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Doubt, Fear Greet Terror Arrests

Inquiry: Allegations that six young men from a Buffalo suburb trained with Al Qaeda have shaken their neighbors. Tensions are high in the tight-knit community.

September 23, 2002|ELIZABETH MEHREN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

LACKAWANNA, N.Y. — In the blighted neighborhood called Ward One, shopkeeper Andrea Haxton knows all of her customers--including six young men charged with aiding Osama bin Laden. The arrests of the "Lackawanna Six," Haxton said Sunday, have shifted the focus at her corner store from the cost of fresh produce to the price of prejudice.

"This is affecting everyone," Haxton said. "This has always been a place where we watch out for one another. Now some people are looking at one another differently. It's a shame, a downright shame."

On the streets, in stores, outside homes and in the confines of a Muslim school, many residents of this decaying former steel town are prepared to acknowledge that the truth about the American-born suspects is not yet known. Perhaps they did constitute an Al Qaeda sleeper cell, some say, helping to finance a worldwide jihad and even lending their own bodies to the effort. Or maybe, others suggest, these young men simply were led astray by unchecked spirits of adventure.

Among this city's Yemeni population, the arrests prompted a sense of outrage and confusion. On Sunday, hundreds gathered at the Yemenite Benevolent Assn. for the latest in a series of community meetings. In Mercedes and minivans, in golf shirts and in flowing robes, residents poured into a brick storefront for an information session scheduled to last an hour. Instead, it took up most of the day.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday September 24, 2002 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 10 inches; 370 words Type of Material: Correction
Terrorism case--A story in Monday's Section A said incorrectly that a detention hearing for six terrorism suspects might last at least two more weeks. In fact, the hearing ended Friday, though federal Magistrate H. Kenneth Schroeder said he might not rule until Oct. 3. In the meantime, he will consider written motions in the case.

"People want to ask questions," said Mohamed al-Banna, a candy company owner who chaired the meeting. "They are concerned that the general population might prejudge not only these individuals, but our entire community."

Ranging in age from 22 to 29, the terrorism suspects were jailed more than a week ago. Authorities contend that along with two others who are believed to be at large in Yemen, they were involved with Al Qaeda, Bin Laden's terrorist network.

While carefully blending into a community of more than 2,000 Yemenis, the suspects provided support to known terrorists, prosecutors here argued in bail hearings last week. By attending an Al Qaeda camp in Afghanistan where Bin Laden addressed recruits, officials said, the men broke a 1996 federal anti-terrorism law.

Federal Magistrate H. Kenneth Schroeder said Friday that he expects the hearings to continue for at least two weeks. And, he said, he has anguished over the responsibility of ensuring the rights of the suspects while protecting America as well.

"If I look like I have bags under my eyes, I have been having some sleepless nights," Schroeder said.

Members of the Yemeni community here have pledged millions of dollars in cash and real estate if the suspects are released on bail.

On a street corner in the neighborhood that many Yemeni immigrants call home, Bill Hakeem said it was possible that the young men posed a threat to the nation's security. But, stopping to greet a woman in Arabic, Hakeem added that it was just as likely the suspects saw their visit to Afghanistan as an adventure. The 58-year-old motorcycle enthusiast noted that many young Yemeni men from Lackawanna make religious pilgrimages to Arab nations.

"Are they terrorists? They might be, I don't know," said Hakeem, raised on Gates Avenue in the heart of Ward One. "But they might not be."

What he did feel certain of, Hakeem said, is this: "The government, they're profiling people here. I believe that is what this is."

At Liberty Food Mart, where international money-grams can be purchased as readily as lottery tickets, a 25-year-old clerk of Yemeni descent said he felt like his whole heritage was under suspicion: "Almost like they are accusing us all, but indirectly." The clerk identified himself only as Andy, fearing that disclosing his surname might subject him to hate crimes.

Andy said he knew several of the suspects "and, to my knowledge, it seems to me they were in the wrong place at the wrong time. But the authorities put one and one together and they got three."

Ward One is an island of sorts, cut off from the rest of Lackawanna by a rusty bridge. Elsewhere in town and in neighboring Buffalo, its pejorative nickname is "the back of the bridge."

Up until the steel mills closed in the 1970s and '80s, the district bustled. Where empty lots now stand, theaters abounded on Ridge Avenue, Ward One's thoroughfare. Ingham Street once boasted so many bars that it earned an entry in the Guinness Book of Records.

Public housing now rings a portion of the 15-square-block area, where many of the two-story houses built for mill workers still stand. Conditions vary from decrepit to borderline suburban. Children from Puerto Rican families play soccer in the streets with children whose Yemeni parents wear full Muslim attire.

The tight-knit neighborhood could not help but notice the appearance some months ago of federal agents. Haxton said her first indication came when she saw a "bureaucratic type" sitting in a car for hours, reading the Washington Post.

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