[Ppnews] The Case of the Lackawana Six

Political Prisoner News ppnews at freedomarchives.org
Fri May 2 12:15:08 EDT 2008

May 2, 2008

The Case of the Lackawana Six

Driven to Terror


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 
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 
Darker Nations: A People's History of the Third 
World, New York: The New Press, 2007. He can be 
reached at: <mailto:vijay.prashad at trincoll.edu>vijay.prashad at trincoll.edu

This article was originally published by 
<http://www.frontline.in/>Frontline, India's national magazine.

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