'Cool dudes' or terrorist cell?
LACKAWANNA, N.Y. — Charles Smith stops mid-sentence and glances at the Arab-American man coming out of a run-down clapboard house across the street. It's the same house that the FBI and state and local police raided just 72 hours before, looking for evidence of a terrorist "sleeping cell."
"Hey, man, you better watch out," Mr. Smith yells up to him. "The reporters are still out there."
With that, the man slips back inside.
Such is the protective nature of the Lackawanna neighborhood that's reeling from accusations that six of its local sons got training in Al Qaeda camps in the spring and summer of 2001. Today, the men will go before a judge who will decide whether to grant them bail as they await the outcome of a grand jury investigation. They're charged with "aiding a terrorist organization."
Yet almost everyone here knows them, and almost everyone doubts such all-American young men, even men of Yemeni descent, could "harbor such hatred," in the words of neighbor Felicia Williams. The accusations are particularly difficult for the community to bear since the men were raised here.
This is the First Ward, known in the rest of this faded steel town of 19,000 as "across the bridge." It's the old company town, the wrong side of the tracks, the city's melting pot where whites, blacks, Hispanics, and Arabs share coffee and worries over chain-link fences. It's the kind of place, the neighbors say, where they care more about people's welfare than the weeds growing up in their yards.
"There's such diversity here. You have no choice but to care about people when we've grown up with them all your life, been at schools with them, played outside with them," says Ms. Williams, who went to school and worked at a local collection agency with Yasein Taher, one of the accused men. "He's got a white wife, a kid. He was kinda quiet, but he was a cool dude."
He was also voted the friendliest in high school. Williams doesn't believe it's true that he was a point man in a terror cell. She cried when she saw the news. But if it is true, "it makes me really cold," she says.
That's the dilemma facing this close-knit community whether to believe what their hearts and experience tell them, or what the FBI and law enforcement are alleging, particularly because those allegations seem vague. On Monday, the FBI said they had found weapons in some of the suspects' homes. But it turned out to be just two guns and a stun gun nothing "out of the ordinary," according to FBI special agent Peter Ahearn in Buffalo. They weren't assault weapons or AK-47s, he says, but just the regular kind of guns you might find in any American home.
The same kind of ambiguity surrounds the young men's trips to Pakistan to study trips the FBI alleges led them to spend weeks training with firearms in Al Qaeda-run Afghan camps.
It's not "uncommon" for people from the Arab community here, which is 4,000 strong, to go to Saudi Arabia or Pakistan or Egypt to further their religious studies, according to Mohamed Albanna, a Muslim leader in Lackawanna. It's similar to Jewish Americans going to Israel to visit the Western Wall, or Hindus returning to India for a spiritual dip in the Ganges. Families and friends pool resources to help them go, and they turn out at the airport to wish them well. It's a point of community pride unless, of course, what's alleged is true.
"When this news hit, we were stunned," says Khalid Qazi, president of the local chapter of the American Muslim Council. "We were pained and anguished that any of our youth could be what they're alleged to be."
Dr. Qazi knew three of the men before and after they went to Pakistan. He says he saw no change in them. Neither did Aliyah Ali, a head-scarfed neighbor in black traditional dress who went to school with them.
Nor did Khalid al-Bakri, the brother of Mukhtar al-Bakri, the sixth man who was charged Monday. As he leans against a Ford Explorer in front of his family's overgrown yellow clapboard house, Khalid calls the allegations "just crazy."
But another relative, who refused to give his name or allow his face to be shown, told a local television station that the men did change, and the FBI allegations are true: They did get the training and were sympathizers of Osama bin Laden. Others in the neighborhood, in quiet whispers, also say they saw some change but only in that the men became more religious, more observant.
At the Liberty Food Market, the doubters point to the indictment, which says only that the men went and got training for a few weeks (and didn't stay for the entire seven-week course). The FBI admits they have no evidence of an imminent plot. "They're very Westernized. They hardly speak [Arabic]," says Ms. Ali. "If they had any real evidence against them, it would shock me."
But others are already convinced, such as the woman who stopped her car in front of the local mosque to let reporters know "those people" had ruined the neighborhood. Indeed, others note that it's sometimes the person they least suspect who can potentially wreak the most havoc.
At the New Village Diner, where the waitress knows people's orders before they walk in, and where two of the accused men were regulars, the allegations and the ambiguity worry everyone.
Owner John Ristich pauses when asked if he thinks this will change Lackawanna and the neighborhood. "I think it's going to change these other people's lives forever," he says. "People will be more suspicious of them. And that's not good."
That infuriates Charles Smith, who was quick to protect his Arab-American neighbor from the prying eyes and questions of the press. "If those guys did anything, OK, punish them. But don't harass their families, the women and children."