In early 2001, a mystery man who called himself Juma came to Lackawanna, circulating through the Yemenite community and startling people with his angry call to arms in defense of the Muslim religion.
He was invited to give a Friday sermon at Lackawanna's mosque, but the words he spoke there were so full of rage and politics that the mosque's elders told him he was not welcome to speak there again.
By the time he left Western New York for good, shortly after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the man had helped to create a world of trouble for six young men who would come to be known as the "Lackawanna Six."
The visitor was known only as Juma to most who met him here, but some Lackawanna sources have identified him as Juma Muhammad Abdul Latif Al-Dossari. He is one of a number of suspected al-Qaida recruiters who are the subjects of a massive U.S. Justice Department investigation, here and in other cities.
Federal agents want to know what American cities the recruiters visited, how many young men were convinced to attend al-Qaida training camps, and most importantly, whether any of the recruits may figure into plans for some future 9/1 1-type attack.
Juma's activities in Lackawanna helped to put the region's Arab-American community in a harsh national spotlight, and left six young men facing prison terms approximately totaling a half-century. The last defendant in the "Lackawanna Six" case is expected to follow the others by taking a plea deal today.
Yemeni-Americans like Ahmad Jamil, 74, an elder at the Guidance Mosque -- formerly the Lackawanna Islamic Mosque -- deeply regret that Juma came to town and was able to sell impressionable young men on the idea of training with al-Qaida.
"I feel very bad. If I had a chance to know what he was doing, I would have stopped what he was doing," Jamil said. "It disturbs me more than I could tell you. Our young men are going to jail . . . and we're known all over the world because of this."
"It's terrible," added Kahled al-Bakri, the older brother of Mukhtar al-Bakri, the youngest of the Lackawanna suspects. "They played with his mind. I wish he never went to Afghanistan."
Sources familiar with Juma's activities in Lackawanna said they now believe he is in the custody of U.S. military authorities -- possibly at the secretive jail for terrorism suspects at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
U.S. Attorney Michael A. Battle declines to comment on that speculation, and in fact, refuses to discuss Juma at all.
"I can't confirm or deny any information (about Juma)," Battle said. "What I can say, without discussing anyone by name, is that the recruiters are of great interest to us. We're trying to find out everything we can about them. We do believe it is possible that the people who did the recruiting for al-Qaida in Lackawanna did the same thing in other cities."
Made to feel guilty
According to sources close to the six Lackawanna defendants, Juma worked closely on the recruiting effort with Kamal Derwish, an al-Qaida operative who was a former Lackawanna resident.
Officials in the Yemenite community said Derwish, 29, is believed to have been killed in Yemen last November by a missile fired by a remote-controlled aircraft used by the Central Intelligence Agency. CIA officials have refused to comment.
"Derwish and Juma were the recruiters. From what we've heard, Derwish is dead and Juma may be in federal custody," said Patrick J. Brown, attorney for one of the Lackawanna Six defendants.
Supporters of the six defendants said Derwish and Juma used a "hard sell" approach in convincing al-Bakri, Shafal A. Mosed, Yahya A. Goba, Faysal Galab, Yasein A. Taher and Sahim Alwan that a trip to the al-Farooq training camp in Afghanistan would help them learn more about their religion and how to defend it.
Those who know the six men insist they were duped by the recruiters, and would never have gone to the al-Farooq camp if they knew the purpose was to train for attacks on the United States.
"They laid a guilt trip on (Mosed)," Brown said. "They told him how terrible it was that he knew the names of American sports stars, but couldn't name some of the prophets in his own religion. They told him he needed to train to protect Islam, which they said was under attack in places all over the world.
"They didn't tell them they would be training for violence against the U.S. They talked about Muslim women in Bosnia being raped by the Serbs, and fetuses being cut out of their bodies, and they told these guys they needed to train and prepare to fight against things like that."
Defense attorneys Joseph M. LaTona, Rodney O. Personius, John J. Molloy and James P. Harrington also confirmed that their clients -- Galab, Taher, al-Bakri and Alwan -- were recruited by the team of Derwish and Juma.
Juma, described by people who met him as a charismatic figure, roughly 35 years old, was introduced as a religious man who had lived in Indiana. He made at least two visits to Lackawanna, staying at Goba's house down the street from the mosque on Wilkesbarre Avenue.
Juma and Derwish spent many hours speaking to Goba and other young men, in meetings at Goba's house and other locations. Many of the young men who were approached had close ties to the mosque. Among them was Alwan, the former president of the mosque.
At one point in early 2001, Juma was allowed to give a Friday sermon at the Lackawanna mosque.
Talk was political in nature
Wearing a white robe and headdress as he spoke for approximately 20 minutes, Juma spoke so stridently and angrily about world politics that he was not allowed to speak there again, according to some members of the congregation.
The talk was political in nature and was "unacceptable" for the mosque pulpit, said Mohamed Ali Saleh, acting president of the mosque. He explained that mosque officials frequently allow visiting scholars to speak, and added that he and others had no idea beforehand what Juma would talk about.
"He did not advocate violence" during the talk, said Saleh, who was present for the speech.
"His voice was rising in anger. It was more of a political talk than religious. Some of the elders were infuriated," recalled Mohammad Albanna, vice president of the American Muslim Council of Western New York.
That did not stop Juma and Derwish from later meeting with young men in Lackawanna -- sometimes in groups and sometimes individually.
Ultimately, in April and May of 2001, at least six young men agreed to go and train with al-Qaida. Authorities are investigating the possibility that other young men from Lackawanna also agreed to make the trip.
"They had many talks with Taher. The trip to Afghanistan was sold to him as a way of saving his soul," Personius said. "They wanted him to feel guilty about living an American lifestyle and not learning more about his religion. They talked about the struggle to protect Islam and the Islam way of life."
LaTona described the men as "clever, manipulative and persuasive guys . . . who took advantage of a person's devotion to Islam."
A 'very typical' scenario
The Lackawanna scenario was described by one terrorism expert as "very typical" of the methods al-Qaida and similar groups use to recruit potential terrorists.
"This is how they do it," said Robert Heibel, a former deputy chief of counterterrorism for the FBI who now teaches at Mercyhurst College in Erie, Pa. "Al-Qaida has people who wander from city to city. They go to the mosques and look for people with radical ideas. They circulate in and out of the mosques and look for people who might be willing to train with them."
So far, the names of Juma and Derwish have not publicly surfaced in connection with al-Qaida recruiting efforts in other American cities, but Heibel said he would not be surprised if the two men did seek recruits elsewhere.
Federal court papers filed in connection with Goba's plea deal in late March mentioned Juma several times, but not by name.
The documents refer to a man -- identified by other sources as Juma -- who stayed with Goba sometime before Goba left for Afghanistan in May 2001. After Goba returned to Lackawanna in August 2001, the same man stayed at Goba's home again -- leaving shortly after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
"The man told Goba that he wanted to fight for the Taliban against the Americans," federal prosecutors said in the court papers. "Goba believes that this man was later captured by the Americans in Afghanistan."
The whole situation leaves Lackawanna residents like Ahmad Nagi Alasri, 72, upset that the tentacles of Osama bin Laden's terrorist organization reached into their community.
"It's no good. We don't want those people here," Alasri said, when asked about the recruiters. "This is the United States. My home."
e-mail: email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org