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A tale of two terror probes

The young men were at loose ends in Lackawanna, a blue-collar town in upstate New York. Restless and curious about their Islamic heritage, they started meeting secretly with a charismatic Muslim fundamentalist who persuaded them to trek to Afghanistan to attend a military training camp.

It's a long way from Lackawanna to Lodi, but there are parallels between the New York case and the unfolding federal probe in the San Joaquin County town. Both center on young Muslim Americans who allegedly engaged in military training sponsored by al-Qaida.

The seven Lackawanna men headed for Afghanistan in the spring of 2001, according to news accounts of their case. They told their families and friends in the town's Yemeni community an agreed-on cover story: They were going to Pakistan for religious schooling.

Then they set off on what promised to be a grand adventure and possibly their religious salvation. They would train to be soldiers for the jihad - the holy war against enemies of Islam.

But the six-week jihadist camp turned out to be more than most of them had bargained for: more extreme, more violent and more rigorous. Within days, four bailed out and headed back home to their everyday lives in Lackawanna. Or so they thought.

Fifteen months later, six of the men were facing federal anti-terrorism charges for their participation in the Afghan camp. The seventh man disappeared and was captured in Yemen in 2004. Today, the "Lackawanna Six" are in prisons scattered across the Northeast, serving terms of seven to 10 years. All six pleaded guilty to forestall harsher punishment.

The Lackawanna prosecution hinged on U.S. statutes, now part of the Patriot Act, that make it a crime to provide "material support" to a foreign terrorist organization. In the Lodi case, federal officials have told The Bee they are investigating possible violations of the same laws.

The statutes barring material support - which includes military training as well as money - have emerged as powerful tools in the war on terror, federal counterterrorism chief Barry Sabin told the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee in April.

Sabin said these statutes give "law enforcement the legal basis to intervene at the very early stages of terrorist planning, several steps removed from the execution of particular attacks. This capability is crucial to the prosecution of terrorist supporters who may not themselves be prone to violence."

The Lodi case exploded on the scene in early June, when five Muslims from the city's large Pakistani community were arrested by federal agents. So far, none of the five has been charged with material support of terrorism - or with any terrorist acts. Through their lawyers, they have denied any connection with terrorist activities.

Two are American citizens: ice cream vendor Umer Hayat, 47, and his son Hamid Hayat, 22, who are accused of lying to federal agents.

Two are former imams of the Lodi Muslim Mosque. They are Pakistanis Muhammed Adil Kahn, 47, and Shabbir Ahmed, 39, who are being held for violating the terms of their religious visas. The fifth is Adil Khan's 19-year-old son, also facing an immigration violation.

In court documents obtained by The Bee, federal investigators claim that Hamid Hayat admitted during interrogation that he spent six months at an al-Qaida training camp in Pakistan during 2003-04. In the same documents, his father is reported as alleging that Adil Khan and Ahmed came to Lodi to recruit and direct potential jihadists.

The Hayats identified several other men in the Lodi area who they said also received training in al-Qaida camps, according to the documents.

That scenario sounds familiar to Rodney Personius, a criminal defense attorney who represented one of the Lackawanna defendants. Personius' client was Yasein Taher, a high school soccer star voted "friendliest" by the Class of 1996. He married his cheerleader sweetheart. Taher was 25 and the father of a baby son when he went to the al-Qaida camp.

In an interview Friday, Personius talked about the case. He noted that the defendants all pleaded guilty to providing material support to terrorists - there was no trial and there can be no appeals.

"To me, these guys were like the gang that couldn't shoot straight," the lawyer said. "A couple were a little older and a little more devout. But the five younger guys were more rowdies, either with no jobs or with sketchy employment histories. In large part, they decided to go to Afghanistan because they weren't doing anything else at the time, and they thought this might be a badge of honor later."

In Lackawanna that winter, Personius said, the young men had been meeting in the evenings with a conservative Muslim named Kamal Derwish, an American-born citizen raised in Saudi Arabia. He taught them about Islam - and about jihad.

"The group meeting with Derwish became smaller and smaller - and more devout," Personius said. "Derwish talked about the camp in Afghanistan. He described it as exceptionally attractive. He indicated that you could get eternal salvation if you went to the camp, and he played on the fact that each of these young men had committed sins.

"My client had a child out of wedlock, he drank, he smoked and had married a non-Muslim woman. He believed he needed this training for his salvation."

Eventually, Derwish brought in a man the FBI has identified as an al-Qaida recruiter to "close" the deal. In late April and early May of 2001, the seven Lackawannans journeyed first to Pakistan, then on to the camp in Afghanistan. They were surprised at what they found there, according to Personius.

"The camp was described to my client as a land of milk and honey, a green place with waterfalls," he said. "Really it was a nasty place out in the middle of the desert."

The facility was in fact an al-Qaida training camp known as Al Farooq.

"Osama bin Laden actually came and spoke to them - with all his guards in their Toyota trucks," Personius said. "To the extent that my client could understand him, bin Laden made a lot of negative comments about Israel and America. My client started asking to go home - but he was told: one more day, one more day. In the end, they let him go. He was there less than three weeks."

Meanwhile, the lawyer said, the FBI field office in Buffalo received an anonymous tip that the Lackawanna group was in Afghanistan to train with bin Laden. FBI agents questioned one of the men, Sahim Alwan, when he returned home, but he stuck with the story that they were in Pakistan for religious training.

After the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, the investigation heated up. Eventually, the FBI suspected the Lackawanna men were an al-Qaida sleeper cell, ready to strike on command. On Sept. 14, 2002, six of them were charged with providing material support to terrorism.

News reports later documented the fate of the others: The seventh trainee was taken into custody in Yemen in 2004. The "closer," Juma Al Dosari, is being detained at the U.S. military prison in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. In late 2002, Derwish was killed in Yemen by a CIA Predator drone.

The "Lackawanna Six," as they were dubbed in headlines, were stunned by the hefty jail terms they were facing, Personius said. Since they had been trained, albeit briefly, in the use of automatic weapons, there was a potential for sentences exceeding 30 years. They opted to plead guilty to receive shorter terms.

Personius, a former federal prosecutor himself, said he has never seen a case like this one in 29 years as an attorney.

"The whole judicial process was turned on its head," he said. "Getting information through discovery was very difficult - the only evidence made voluntarily available to us was the statements of our own clients.

"Another problem was the whole allegation of being a sleeper cell. If you're a sleeper cell, by definition you're doing nothing. So the less you do, the more you're a sleeper cell. It's an onus to prove a negative - to prove that you actually were doing nothing."

Government officials in the Lodi investigation refuse to discuss the pending litigation in detail, but told The Bee the material support statute forms the crux of their case.

For his part, Personius said he believes the government's aim in the New York case was to set a precedent.

"Absolutely," he said. "It was clear from the start that the goal was to get our defendants to plead guilty to set a threshold for future material-support cases. The message is obvious: Go to a terrorist training camp, go to jail."

About the writer:

  • The Bee's Dorothy Korber can be reached at (916) 321-1061 or Staff writer Stephen Magagnini contributed to this report.