The Lackawanna Six and Rambo III

  By Michael I. Niman  

ArtVoice 12/18/03, The Humanist March/April 2004


The highly choreographed September 2002 bust of Lackawanna, New York’s supposed terrorist cell has finally culminated with a similarly choreographed string of sentencing hearings—and Lackawanna’s most notorious citizens are off to prison.

Though identified in the national media and later in President George W. Bush’s now-infamous 2003 State of the Union speech as a “terrorist cell,” the Justice Department only charged the men under an ambiguous provision of the 1996 anti-terrorism law for “providing material support or resources to designated terrorist organizations.” The passive-voice term designated, in this case, means an organization that the U.S. secretary of state designates as fitting the State Department’s description of terrorist. Organizations such as the African National Congress, South Africa ’s ruling party, and the El Salvadoran opposition party FMLN have in the past enjoyed such politically motivated State Department designations.

The September 2002 arrests seemed premature but the Federal Bureau of Investigation agent in charge, Peter Ahern, assured the media that the investigation was ongoing, implying that more specific charges would eventually follow—once the Lackawanna men were safely tucked away. The Buffalo News initially added fuel to the fires of speculation, reporting that “The suspects are believed to have had contact with those involved in the September 11 attacks on the United States .” They never said who, exactly, “believed” this—other than, perhaps, their own misinformed readers.

Eighteen months later, the FBI still hasn’t leveled any additional charges against the men. There is no indication that they had any connection, as the media alleged, with the mostly Saudi 9/11 hijackers. And U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft readily admits that there is no indication that the men had any plans or intentions to engage in any sort of terrorist act. In short, Ashcroft and Bush’s allegations of a Lackawanna terrorist cell have proven false.

Yet this falsehood was apparent from the beginning. The day after the initial arrests, I attended a press conference at FBI headquarters. Security there was unusually lax despite the fact that New York Governor George Pataki, New York Congressman Tom Reynolds, and many other politicians crowded into a small room with forty journalists for the purpose of verbally attacking al-Qaeda on live television. Reporters were able to bypass metal detectors as they rushed into the building carrying large cameras and other pieces of equipment. While announcing the presence of a terror cell in Buffalo , the FBI apparently didn’t sense any real local terror threat.

The suspects themselves didn’t fit any existing terrorist profile. They hung with a crowd of trendy, young Yemeni-Americans whose extravagant style of dress was clearly more influenced by MTV than by Islamic law. Press reports alleging that some of the suspects had expensive tastes, yet scant sources of income, seem to support more aptly the supposed initial FBI tip-off that the men were involved in the drug trade. They were, after all, associating with a group previously linked to the drug trade and receiving a regimen of small arms training that would be the envy of any drug dealer.

Of course, the theory that these men were involved in the drug trade is completely speculative—but at this point such a scenario seems more likely than the discredited “terrorist cell” myth. Yet the FBI never publicly pursued investigating these charges, despite the fact that they could have yielded longer sentences than the ambiguous material support charge. Indeed, the 1996 law that the Lackawanna Six plead guilty to has already been ruled unconstitutional in a California federal court and will likely be ruled unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court. The political reality here is simple: if these men had been charged as drug dealers, Pataki wouldn’t have flown to Buffalo to announce their arrest. Bush wouldn’t have touted their arrest in the State of The Union .

Like the initial arrests, the sentencing circus was little more than cheap political theater. The six men pled guilty earlier, with a full understanding of how they would be sentenced. The six days of sentencing amount to little more than six days of jingoistic media celebration of the rather ambiguous “war on terror.”

All of the men pled guilty in what the media referred to as “plea bargains.” A plea bargain, however, usually implies that a defendant is copping a plea to a lesser crime, whether or not he or she is guilty, to avoid the gamble of facing prosecution on a greater charge. But in this case, a strange twist seems to have occurred. The men pled guilty only to the most serious crime they were charged with and at the same time got either maximum or near maximum sentences. This hardly constitutes a bargain.

On face value the pleas make little sense. If the six were facing drug charges, as some speculate, then eight to ten years might not have been such a bad deal—especially considering that the law they pled guilty to has already been struck down in the Ninth Circuit court, meaning they’ll likely be freed when the Supreme Court affirms that decision. In the meantime, the Bush administration gets a Potemkin victory in the war on terror. There’s no publicly available evidence, however, that their plea bargain involved waiving drug charges.

“Democracy Now!” host Amy Goodman alleges a different scenario. She cites one of the defense attorneys, who claims that the Justice Department hinted that the men would possibly be deemed “enemy combatants” if they didn’t plea guilty to the material support charge. Once classified as “enemy combatants,” a new legal condition created by the Bush administration, the men would lose all of their constitutional rights as Americans, including their right to trial, their right to meet with lawyers, and their right to communicate with their families. Given the current political climate in the United States , such a scenario presented a real threat—especially since other U.S. citizens had already found themselves thrust into this legal black hole. The defense attorney complained that this threat was “heavy handed” and influenced his client in his decision to plead guilty.

And then there’s the case of Lackawanna resident and U.S. citizen Kamal Derwish. A potential codefendant of the Lackawanna Six, he was summarily executed without trial in Yemen by a Central Intelligence Agency missile that incinerated the car he was traveling in. In Derwish’s case, there were no pretenses of either a trial or indefinite detention. His execution made legal history with the federal government squishing its toes into the mud of a post-constitutional United States . No doubt Derwish’s death also served to intimidate the remaining men into pleading guilty—and remaining in the world of the living.

The 1996 law expands on previous prohibitions against supporting “terrorist activity,” criminalizing any perceived support of an organization unilaterally identified by the secretary of state as a supposed terrorist group, without regard to what constitutes such support. Hence, in this case, Americans are going to jail for the crime of attending weapons training classes and listening to political speech. Both of these activities, however, are legally protected by the Constitution. Organizations ranging from the National Rifle Association to a host of mercenary training camps celebrated in Soldier of Fortune magazine offer similar weapons training. Likewise, maintaining the right to hear political speech—even hate speech, offensive as it may be—is central to maintaining the American political fabric. Until now no one has ever gone to jail for hearing a speech or practicing at a rifle range. In this case there are no allegations of illegal actions or even plans to break the law.

Most people seem to have forgotten that the six men traveled to Afghanistan before 9/11—before the onset of “the war on terrorism.” At this time it was legal to travel to Afghanistan , the United States was funding supposed Taliban drug eradication efforts, and U.S. oil companies were still hoping to cut a deal with the Taliban to build a trans-Afghanistan pipeline. Yet no oil industry chief executive officers have been charged with providing material support for a terrorist organization.

The Bush administration would like Americans to forget about the United States ’ pre-9/11 relationship with the Taliban and Osama bin Laden—but the past keeps popping up. Recently, after the cancellation of a planned televised sporting event, a mischievous producer ran an old copy of Sylvester Stallone’s Rambo III in its place. The multibillion-dollar grossing Rambo series has proven itself a stalwart of late Cold War propaganda, beginning with the first Rambo film in 1982, in which Stallone single-handedly avenges the loss of the Vietnam war. In 1988’s Rambo III, Stallone helps the Mujahadeem Taliban in their fight to oust the Soviets and create a fundamentalist Afghanistan . This fictive account paralleled the real life Reagan-Bush era efforts to arm, finance, and train the organizations now known as al-Qaeda and the Taliban.

Of course, timing is everything. Had Stallone made Rambo III ten years later, perhaps he would be facing a material support charge for creating propaganda in support of a terrorist organization. This, I would think, would be more serious than shooting targets and listening to speeches. Or, on the other hand, had the Lackawanna Six traveled to Afghanistan ten years earlier, People magazine would be profiling them as real life Rambos, pedestrian as their trip might have been.

Stallone, in any event, seems particularly aware of the new embarrassing reality of Rambo III, a film that he’s probably wishing everyone would forget about. But this is the George W. Bush era. Americans don’t just ignore or forget history—the new tactic is to challenge it head-on. Hence, Stallone, rather than trying to explain away his Taliban-loving character in Rambo III, is in Miami writing the script for a proposed fourth Rambo film. This time the fifty-five year-old action hero returns to Afghanistan to, as ABC News puts it, “Kick some Taliban butt.” ABC simply dismissed Rambo III as the film in which “our hero joined Afghan fighters to oppose Russian invaders.” Any more detailed account of Rambo III, like the historical record of U.S. support for the Taliban and al-Qaeda, is no doubt destined to be incinerated in the memory hole.

The United States has always been at war with the Taliban. Long live Rambo IV. Didn’t the Lackawanna Six know this?


Michael I. Niman is a professor in the communication department at Buffalo State College. An earlier version of this article appeared in the December 18, 2003 , issue of ArtVoice. His previous articles are archived at

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