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A closer look at case of terrorists

October 16, 2003|Scott Sandell | Times Staff Writer

Tonight's "Frontline" documentary, "Chasing the Sleeper Cell," explores what has become a footnote in the war against terrorism and yet has major implications in the U.S.

In September 2002, federal agents arrested a group of Arab Americans in a town near Buffalo, N.Y., suspected of being an Al Qaeda cell lying in wait for a signal to carry out attacks. Authorities had been investigating them for more than a year after an anonymous letter from someone in Lackawanna alleged that the men had gone to Afghanistan to meet Osama bin Laden and train in an Al Qaeda terrorist camp.

The story behind the arrests is complex, and "Frontline," in conjunction with New York Times reporters Lowell Bergman and Matthew Purdy, lays it out succinctly in interviews with top authorities such as Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge and investigators, not all of whom were convinced that the group was plotting an attack.

Bergman also talks with Sahim Alwan, one of the so-called Lackawanna Six (all of whom pleaded guilty to providing "material support" to Al Qaeda), in an exclusive prison interview. Alwan says he went to Afghanistan to learn more about Islam and had no idea he was headed to a terrorist camp. Yet he says he lied to investigators about the trip because he was too scared to tell the truth, even after the Sept. 11 attacks when, as Bergman suggests, he had information about Bin Laden that might have helped the FBI.

Perhaps the most extraordinary sequence in the program, which airs tonight at 9 on KCET-TV, involves the fate of Kamal Derwish, who recruited the Lackawanna Six and was also a U.S. citizen. According to Yemeni authorities, Derwish died in a CIA missile attack in Yemen in November, a fact that several U.S. officials won't acknowledge -- until Ridge is interviewed. When Bergman presents the information, Ridge pauses a long time before offering an answer that sums up the uneasy business of killing in an effort to preserve lives.

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