. Though they grew into more serious offenses as the boys got older, in the beginning none of their scofflaw antics were serious enough to merit the attention of the authorities.

It was the parents of the First Ward, those who kept their children on short leashes, who worried about the people who surrounded the boys. The al-Bakri brothers and their friends formed the kind of group you hoped your own son wouldn't fall into - not because they were primed to do anything particularly bad or evil, but because the al-Bakri boys seemed to be testing limits more-so than normal, and young men who do that are bound, sooner or later, to miscalculate and cross the threshold of good sense.

The al-Bakri parents, for their part, chose to accentuate the positive when it came to their children. They turned a blind eye to the late nights and suspicious acquaintances. They focused instead on the fact that their sons still seemed to find time to attend mosque. It wasn't so much that they were devout — after all, they partied as much as other teenagers — but it was clear that they found something intriguing about being Muslim. The family's trips back to Yemen every couple of years only fed that inclination. While the residents of Lackawanna's First Ward did not have much money to spare, they always managed to scrape together what they needed for the occasional trips back to Yemen.

Those family vacations to the old country transported the al-Bakri boys and their Yemeni neighbors in Lackawanna, quite literally, from one world to another. When they strode into their villages, deep in the Yemeni interior, they were treated as conquering heroes. Lives that were rather bleak and aimless by American standards took on mythic proportions in Yemen. Relatives there had next to nothing by comparison. They lived in mud huts. They had barely enough to eat. Their clothes were ragged. The boys from Lackawanna seemed to have it all: money, opportunity, freedom. The trips had a soothing effect on Lackawanna's young Yemeni men by reconnecting them with a place they hardly knew and, when they returned, helping them feel oddly grateful for the lives they led in western New York.

When the al-Bakri father decided his two sons would marry the teenage daughters of a friend in Bahrain, the preparations were begun more than six months in advance. Mukhtar flew to the Middle East in May 2002 to plan a September ceremony. Those months in the Middle East were fun for him. He had no work to do, just a succession of social engagements to attend and daily prayers to make at a local mosque. In July, he went to visit his sister in Saudi Arabia. The two took a pilgrimage to Mecca. It seemed, as the September 9, 2002, wedding neared, that Mukhtar had finally found his place in the world.

* * *

The FBI had been listening to al-Bakri's phone calls and tracking his emails. His dispatch from Bahrain made the agents swallow hard. The head of the Joint Terrorism Task Force for the Western District of New York at the time was Ed Needham. His job was to bring together federal and state law enforcement officials to identify and investigate international and domestic terrorism. By that fall of 2002, Needham had been working in international terrorism for thirteen years. He had worked for two years with John O'Neill, the man best known as Osama bin Laden's hunter, as a supervisor in the radical fundamentalists unit at the Bureau. It later became O'Neill's famed bin Laden unit. O'Neill and Needham began fighting skirmishes in the war against terror long before it had actually been declared.

In 2002, the FBI's bench of Arabic speakers and Islamic experts was thin. Gamal Abdel-Hafiz was the agency's first Muslim hire and one of a handful of the agency's Arabic-speaking members. He was home with his wife in Saudi Arabia in early September 2002 when his phone rang. The FBI wanted him to travel to the Kingdom of Bahrain and pick up a suspect. Abdel-Hafiz asked the usual questions: what was he looking for, what was the suspect involved in? The answers weren't forthcoming. "Just go there," his supervisor said, "and you'll get the questions you need to ask when you arrive." Abdel-Hafiz would become the first American to interview Mukhtar al-Bakri after his arrest.

About that same time, Mike Urbanski, a state trooper and member of the Buffalo Joint Terrorism Task Force, was aboard a Gulfstream jet that belonged to the Department of Justice. He had picked up the jet in Washington, DC, and began a thirtysix-hour flight from Washington to Naples, Italy, continuing on to Bahrain. "It was the fanciest plane I had ever been on," Urbanski said later. "We knew we weren't going to be in Bahrain long. Just long enough to pick up al-Bakri and bring him home. But it was a nice ride."

As far as Urbanski knew, he was about to pick up America's first homegrown Islamic terrorist, the first American to train in an al-Qaeda camp and then attempt to slip back unnoticed into middle-class American society. So, when al-Bakri emerged from an unmarked car at the Bahrani airport, Urbanski was surprised to see just a kid. Al-Bakri actually looked relieved to see Urbanski. He had been in Bahrani police custody for five days, and it looked like he hadn't slept in weeks. "I think he thought he'd be safer with us," Urbanski said later. The officers searched al-Bakri before he got on the plane, gave him a green jumpsuit to slip on, and handed him a pen and paper.

"Tell us what you know," Urbanski said gruffly.

He recalled that al-Bakri looked so scared that words literally tumbled out of him. In his nervousness he started to speak faster. Like a skater on thinning ice, he seemed to be accelerating to save himself from drowning. He said he'd been to an al-Qaeda camp in Afghanistan a year earlier with five friends from Lackawanna. They had fired weapons, learned about jihad, and had returned shortly before the 9/11 attacks. He drew diagrams of guesthouses. He sketched out the details of Osama bin Laden's residence, marking doors, indicating where there were gardens. He talked about meeting Osama bin Laden in a courtyard in front of a stone hut.

Urbanski and al-Bakri talked all the way to America. The young man looked spent when they were done. Not knowing what else to say, Urbanski turned the tables. "Have you got any questions for us?" he asked.

Al-Bakri looked up and his thoughts slowly evolved into words. "Yeah, how are the Bills doing?"

From The Jihad Next Door: The Lackawanna Six and Rough Justice in the Age of Terror, by Dina Temple-Raston. Copyright © 2007 by the author. Published by PublicAffairs, a member of the Perseus Books Group. All rights reserved.

Books Featured In This Story

The Jihad Next Door

The Lackawanna Six And Rough Justice In The Age Of Terror

by Dina Temple-Raston

Hardcover, 288 pages | purchase

Purchase Featured Book

Title
The Jihad Next Door
Subtitle
The Lackawanna Six And Rough Justice In The Age Of Terror
Author
Dina Temple-Raston

Your purchase helps support NPR Programming. How?

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and Terms of Use. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.