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The Case of the Lackawana Six

Driven to Terror

by VIJAY PRASHAD

If you have no business there, it is unlikely that you would find your way to Lackawanna, New York. A major freeway, the Interstate-90, goes by the small suburb of Buffalo, and one could easily exit from there on to Ridge Road and drive towards this town that was built around the Lackawanna Steel Company. But the steel company, founded in 1899, has long since closed its foundry. Little remains for the outsider. The town has less than 20,000 residents, but it has 24 churches – 14 Protestant and 10 Catholic – and one mosque (the Masjid Alhuda Guidance Mosque). Jobs vanish, but God remains.

In the 1940s, the Lackawanna steel mills employed over 20,000 people. It was the world’s largest steel factory. The company mostly hired immigrants – people from Ireland and Poland and also Yemen. It brought in Arabs to stoke the vast furnaces, whose heat, the company surmised, they would be able to bear as they were used to the desert heat. The Lackawanna Yemenis created their own world in a part of the new town, converting a church into a mosque and creating their own shops.

When these giant steel factories rusted into decrepitude by the early 1980s, the children of the Yemeni workers found that they could not follow their fathers into these union jobs. They inherited joblessness and uncertainty (the rate of unemployment is upwards of 40 per cent). Neither the factory nor the mosque provided them with stability. The former closed in 1983 and the latter had spent too much time on the project of assimilation to be useful when there was little to assimilate into. The promise of integration crumbled, and these young people turned elsewhere for their succour.

A few of the young Yemeni American men found their inspiration in young men like themselves who returned home after their adventures in the jehads of the 1990s (in Afghanistan, Bosnia and Chechnya). In her recent book The Jihad Next Door, reporter Dina Temple-Raston writes of one of these inspirational men, Kamel Derwish, who returned to his childhood home of Lackawanna after a long sojourn in the jehad lands. “It was easy for Derwish to attract the young men. With his stories, Derwish seemed like a modern-day swashbuckler. He talked of fighting in the hills of Bosnia and sleeping under the stars with fellow Muslims. He spoke with conviction that came with fulfilling a religious duty and a sense of purpose.” What Derwish offered these disjointed, aimless young men was not only meaning (through religion) but adventure.

When Derwish asked them if they wanted to come with him to the jehad camps in Afghanistan, they passively agreed. None of the half a dozen Lackawanna men had any real conviction about jehad. After they had begun to trust Derwish, he started to criticise their way of life. “You’re going to have problems on Judgment Day,” he told them. He promised purity alongside excitement. The men went along with him, and in mid-2001 eight of them came to al-Farooq, one of Al Qaeda’s camps west of Kandahar. They hated it. The conveniences of their lives in New York State had not prepared them for the rigours of the camp. Nor did they find comforting the ease with which their trainers moved between religion and brutality.
One day, Osama bin Laden came to the camp and addressed the trainees, telling them that about 40 men were ready to strike the United States, to “take their souls in their hands”. The Lackawanna men trembled, for this visit revealed to them the enormity of their error. They had not sought to become hardened jehadis; they wanted some release from their torpid lives. The men left al-Farooq in a hurry, hoping, Temple-Raston writes, that “their jihad adventure was over”.

Yasser Taher’s reaction to the attacks of September 11, 2001, was not his alone. Muslims across the U.S. shared them. Taher, who had just returned from al-Farooq, closed the blinds in his flat, went into a panic and told his wife, “For Muslims in this country, it is all over.” The local office of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) had kept an eye on the Lackawanna men, but they had no cause to go after them. After 9/11, the rules changed.

The Patriot Act gave the FBI more power of surveillance, and the power to arrest someone on the suspicion that they will commit an illegal act. The Bush administration’s aggressive move overseas (in Afghanistan, and later Iraq) was matched domestically. The FBI looked across the country to arrest anyone who it deemed might be a security risk. Part of this was for the security of the population, but most of it was for political reasons. The U.S. Justice Department needed to show that the new draconian laws had indeed produced some results. The Lackawanna Six, as they came to be called, were arrested on September 9, 2002. About three weeks later, on November 3, the U.S. fired a missile at a small convoy of SUVs (sports utility vehicles) in the Yemeni desert and killed Kamel Derwish.

The extra-judicial killing of Derwish and the overreached arrests of the Lackawanna Six showed the country that the Bush administration was willing to be aggressive against anyone who dared threaten the U.S. It did not matter that the young men got to Afghanistan in error and had made no plans to do anything against the U.S. Indeed, they recoiled when confronted by anti-Americanism while at al-Farooq.

The FBI operated almost as if it had a quota. Government informants worked aggressively among vulnerable people, pushing them to plan violent acts. Osama Eldawoody earned $100,000 to turn Shahawar Matin Siraj, a young and susceptible man who shied away from any violence (his story is told in Amitava Kumar’s forthcoming book, A Foreigner Carrying in the Crook of His Arm a Tiny Bomb).

FBI agent Foria Younis, meanwhile, went among young Muslims in New York, trawling for disaffection, which she converted into imputed action. As a result of her work, the U.S. government deported 16-year-old Tashnuba Hayder to Bangladesh. It claimed that Hayder would have been the first female suicide bomber in the U.S. (the evidence: a one-page doodle around the word suicide, which Hayder claimed was part of her class notes on why religions opposed taking one’s own life). Prodding FBI informants and agents converted disgruntlement at the rise of Islamaphobia and of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as the ongoing U.S. support for the Israeli occupation of Palestine, into the appearance of terrorism.

The FBI called these young people “Pepsi jehadists”, those who “saw redemption in religious violence”, writes Temple-Raston. But most of the Lackawanna Six, Siraj and even Hayder developed their sense of outrage without any instinct for or study of religion or with any genuine religious motivation. The growth of what they saw as Islamaphobia, and their experiences of racism, as well as their shock at the unfathomable excesses of U.S. imperialism threw them into psycho-social turmoil. Without a well-developed anti-war movement to offer an alternative theory, most of them were prey to people like Kamel Derwish or Foria Younis, one who worked against the government and the other who worked for it.

Between 2001 and 2006, more than 400 people were indicted for all kinds of crimes (mostly petty immigration infractions) as a result of terror investigations. Less than half of them faced charges of being terrorists. Among them is the Portland Six. Patrice Lumumba Ford, son of a Black Panther leader, went to China as an undergraduate. There he met some of the 18 million Chinese Muslims, found succour in their faith and converted to Islam. He returned to Portland State University, where, a professor remembered, “He was devout, but he was not a missionary.” A few weeks after 9/11, a Sheriff’s deputy saw Ford and five other Muslims in a gravel pit at target practice. He took their names and let them off. Some weeks later, the group left the U.S. for Afghanistan, where, they claimed, they wanted to make contact with the Red Crescent and help their Muslim brethren.

Mistreatment of Muslims in the U.S. after 9/11 and the wars in Asia distressed them. When they returned to the U.S. without getting to Afghanistan, the FBI arrested them.

The Portland Six and the Lackawanna Six are groups of young people who bear within them the histories of imperialism, and who take refuge in Islam not for its doctrinal or theological aspects, but for the platform it provides in solidarity with Muslims who face the brunt of the war machine. African Americans (such as in the Portland Six) or British Asians (such as in the Tipton Three, who were imprisoned in Guantanamo Bay for two years) turn to political Islam in response to Atlantic racism and to the sustained campaigns against lands where the populations are largely Muslim (and whose land bears rich resources coveted by the Atlantic world).

Neither Europe nor the U.S. has come to terms with its imperial past, and they still see their “minority” population as outsiders, as immigrants; neither Europe nor the U.S. accepts that the world’s resources cannot be simply seized without the generation of anger and resentment. The Tipton Three and the Lackawanna Six went to Afghanistan out of curiosity perhaps or by accident, just as the Portland Six tried to go there to do humanitarian work (as another British Asian Guantanamo prisoner, Moazzam Begg, did).

Their intentions are irrelevant to the Atlantic powers, who are invested in fear-mongering about their co-citizens, the imputed Fifth Column, whose presence engenders fear and silences the democratic impulses of a population that pays for these wars with blood and treasure.

VIJAY PRASHAD is the George and Martha Kellner Chair of South Asian History and Director of International Studies at Trinity College, Hartford, CT His new book is The Darker Nations: A People’s History of the Third World, New York: The New Press, 2007. He can be reached at: vijay.prashad@trincoll.edu 

This article was originally published by Frontline, India’s national magazine.