Sleeper Cell

Review: The Jihad Next Door: The Lackawanna Six and Rough Justice in the Age of Terror

When I stopped by a Guantanamo protest outside the UN on New York’s east side last year, someone abruptly shoved a microphone and note card in my hand so I could read aloud the devastating first-person account of one of the many prisoners locked away in Guantanamo with no hope for trial or even release. Another victim of our country’s skewed system of justice post-9/11.

Such personal stories are what drew me into that protest (and the cause more generally), and are also what make The Jihad Next Door: The Lackawanna Six and Rough Justice in the Age of Terror, by Dina Temple-Raston, so compelling. As with her previous book, A Death in Texas, in which she focused on race relations from the vantage point of a few characters in the small town of Jasper, Texas, this time she zeros in on the six young Yemeni-American men from Lackawanna, New York, that allegedly made up America’s first sleeper cell. They fortunately don’t end up in Guantanamo (they’re in the “Special Terrorism Unit” in Terre Haute, Indiana), but theirs is also the story of Muslims who suffered “rough” justice in the immediate aftermath of 9/11.

Lackawanna Six

Lackawanna is south of Buffalo in Western New York, its once-bustling steel mills now quietly standing like ancient monuments of its industrial past. In their final days of operation, Lackawanna’s mills attracted a large Yemeni population that still inhabits the First Ward. It’s here that we meet the “Lackawanna Six,” a group of young men who are trying to understand what it means to be faithful Muslims, good Americans, and, in the case of Sahim Alwan and Yassein Taher, dutiful fathers. They begin to work, attend mosque regularly, and follow the teachings of the Koran.

They also begin attending a smaller study group in the evenings, at which they meet Kamal Derwish. Oblivious, it seems, to Derwish’s dubious record with the FBI, they’re taken up with his charisma and his knowledge of the Koran. With the help of a Muslim recruiter called “The Closer” (Juma al-Dosari), Derwish eventually convinces them to go to the Al Farooq camp in Afghanistan. From there, the story becomes almost comic as the six young men are spirited away to seedy Pakistani hotels funded by Al Qaeda, and then secretly transported to the rigorous Al-Farooq training camp. “Things were not exactly as Derwish had advertised,” she quips after laying out the rigorous daily schedule at the camp. In such an environment, it doesn’t take long for the boys to discover that they’re more American than they thought, pining for Subway sandwiches and news of the Buffalo Bills.

“An email from Mukhtar al-Bakri to Derwish contains cryptic references to a huge “meal” –a possible code word for an imminent attack.”

So we’re not surprised to learn that Alwan, perhaps the least committed in the first place, takes the initiative and decides to leave after a few weeks. All but one eventually follows. They get home, start to settle back in, and it seems like everything will be fine—that is, until 9/11 changes the legal and political landscape. From there, what might have been a detour on the complicated journey of learning how to be a faithful Muslim and an American ends up looking a lot different, and the case of the Lackawanna Six quickly turns into a legal cause celebre for Bush’s war on terror. “For a president eager to see evidence that his war on terror was working,” she says, “the Lackawanna Six provided fodder.”

Meeting Osama

That’s not to say there aren’t niggling questions that point to the complexity of this case, and she’s careful to include them. An email from Mukhtar al-Bakri to Derwish contains cryptic references to a huge “meal” —a possible code word for an imminent attack. Alwan meets privately (twice) with Osama bin Laden (though this occurred pre 9/11 when, like Alwan, few of us had even heard of bin Laden). Even still, we’re well aware that it’s a very big leap from that email or attending a camp to being dubbed a “terrorist” or (Bush’s words) “killer,” and that such a leap never could have been made prior to 9/11.

If their story seems inevitable given the times, Temple-Raston challenges us to consider the worse fates that await Derwish and al-Dosari. The latter ends up in Guantanamo, only to be released without charge three years (and several suicide attempts) later. With the approval of FBI director George Tenet, Derwish, an American citizen like the Lackawanna Six, is killed by a Hellfire missile fired from an unmanned Predator drone while riding across the Yemeni desert. Such stories further point to the limitations—more like abuses—of “pre-emptive justice,” and challenge us to consider how far we’re willing to allow the government to go to in the name of keeping us safe.