LACKAWANNA, N.Y. -- Kamal Derwish once boasted to fellow Yemeni-Americans in this old steel town that he expected to take up arms for the Taliban in Afghanistan, according to federal authorities.
A burly and ebullient Islamic activist, Derwish was born in nearby Buffalo but spent most of his 29 years in Saudi Arabia and Yemen. Neighbors say he promoted hard-core Muslim beliefs during periodic visits here over the last three years and enlisted a string of young adherents.
Now, six men who authorities say are Derwish recruits, all Americans of Yemeni descent who lived just blocks from each other in Lackawanna, stand charged with providing "material support" to a foreign terrorist organization. Authorities described them as a sleeper cell awaiting orders from Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida network.
A debate swirls around whether the "Lackawanna Six" are al-Qaida acolytes or small-town dupes who had no intention of carrying out terrorist acts in their native land. Defense attorneys describe the six as victims of misinformation.
Derwish, an alleged co-conspirator described as their ringleader, is believed to be in hiding in Yemen.
More than 1,000 Yemeni-Americans live in this Lake Erie town of 20,000.
Trip to Pakistan
In spring 2001, six of them made their way to Pakistan, ostensibly to undergo up to two months of religious studies. Greeting them at a Karachi hotel, Derwish instead guided them to an Afghan training camp run by al-Qaida, the government alleges.
There, prosecutors revealed in documents Friday, they heard bin Laden giving a malevolent anti-American speech, telling them "in unequivocal terms that there 'is going to be a fight against Americans."'
None of the men could give details regarding any of the mosques or schools that they visited for what they said was religious training in Pakistan, prosecutors wrote.
Almost 1 1/2 years later, just days after the Sept. 11 anniversary, the six men were arrested and charged. Routine security checks after last Sept. 11, noting the men's return from Pakistan in June 2001, had placed them on the FBI's radar screen. For largely unexplained reasons, interest in them flared up this summer.
U.S. Magistrate H. Kenneth Schroeder Jr. said he would rule by Thursday whether to grant bail or keep the men locked up until trial.
"I want to know if they are a danger to the community now -- not in 2001. Now," Schroeder demanded during the three-day bail hearing. He also said the Constitution, not fears about "another 9/11, God forbid," would largely guide his decision.
Defense attorneys say the six pose no danger and won't flee, but prosecutors say they all have strong familial ties to Yemen, and the U.S. lacks an extradition treaty with the country.
If convicted, the men could get up to 15 years in prison under a little-used federal law that prohibits giving money, weapons or other tangible support to foreign groups designated by the U.S. government as terrorist organizations.
Four of the six men deny ever going to Afghanistan or to the training camp near Kandahar.
Authorities acknowledged they had no evidence the suspected cell was planning a terrorist strike. But they said communications centered on Derwish picked up alarmingly in recent months.
The youngest suspect, Mukhtar al-Bakri, 22, who had gone to Saudi Arabia in preparation for his arranged marriage, sent an obscure e-mail in July titled "The Big Meal" that suggested an attack using explosives was imminent, prosecutor William Hochul Jr. told the court.
"The next meal will be very huge," the e-mail read. "No one will be able to withstand it except those with faith."
Defense attorney John Molloy maintained the government misunderstood the missive, noting that a reply sent by an unidentified coconspirator in Lackawanna asked, "What are you talking about? What is this meal? ... Do you mean a hamburger or what?"
Molloy said the e-mail merely quoted hearsay al-Bakri gathered from an old man and a cabdriver during a dinner party in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, two months earlier. After his arrest, al-Bakri told the FBI he had heard the explosion was going to be in Saudi Arabia, Molloy added.
The criminal complaint hinges solely on statements allegedly made by al-Bakri and Sahim Alwan, 29. They admitted visiting the military camp but indicated they didn't know their ultimate destination until arriving in Pakistan.
When Derwish told group members they would be meeting "the Most Wanted," meaning bin Laden, al-Bakri said "he felt as if a shovel hit his head," according to an FBI agent. Alwan described being so terrified by the "crazy, radical mentality of people" at the camp that he feigned an ankle injury to win release 10 days later.
The pair [al-Bakri and Alwan] maintained all six were trained in explosives, Kalashnikov assault rifles and handguns, although none got to fire live rounds.
In contrast, Derwish underwent advanced training in anti-aircraft weaponry, seemed "quite comfortable in camp and appeared to know people," Hochul, the prosecutor, told the court. He added that Derwish had confided his desire to fight for the Taliban, Afghanistan's austere rulers and allies of al-Qaida.
Officials say there's growing evidence that terrorist cells are operating on U.S. soil, blending into their surroundings for long spells but poised to spring into action. In the murky war against terrorism, Hochul said, investigators are having to head off possible catastrophes before there's harder evidence of a specific attack.
Hochul said the men's mere presence at the camp constituted a crime. But four of the men -- Yahya Goba, 25; Faysal Galab, 26; Yasein Taher, 24; and Shafel Mosed, 24 -- denied ever going to Afghanistan, and their lawyers questioned the credibility of Alwan and al-Bakri.
What's more, the 314-pound Goba was too fat to be a trained terrorist, his lawyer said.
Alwan, a jobs counselor, appeared to have a cooperative relationship with the FBI. He helped the agency on an unrelated fraud case two years ago and even responded right away to a message waiting for him when he returned from Pakistan. In talking about the trip, he never mentioned going to Afghanistan, court records show.
The other three men were part-time students or unemployed who had, at worst, petty criminal records, their lawyers asserted.
Relatives said the men developed a deeper interest in their religion after a friend drowned in a boating accident in 1999. They also were drawn to Derwish, an ardently religious man with a more intimate knowledge of the Middle East who wore the untrimmed beard of a traditionalist.
"We know these kids. If they were up to something, they will pay for it. If they weren't, may God help them see the light of day," said Mohamed Albanna, vice president of the local American Muslim Council chapter.
"Gladly we are in America where you can't just make assumptions, you have to prove it in a court of law."
Federal authorities thanked Muslim-Americans for helping them crack the suspected cell, saying an anonymous letter from a "concerned Yemeni" triggered the investigation.
Unless the men are tried separately, their testimony cannot be used against each other, according to a constitutional law expert who thinks prosecutors have stepped onto shaky legal ground.
"They've made it into a big deal and then they show up in court and produce a pop gun," said Lee Albert, a professor at the State University of New York School of Law at Buffalo who attended the bail hearing.
But he doesn't expect the case to fade away, considering the arrests were announced at a nationally televised news conference in Washington.
"The government wants information and the way you flip people is you put them in jail and keep them there indefinitely," Albert said. "If they're on the street there's no more leverage. People do run scared in times like this."