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SILENCE SEALED FATE OF SIX

It ended Monday afternoon, with Mukhtar al-Bakri -- the final defendant -- pleading guilty while wearing a red sweater with an American flag on the front. Given his expected plea, the sweater could have been only a show of allegiance and a sign of regret.

It's too bad he didn't make that sort of display when it mattered.

His plea ends the saga of the Lackawanna Six, the young men of Yemeni descent who took a not-so-excellent adventure to an al-Qaida terrorist camp in Afghanistan a few months before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. All six now have pleaded guilty to providing "material support" for a terrorist network. All will spend at least seven years in jail.

All said they were sorry; all claimed naivete; and -- in a fatal mistake -- all remained silent after returning, before and in the months after Sept. 11.

They claimed they were dupes, not duplicitous; mixed-up, not menacing. They claimed they had been misled by a charismatic recruiter and a desire to connect with Islamic roots.

"(Al-Bakri) even bought his own airplane ticket (to Pakistan), that's how (naive) he was," said Jack Molloy, his attorney.

There's a chance that stupidity, not terror, guided their actions -- despite evidence to the contrary. But this is one case where words -- or, actually, the lack of them -- spoke as loudly as actions.

That's where the naivete defense falls apart, where my sympathy ends: with their prolonged silence.

They heard from the world's No. 1 terrorist, the man behind the USS Cole attack that killed 17 American sailors. They knew he was connected to embassy attacks in Africa that killed hundreds. At the camp they learned al-Qaida was recruiting 50 men for suicide missions, with the United States a target. They trained with grenade launchers and plastic explosives. They saw a map of the Middle East with U.S. institutions targeted. Some of them met bin Laden, who -- in a sign of things to come -- asked whether American Muslims support his cause.

Then they came home and said nothing. Not in the crucial months before Sept. 11. And not in the days, weeks and months after. And not even after being contacted by the FBI, as three of them were soon after Sept. 11. (One of them, Sahim Alwan, even had been questioned before the attacks.)

All denied going anywhere. Not until a year after the attacks did the truth trickle out.

They say now they were scared silent by what they saw. As Americans, they should have been scared straight.

Five of the six were born here. Most trace their ancestry to Yemen, the Land of No Opportunity, where freedom of speech is a contradiction in terms. If they were so turned off by what they saw at the camp, it should only have propped up their patriotism. Instead, their silence betrayed their country and -- if stupidity was truly behind their actions -- themselves.

Given the FBI's blundering before the attacks, their warnings might not have changed anything. But there was a small chance their words might have sounded an alarm. Even coming forward soon after the attack, they would've connected the dots to bin Laden.

Authorities say that, had they spoken sooner, chances are none would have been prosecuted.

"If they had (voluntarily) shared information," an FBI official said, "this (case) would have been seen in a different light."

As much as I sympathize, as tough as the punishment is -- maybe too tough, given the law's murky constitutional footing -- we have to recognize that the rules have changed.

We're fighting a different kind of war. The enemy is largely hidden, the targets are mainly civilian. There are no rules, which means sitting back and playing defense may invite disaster.

Somewhere along the line, the Six forgot that they are Americans. They failed their country by going over there. They failed it more deeply by keeping silent when they came back.

I don't doubt that they have regrets. The American flag sweater al-Bakri wore may truly show where their loyalties lie.

It's too bad none of them made their allegiance clear a lot sooner. Their lives, and maybe ours, might have been different.

e-mail: desmonde@buffnews.com

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