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. A book by NPR's Dina Temple-Raston explores the subject.
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How Great a Threat Were the Lackawanna Six?

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How Great a Threat Were the Lackawanna Six?

How Great a Threat Were the Lackawanna Six?

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This week marks the sixth anniversary of the September 11 attacks. This week also marks the fifth anniversary of an arrest of several young men described as homegrown terrorists. They came from a town outside buffalo New York, and they became known by the name of their town. They were called the Lackawanna Six. They had attended an al-Qaida training camp in Afghanistan in the spring of 2001 - before 9/11.

Yet after years of research, NPR's Dina Temple-Raston raises questions about whether they were anywhere near as dangerous as authorities suggested around the first anniversary of 9/11. Her new book is called "The Jihad Next Door," and she's in the studio. Good morning.


INSKEEP: Let's lay out flatly what these young men did. They did go to Afghanistan, right?

TEMPLE-RASTON: They did go to Afghanistan. They did attend the camp. What is confusing about it is whether or not they actually understood what that camp meant. I think there's a very bright line between people who attend these kinds of camps after 9/11 versus people beforehand. I think they thought they were going to go to Bosnia - or Chechnya maybe - as Muslim freedom fighters of some sort.

INSKEEP: And they did get some kind of training.

TEMPLE-RASTON: They did get training. They got training in plastic explosives and various other things that are worrisome. At the same time, they faked injuries to leave the camps when they realized how anti-American they were. And that sort of got blurred in the froth of post-9/11 when they were actually arrested.

INSKEEP: Let's talk about that froth. You write that President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney were personally involved in the decision to arrest them.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Which was rather amazing. For months, in fact, before their arrest in the spring of September of 2002, FBI Director Robert Muller was actually talking to the president and to Cheney, telling them, updating them about the Lackawanna Six almost on a daily basis so they become the sort of cause celeb in the White House, that there was this homegrown terrorism cell and it just sort of ramped up.

And eventually, in this meeting, apparently Vice President Cheney said, can you give me 100 percent certainty that these guys aren't going to do anything? And Muller said, no, of course, I can't do that. And he said, then arrest them. And he did.

INSKEEP: Well, is that why they were arrested right around the anniversary of 9/11 even though there was no evidence that they were plotting anything?

TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, that's a very good question. I mean, it's hard not to see it as potentially political since they weren't doing anything specific that would make them say, bring them in now. In fact, the FBI very much didn't want to bring them in at the time because they thought if they let it run longer, they might actually be able to capture some of the other people involved.

INSKEEP: Although let's take the vice president's apparent words at face value. He asks, can you give me 100 percent certainty that they weren't plotting anything. Of course, you can't give 100 percent certainty of that. Does this become an example of, well, just as Iraq was seen as a preemptive attack, avoiding worse problems later on, is this an example of preemptive justice? Arresting people before they can act in some terrible, terrible way?

TEMPLE-RASTON: Exactly. It's actually one of the early episodes that we have a preemptive justice here in this country. You know, now we hear all these different homegrown terrorism plots that are supposedly foiled by the FBI. But the very first one that marked the beginning of this sort of process was the Lackawanna Six, and there were real, mixed feelings in Buffalo and in Lackawanna when this happened because these were sort of hapless 20-somethings who had clearly made a bad decision but had been watched for over a year and during that year, had not planned anything. In fact, they wanted to go to back to their sort of aimless lives in Lackawanna and forget that they had done this - this jihad camp.

INSKEEP: Well, how has this influenced the way that the FBI and federal prosecutors approach potential terror suspects today?

TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, I think in a lot of the FBI - both inside the bureau and former FBI agents that I've talked to over the past couple of years - a lot of them would have played this very differently had it been now. And they would've allowed it to play out to see if maybe this man, Kamal Derwish, who was an al Qaida recruiter, would come back to the United States and they could actually, you know, arrest him and question him. They would have liked to have done that.

INSKEEP: I was talking about that man, Kamal Derwish. What happened to him?

TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, the book is interesting in the sense that it looks at various types of justice in this country. We look at these guys who are actually arrested for something that they had not yet done. They hadn't planned anything. Then there is Kamal Derwish, who was an American who had come back to Lackawanna and...

INSKEEP: And he's real - he's a real recruiter. He's a real terrorist.

TEMPLE-RASTON: He's a real terrorist, yes. He was actually a member of al-Qaida, and they know that. And he met a rather untimely end. He was actually killed by a predator missile in Yemen although the government still doesn't admit that that they actually planned that attack.

INSKEEP: And yet another person involved in this ended up at Guantanamo Bay.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Exactly, and was released. Ironically, all these sort of threads come together in the Lackawanna story. He was released two months ago. He was considered one of these real bad guys down in Guantanamo. He's now free in Saudi Arabia.

INSKEEP: Hmm, strange. Dina, thanks very much.

TEMPLE-RASTON: My pleasure.

INSKEEP: Dina Temple-Raston is NPR's FBI correspondent. Her new book is called "The Jihad Next Door: The Lackawanna Six" and "Rough Justice in the Age of Terror."

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