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Complete 911 Timeline

"Lackawanna Six"

Project: Complete 911 Timeline
Open-Content project managed by matt, Derek, Paul, KJF, mtuck, paxvector

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The Lackawanna Six. Top row, from left: Faysal Galab, Mukhtar al-Bakri, and Sahim Alwan. Bottom row, from left: Yahya Goba, Shafel Mosed, and Yaseinn Taher.The Lackawanna Six. Top row, from left: Faysal Galab, Mukhtar al-Bakri, and Sahim Alwan. Bottom row, from left: Yahya Goba, Shafel Mosed, and Yaseinn Taher. [Source: Associated Press]A group of seven men in Lackawanna, near Buffalo, New York, are influenced by religious discussions with two al-Qaeda operatives, Kamal Derwish and Juma al-Dosari. The seven US citizens—Yaseinn Taher, Yahya Goba, Shafel Mosed, Mukhtar al-Bakri, Sahim Alwan, Faysal Galab, and Jaber Elbaneh—leave for jihad training in Afghanistan. They tell friends they are merely going to Pakistan for religious instruction. Escorted by Derwish, the men travel separately and attend a six-week long weapons course at the Al Farooq camp. Some of them meet Osama bin Laden in Kandahar and they all hear him give a speech (see (June 2001)). However, most of them apparently think they are in over their heads and find excuses to cut their basic training course short and return home. The six who return show little to no evidence of any al-Qaeda plotting in the following months. Jaber Elbaneh, however, becomes committed and stays overseas with al-Qaeda. The six who return will later be arrested and dubbed an al-Qaeda cell known as the “Lackawanna Six” (see September 13, 2002). (PBS Frontline 10/16/2003)

A group of seven Yemeni-Americans from Lackawanna, New York, go to train in Afghanistan (see April-August 2001). Just two days after some of them have arrived, two of the seven—Sahim Alwan and Jaber Elbaneh, plus their mentor Kamal Derwish, briefly meet Osama bin Laden in a small group setting. One of the men asks bin Laden about a rumor that something big is about to happen. Bin Laden responds: “They’re threatening us. And we’re threatening them. But there are brothers willing to carry their souls in their hands.” (Temple-Raston 2007, pp. 107-108) A couple of weeks later, the seven Lackawanna men and Derwish begin training at the Al Farooq training camp near Kandahar. One day, bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri come to their camp and bin Laden gives a speech in Arabic to the hundreds of trainees there. The crowd is told the speech is being videotaped. In his 20-minute speech, he discusses the merger between al-Qaeda and Islamic Jihad. At the end, he calls on the gathering to pray for the 40 operatives who are en route for a very important mission. He drops hints about suicide operations against the US and Israel. One of the seven men, Yaseinn Taher, speaks Arabic well enough to understand the speech, and explains the gist of it to the other six. The Lackawanna men also sense a mood in the camp that something big is going to happen soon. For instance, the camp is regularly conducting evacuation drills in anticipation of the US bombing it. (Temple-Raston 2007, pp. 117-120) One by one, all the members of the group except for Jaber Elbaneh drop out and go home before their basic training course is done. They will later be known as the “Lackawanna Six.” But none of the six tell any US authorities what they learned when they get back to the US before 9/11. Some of the six, such as Taher and Alwan, will later say that on the morning of 9/11 they realize the attack they are watching on television is what bin Laden was talking about when he discussed the 40 men on a suicide mission. (Temple-Raston 2007, pp. 136-138)

Sahim Alwan.Sahim Alwan. [Source: PBS]The FBI’s Buffalo, New York, field office receives an anonymous, handwritten letter from someone in the Yemeni community of Lackawanna, near Buffalo. The letter says that a group has traveled to “meet bin Laden and stay in his camp for training.” The person who wrote it adds, “I can not give you my name because I fear for my life.” It says that “two terrorists” have been recruiting in Lackawanna, and that eight men have gone to train in Afghanistan, and four more are planning to go later. It gives the names of the men. In fact, all eight of the men named are currently in an al-Qaeda training camp in Afghanistan. This group will later be dubbed the “Lackawanna Six,” for the six of them that eventually return to the US (see September 13, 2002). The letter is assigned to FBI agent Edward Needham, the only Buffalo agent at this time working on counterterrorism. He runs the names through criminal databases and finds that many of them have criminal records for drug dealing and cigarette smuggling. He is skeptical that drug dealers would fight for al-Qaeda, but he sends the letter up the chain of command and formally opens an investigation on June 15. Three of them—Faysal Galab, Shafel Mosed, and Yaseinn Taher—are stopped on June 27 when they arrive in New York on a flight back from Pakistan, because Needham put their names on an FBI watch list. But they are merely questioned for two hours and released. He keeps occasional tabs on the men as they return from Afghanistan over the next months, but does not learn they actually were in an al-Qaeda training camp until after 9/11. (PBS Frontline 10/16/2003; Temple-Raston 2007, pp. 124-125, 129)

Edward Needham, an FBI agent in Buffalo, New York, has been investigating a group of eight Yemeni-Americans in the nearby town of Lackawanna after receiving an anonymous letter saying they have been training in Afghanistan (see Early June 2001). In fact, they were, and while there they heard a speech from Osama bin Laden in which he mentioned there were 40 suicide bombers on their way to a very important mission (see (June 2001)). This group will later be known as the “Lackawanna Six” for the six of them who return to the US. Some time around July, Needham interviews Sahim Alwan, who has recently come back from Afghanistan. But Alwan says he had only traveled to Pakistan for religious training. The others who returned also fail to tell any authorities that they have been in Afghanistan or what they learned there. On September 11, 2001, hours after the 9/11 attacks, Needham calls Alwan and asks him if anyone new has come into town. Alwan says no. But in fact, Juma al-Dosari, an al-Qaeda operative who recruited the Lackawanna Six, has recently returned to Lackawanna and Alwan knows where he is staying. Al-Dosari is trying to recruit a second group of young men to go train in Afghanistan. But the training camps are closed down and al-Dosari leaves town before the FBI finds out he is there. He tells friends that he is going to fight for the Taliban. He will be captured in Pakistan in December 2001 and transferred to Guantanamo prison soon thereafter. (PBS Frontline 10/16/2003; Temple-Raston 2007, pp. 138-139, 148)

Juma al-Dosari.Juma al-Dosari. [Source: PBS]In November 2001, al-Qaeda operative Juma al-Dosari is captured in Afghanistan. He is soon transferred to the Guantanamo prison. During interrogation in the spring of 2002, he reveals several aliases and that he was trying to recruit a group of US citizens in New York state known as the “Lackawanna Six.” Based on the aliases, US intelligence realizes they have already intercepted communications between him and Osama bin Laden’s son Saad bin Laden, and also him and al-Qaeda leader Khallad bin Attash. They learn he has a long history with al-Qaeda, having fought in Afghanistan, Bosnia, and Chechnya. He was arrested in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia on different occasions for involvement in the 1996 Khobar Towers bombings (see June 25, 1996). He first went to the US in 1999, staying several months in Indiana. Then he got a job at a mosque in Bloomington, Indiana, in the autumn of 2000. He began traveling around the US as a visiting imam, but investigators believe this was just his cover while he worked to recruit for al-Qaeda. In April 2001, he visited Buffalo, New York, and helped convince the “Lackawanna Six” to go to Afghanistan (see April-August 2001). He left the US for Afghanistan in late September 2001. The FBI gets this information in May 2002 and begins monitoring the “Lackawanna Six,” as they are all back in the US. Investigators suspect al-Dosari recruited others in other cities, but they do not know who. (PBS Frontline 10/16/2003; PBS Frontline 10/16/2003) In 2007, al-Dosari will be released from Guantanamo without explanation and set free in Saudi Arabia (see July 16, 2007).

In early September 2002, a group of senior Bush administration officials gathers for a secret videoconference to decide what to do with the “Lackawanna Six,” the six Yemeni-Americans living in Lackawanna, New York, who had attended an al-Qaeda training camp before 9/11. Vice President Dick Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld argue that the men should be locked up indefinitely as “enemy combatants,” and thrown into a military brig with no right to trial or even to see a lawyer. The US has already done this with two other US citizens, Yaser Hamdi and Jose Padilla. According to a participant in the meeting, Cheney argues, “They are the enemy, and they’re right here in the country.” However, all six men left their basic training course early and there is no evidence any of them had carried out or even planned any terrorist acts (see April-August 2001). Attorney General John Ashcroft insists he can bring a tough criminal case against them for providing “material support” to al-Qaeda. Ashcroft wins the argument and the six men are formally charged several days later (see September 13, 2002). (Isikoff and Klaidman 10/10/2007) The six men will all eventually strike plea bargains and plead guilty, saying they were essentially forced to because the government made clear that if they fought the charges they would be declared enemy combatants (see May 19, 2003).

The FBI arrests six US citizens with a Yemeni background, on information provided by the CIA: Sahim Alwan, Mukhtar al-Bakri, Faysal Galab, Yahya Goba, Shafel Mosed and Yaseinn Taher. Five are arrested in their hometown Lackawanna, a suburb of Buffalo, New York. The sixth, who is connected to the other five, is arrested in Bahrain and then transferred to the US. (CBS News 11/9/2002) They are hereafter nicknamed “the Lackawanna Six.” They reportedly traveled to Afghanistan in April and May 2001 to join in Islamic jihad and receive military training at the Al Farooq training camp run by al-Qaeda (see April-August 2001). They also allegedly met with Osama bin Laden (see (June 2001)). They are believed to have been encouraged to go to Afghanistan by two American veteran mujaheddin, Juma al-Dosari and Kamal Derwish, who fought in the war in Bosnia and who visited Lackawanna in early 2001. (Powell 7/29/2003) One month later, a federal jury indicts the Lackawanna Six on two counts of providing material support to terrorism. They are charged with supporting terrorism. If found guilty, they could face up to 15 years in prison. All of them plead not guilty. (CBS News 10/22/2002)

Qaed Senyan al-Harethi.Qaed Senyan al-Harethi. [Source: Yemen Observer]A CIA-operated Predator drone fires a missile that destroys a truck of suspected al-Qaeda operatives in Yemen. The target of the attack is Qaed Salim Sinan al-Harethi, a top al-Qaeda operative, but five others are also killed, including American citizen Kamal Derwish. (Pincus 11/4/2002; Lumpkin 12/3/2002) Al-Harethi is said to have been involved in the 2000 bombing of the USS Cole. Bush administration officials say Derwish was the ringleader of a sleeper cell in Lackawanna, New York (see September 13, 2002). (Powell and Priest 11/9/2002; Thomas and Hosenball 11/11/2002) A former high-level intelligence officer complains that Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld wants “to take guys out for political effect.” Al-Harethi was being tracked for weeks through his cell phone. (Hersh 12/16/2002) The attack happens one day before mid-term elections in the US. Newsweek will note that timing of the strike “was, at the very least, fortuitous” for the Bush administration. (Thomas and Hosenball 11/11/2002) New Yorker magazine will later report, “The Yemeni government had planned to delay an announcement of the attack until it could issue a joint statement with Washington. When American officials released the story unilaterally, in time for Election Day, the Yemenis were angry and dismayed.” (Hersh 12/16/2002) Initial reports suggest the truck was destroyed by a car bomb. But on November 5, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz will brag about the strike on CNN, thus ruining the cover story and revealing that the truck was destroyed by a US missile (see November 5, 2002). (Thomas and Hosenball 11/11/2002) US intelligence appears to have learned of al-Harethi’s whereabouts after interrogating Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, captured the month before (see Early October 2002).

Charged with supporting al-Qaeda in September 2002, all of the “Lackawanna Six” originally pled not guilty (see September 13, 2002). But by May 19, 2003, all of them change their minds and plead guilty. They accept prison terms of 6 and a half to 9 years. The Washington Post reports that the fear of being declared “enemy combatants” led “the Lackawanna Six” to engage in plea bargain talks. The six men all plead guilty of providing support to a terrorist organization and received prison sentences of six-and-a-half to nine years. “We had to worry about the defendants being whisked out of the courtroom and declared enemy combatants if the case started going well for us,” says Patrick J. Brown, attorney for one of the six. “So we just ran up the white flag and folded.” (Powell 7/29/2003) “Basically, what was related to us,” says James Harrington, attorney for another, “was that if the case was not resolved by a plea, the government was going to consider any options that it had. They didn’t say they were going to do it [declare them ‘enemy combatants’], they just were going to consider it.” (Meek 12/3/2003) This is corroborated by the US federal attorney responsible for the prosecution of the six, Michael Battle. He says his office never explicitly threatened invoking the enemy combatant status, because he did not have to. Everybody knew this threat was in the air. “I don’t mean to sound cavalier,” he says, “but the war on terror has tilted the whole [legal] landscape. We are trying to use the full arsenal of our powers. I’m not saying the ends justify the means,” he adds. “But you have to remember that we’re protecting the rights of those who are being targeted by terror as well as the rights of the accused.” (Powell 7/29/2003) Neal R. Sonnett, speaking as the chairman of the American Bar Association’s Task Force on Treatment of Enemy Combatants, says: “The defendants believed that if they didn’t plead guilty, they’d end up in a black hole forever. There’s little difference between beating someone over the head and making a threat like that.” (Powell 7/29/2003) “Nothing illustrates the US government’s new power over suspects… better than the case of the Lackawanna Six,” Guardian journalist James Meek observes. (Meek 12/3/2003)

A secret FBI report issued this month and later leaked to the press states, “Al-Qaeda leadership’s intention to attack the United States is not in question. However, their capability to do so is unclear, particularly in regard to ‘spectacular’ operations. We believe al-Qaeda’s capability to launch attacks within the United States is dependent on its ability to infiltrate and maintain operatives in the United States. To date, we have not identified any true ‘sleeper’ agents in the US.… Limited reporting since March indicates al-Qaeda has sought to recruit and train individuals to conduct attacks in the United States, but is inconclusive as to whether they have succeeded in placing operatives in this country. US Government efforts to date also have not revealed evidence of concealed cells or networks acting in the homeland as sleepers” ABC News notes that this seemingly contradicts the sleeper cell depiction seven men arrested in Lackawanna, New York, in 2002. It also differs from warnings by FBI Director Robert Mueller and other US officials, who have warned that sleeper cells are probably in place. (Scott 3/9/2005) In 2002, it was also reported that no sleeper cells can be found in the US (see March 10, 2002).

Jaber Elbaneh.Jaber Elbaneh. [Source: Yahya Arhab / EPA / Corbi]Twenty-three suspected al-Qaeda operatives break out of a high-security prison in the Yemeni capital of Sana’a. Escapees include Jamal al-Badawi, wanted for a role in the bombing of the USS Cole (see October 12, 2000), and Jaber Elbaneh, a US citizen believed to be linked to the alleged al-Qaeda sleeper cell in Lackawanna, New York (see April-August 2001). The men allegedly tunnel their way from the prison to the bathroom of a neighboring mosque. However, the New York Times will later comment: “[T]hat account is viewed with great skepticism, both in the United States and in Yemen. Many in Yemen say the escape could not have taken place without assistance, whether from corrupt guards or through a higher-level plan.” (Worth 3/1/2008) The prison is located in the basement of the Political Security Organization (PSO), Yemen’s equivalent of the FBI. Several days later, a cable sent from the US embassy in Yemen notes “the lack of obvious security measures on the streets,” and concludes, “One thing is certain: PSO insiders must have been involved.” Newsweek comments: “[P]rivately, US officials say the plotters must have had serious—possibly high-level—help at the Political [Security Organization].…. [T]he head of the PSO, Ali Mutahar al-Qamish, is said to be under suspicion, according to two US officials.” (Hirsh, Hosenball, and Nordland 2/13/2006) Al-Badawi and nine others escaped a Yemeni prison in 2003 and then were recaptured one year later (see April 11, 2003-March 2004). Al-Badawi and Elbaneh turn themselves in to the Yemeni government in 2007 and then are freed (see October 17-29, 2007 and February 23, 2008).

Juma al-Dosari in Saudi Arabia after his release.Juma al-Dosari in Saudi Arabia after his release. [Source: Nancy Durham / CBC]The Defense Department releases 16 Saudis being held in Guantanamo prison and returns them to Saudi Arabia. One of them is Juma al-Dosari, a dual Bahraini/Saudi citizen, and apparently a long-time al-Qaeda operative. (Bew 7/17/2007)
Extensive Al-Qaeda Links - Al-Dosari was known as “the closer” for recruiting new al-Qaeda operatives, and he recruited the “Lackawanna Six” in New York State while he lived in the US from 1999 to 2001. According to his 2006 Guantanamo Administrative Review Board evidence review, there is a long list of evidence tying him to al-Qaeda since he was 16-years old in 1989, just one year after al-Qaeda was founded. He fought with militants in Bosnia, Chechnya, and Tajikistan. He was arrested in Kuwait and then again in Saudi Arabia for suspected involvement in the 1996 Khobar Towers bombings (see June 25, 1996), but released without charge both times. An unnamed source claims he was involved in the 2000 USS Cole bombing (see October 12, 2000). He was arrested during the battle of Tora Bora, Afghanistan, in late 2001, and then sent to Guantanamo. US intelligence intercepted communications between him and Osama bin Laden’s son Saad bin Laden, and also him and al-Qaeda leader Khallad bin Attash (see November 2001-May 2002). (PBS Frontline 10/16/2003; PBS Frontline 10/16/2003; US Department of Defense 9/13/2006 pdf file)
Release Unnoticed, Unexplained - Al-Dosari’s 2007 release goes almost entirely unnoticed by the US media, despite previous articles and books discussing his recruitment of the “Lackawanna Six.” In June 2008, retired FBI agent Peter Ahearn will comment to the Buffalo News that he is baffled that the US government never criminally prosecuted al-Dosari, and then released him. “We felt strongly that we could try him in Buffalo on criminal charges, but the Justice Department declined.” Ahearn is upset that al-Dosari “is walking around as a free man in Saudi Arabia.” (Herbeck 6/22/2008)
"Rehabilitated" in Saudi Arabia - Upon arriving in Saudi Arabia, al-Dosari is admitted into a “soft approach” government rehabilitation program designed to prevent militants from relapsing back into violent extremism (see 2007 and After). He is given a car, psychological therapy, a monthly allowance, help to find a job, and help to get married. He had attempted to commit suicide over a dozen times while in Guantanamo. In 2008, it will be reported that he is doing well in Saudi Arabia, with a new wife and a new job. He now says Osama bin Laden “used my religion and destroyed its reputation.” (Fleishman 12/21/2007; Toumi 2/22/2008)

Jaber Elbaneh’s appearance in court.Jaber Elbaneh’s appearance in court. [Source: Associated Press / Mohammed al-Qadhi.]Jaber Elbaneh, an Islamist militant wanted by the US, comes out of hiding to appear in court in Yemen, but is not arrested. Elbaneh, a US citizen and whose family came from Yemen, had lived in Lackawanna, New York, before the 9/11 attacks. He went to Afghanistan to train at an al-Qaeda training camp along with about six other men from Lackawanna, but while the others dropped out and returned to the US, Elbaneh never returned (see April-August 2001). He moved to Yemen. The Yemeni government says he also helped plan the 2002 attack on the oil tanker Limburg off Yemen’s coast (see October 6, 2002). He was arrested there in 2004 after being charged in the US for attending the training camp. He was sentenced to ten years in prison, but in February 2006, he and 22 other suspected al-Qaeda operatives escaped from a high-security Yemeni prison (see February 3, 2006). The US offered $5 million for information leading to his arrest. Elbaneh was then implicated in a September 2006 bombing in Yemen that took place several days before national elections (see September 15, 2006). Some suggest the bombers may have colluded with the government to use the bombing to successfully help Yemeni President Ali Abdallah Saleh win reelection. Elbaneh was convicted, but allowed to stay at home under a loose form of house arrest. Given the outstanding $5 million reward for him, Elbaneh appears to surprise everyone by appearing in court where his conviction in the 2006 bombing was being appealed. Furthermore, he gives a speech proclaiming his innocence. He says that after his prison escape, he surrendered directly to President Saleh in May 2007, who absolved him of any jail time. The New York Times comments: “Perhaps the greatest mystery surrounding [Elbaneh] is his decision to appear in court… The Yemeni government has generally instructed the jihadists with whom it arranges amnesty to avoid the news media and keep low profiles. But Mr. Elbaneh deliberately spoke out in a public setting, with journalists present, and named the president in his brief tirade.” (Ghobari 2/27/2008; Worth 3/1/2008)


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