Last ‘Lackawanna Six’ Defendant Pleads Guilty
The last of the “Lackawanna Six” pleaded guilty in federal court Monday to providing “material support” to Al Qaeda, bringing to a sudden close one of the most sensational terrorism cases involving American citizens -- without any defendant standing trial or the government ever having to prove that the men were part of a sleeper cell.
Instead, Mukhtar al-Bakri, a 23-year-old delivery truck driver from nearby Lackawanna, merely acknowledged in court that he had trained under Al Qaeda instructors in Afghanistan on how to wage war against America and Israel.
Facing a lengthy prison sentence if convicted at trial, Al-Bakri, like his five comrades, chose to plead guilty to a single offense in the hope of serving less than 10 years. In return, he will cooperate with officials in identifying Al Qaeda recruiters and other terrorist operatives who sought out Americans.
Federal authorities said the six guilty pleas will allow them to ferret out a number of Al Qaeda handlers who have slipped in and out of the United States to persuade young Muslim men that their religion was under attack.
Lackawanna was especially fertile ground for such efforts, they said, because the old blue-collar steel town has given way over the years to a large number of Yemeni immigrants and other transplants from Arab nations.
“Any time you can get a conviction, it’s a wonderful day for the American people,” said William J. Hochul Jr., chief of the U.S. attorney’s anti-terrorism unit. “Especially when there is so much more to learn in this case. We have to find the recruiters, and the people behind the recruiters too.”
But defense attorneys, happy to get relatively short prison terms for their clients, scoffed at the notion that these six Yemeni immigrants were hard-core terrorists, suggesting instead that, after being contacted by recruiters, they journeyed to Afghanistan in the spring of 2001 on what they thought was a religious pilgrimage.
“Mormons go door to door when they finish college,” said John J. Molloy, who represented Al-Bakri. “And a large part of the Islamic faith is the struggle, where many believe that their faith is under attack.
“In fact, this whole recruiting effort was centered on a crisis of faith, and he went under a misapprehension of what was going to happen when he got there. He thought that by going, he would become a better Muslim. That’s all.”
From the beginning, the FBI looked upon Al-Bakri as a leader of the six Lackawanna High School graduates, particularly after he gave agents lengthy descriptions of life in the training camp. He agreed to talk after he was confronted with an e-mail he sent last summer warning that a “Big Meal” terrorist attack was on the verge of occurring somewhere in the Middle East, possibly Saudi Arabia.
In addition, he told the agents about a book, at an Al Qaeda safe house in Pakistan, that contained a map pinpointing several U.S. military installations in the Middle East. He also described weapons and explosives training at the Al Farooq camp in Afghanistan, as well as a meeting with Al Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden.
In court Monday, U.S. District Judge William M. Skretny pressed Al-Bakri for more details about the meeting with Bin Laden, in which the two spoke briefly in Arabic.
“I just met him,” the soft-spoken Al-Bakri said. “I told him I was there without my parents’ knowing, and he told me to send them a letter that I was OK.”
Al-Bakri pleaded guilty to a single charge of providing material support and resources to a U.S.-designated foreign terrorist entity -- Al Qaeda -- by wearing a uniform at the camp, undergoing weeks of training and serving at times as a guard at the base.
Like the others, who will be sentenced this summer, Al-Bakri is expected to receive a 10-year term, but serve from seven to 10 years. He also is facing a maximum fine of $250,000.
According to Al-Bakri’s plea agreement, the six men were approached in April 2001 by two recruiters, one who has since been determined to be “a member of Al Qaeda.” A third man flew with them from Toronto and helped find them lodging at the Faran Hotel in Karachi, Pakistan, which prosecutors said was often used as an “inbound” safe house for training-camp recruits.
They later stayed at two guesthouses in Pakistan, run by other men “associated with the Al Qaeda terrorist organization,” according to the agreement.
After reaching the training camp, Al-Bakri said, he was taught how to fire a Kalashnikov rifle, a 9-millimeter handgun, an M-16 automatic rifle and a rocket-propelled grenade launcher. He also was trained in the use of plastic explosives, TNT and Molotov cocktails.
“Throughout the course of training,” the agreement said, “the trainers at the Al Farooq camp spoke about the operation and success of the Tanzania embassy bombing, the intention of Al Qaeda to attack America, and the request of trainees to volunteer for suicide missions.”
Like his friends, Al-Bakri maintained that he was tricked into going to the training camp and misled about what was taught there. Once he completed the course, he returned home in August 2001.
A month later came the Sept. 11 attacks, and, according to defense attorney Molloy, all six of the Lackawanna men became frightened.
“Since 9/11, he’d been waiting for the FBI to come to his house,” Molloy said, describing Al-Bakri as “very, very, very scared after 9/11. They all were.”
But when nothing happened, Al-Bakri traveled to the Middle East, looking for a bride. In July, he made what his lawyer said was an innocent blunder when he signed on to a computer at an Internet cafe in Saudi Arabia and e-mailed friends that something big -- “a Big Meal” -- was about to occur.
“The next meal will be very huge. No one will be able to withstand it, except those with faith,” he e-mailed his friends.
Prosecutors saw that as a sign that Al-Bakri must have learned about a forthcoming bombing or, worse yet, was involved in one. But Molloy said Al-Bakri was only trying to “pass on what he had heard” as street gossip in Saudi Arabia. In fact, the lawyer said, the response that Al-Bakri got back was “What are you talking about?”
Two months later, on the first day of his honeymoon in Bahrain, Al-Bakri was arrested by FBI agents.
Molloy added that his client could have gotten a sentence of “40 or 50 years” had additional charges been filed and he lost at trial. So the offer of 10 years or less, in return for a guilty plea and cooperation in finding recruiters, seemed a pretty good bet.
But what gnaws at Al-Bakri, his lawyer said, is that even when he gets out of prison, still in his early 30s, he will be forever branded a terrorist.
“He knows he will have to live with that,” Molloy said. “For the rest of his life.”