Mukhtar al-Bakri and his new bride were still asleep in their hotel room when the commandos burst in, yelling at them not to move and pointing assault rifles at them.
They were still groggy from the night before, when they were married in front of family and friends in Bahrain.
It was Sept. 10, 2002, nearly a year to the day that Osama bin Laden's terrorists had struck the United States, killing thousands and setting the world on a new path that has been called the War on Terror.
And al-Bakri, a 22-year-old naturalized U.S. citizen enjoying a new life in Lackawanna, had gone with several of his friends to a terrorist training camp in Afghanistan and met with bin Laden just four months before the attacks.
U.S. agents had now come for him. He was the first of the Lackawanna Six to be captured.
Al-Bakri and the others later admitted in court that they had gone to the camp and received training in terrorism, although they also said they were frightened by bin Laden and had no intention of joining his jihad against the United States. They were all sent to federal prison.
Much has happened since then. Bin Laden is dead. The United States appears to be winding down its war in Afghanistan. And the Lackawanna Six are out of prison.
Al-Bakri, now 32 and the youngest, was the last of the Six to be released, about a year ago.
Now he would like to get his bride back. He has not seen her since the morning after their wedding when commandos whisked him away. So far, the U.S. government is standing in the way.
“Basically, I'm trying to put the final piece back in my life by bringing my wife here,” al-Bakri said in a wide ranging interview with The Buffalo News. “The government says my request is a matter of national security.”
Al-Bakri's interview with The News is the first time that any one of the Lackawanna Six has spoken with a reporter since being released from prison. They are all leading quiet lives, four of them in the Buffalo area.
In his interview, al-Bakri said:
• He has not had any contact with the other five men.
He thought that al-Qaida was unorganized and all that he saw was a group of men “running around in the desert.”
He understands why he was sent to prison and bears no resentment about his confinement.
He is now working at a low-paying job in a local cellphone store.
But most of all, he wants to be reunited with his wife in the United States, and that is why he was willing to talk to The News. He believes he is entitled to that now as a law-abiding American citizen who has paid his debt to society for what he described as a foolish mistake.
Al-Bakri, who arrived in the United States in 1996 from Yemen, said he will never forget the last time he saw his wife.
When the commandos stormed the newlyweds' hotel room, they apparently expected to find guns and explosives. U.S. embassy officials had told police that al-Bakri was preparing to go on a bombing spree, according to his relatives.
Instead of finding a cache of explosives, commandos found two snoozing honeymooners and a wedding cake.
His wife sobbed as her husband was taken away. The two had met years earlier in their native Yemen.
In the last decade, the husband and wife have regularly written letters to each other and now stay in touch with daily phone calls.
A spokesperson for U.S. Citizenship Immigration Services said that, due to privacy concerns, it does not disclose the status of individual cases.
But Peter J. Ahearn, a retired FBI supervisor who was in charge of the bureau's Buffalo office at the time of the Lackawanna Six investigation and arrests, says al-Bakri's request takes time.
“If he's only been out a year, quite frankly, that's not a lot of time for the process to work,” said Ahearn, a private security consultant in the Washington, D.C., area. “He's going through the process and there are a lot of factors and a lot of red tape.”
Al-Bakri, who remains on probation for three years, wants to visit his wife, but has been denied permission to leave the country. He said he accepts that decision.
He also is not allowed to associate with anyone convicted of a crime and so has no contact with the others who traveled with him to Afghanistan. He refuses to talk about them, he said, in respect for their privacy.
Three of them, including al-Bakri, returned to Lackawanna after prison. Another lives in a Buffalo suburb and the other two are out of the area.
Meeting bin Laden
Al-Bakri is one of the few people in America to sit and talk with the man who became the world's most feared and hated terrorist.
He declined to discuss the brief meeting that took place in Afghanistan in the spring of 2001, in a room where other people were coming and going. But he said he had no idea what bin Laden was up to.
In court papers, he told investigators that, during the meeting, he informed bin Laden that he had gone to the camp without telling his parents.
“Send them a letter and tell them you're OK,” bin Laden told him.
Actually, eight men from Lackawanna had travelled to the terrorist camp, known as al-Farooq, where they received lessons in the use of firearms, explosives and terrorist tactics.
A U.S. missile later killed one of them, Kamal Derwish, aka Ahmed Hijazi, in Yemen. The eighth, Jaber Elbaneh, remains a fugitive in Yemen.
Federal prosecutors never said that bin Laden personally attempted to brainwash the young men into hating America or that he ever gave them information about the upcoming 9/11 terrorist attacks, some four months away.
But, according to court papers, bin Laden was interested in how Muslims were treated in America.
One of the six told him that Muslims were treated well in the United States, better than in many other countries.
Bin Laden also wanted to know how U.S. citizens felt about “martyrdom operations,” or suicide attacks, and was told Americans never thought about such things.
None of this was known until a small army of federal, state and local law enforcement officials swooped into Lackawanna the night of Sept. 11, 2002, the first anniversary of the terrorist attacks, and the small city temporarily became the epicenter in the global War on Terror.
No evidence of terror cell
The eight young men from Lackawanna were all of Yemen ancestry, members of one of the biggest Yemeni populations in the nation – second only to the Detroit metropolitan area.
But with the country on hyperalert against terrorists, their actions had brought unwanted negative attention to the community.
And yet it was a member of the Yemeni community who had tipped off authorities that the young men had gone to Afghanistan. The identity of that person remains a secret.
When the father of one of the young men heard of the arrests, he told his son's attorney that he would personally behead his son if he had any intentions of harming America, according to the lawyer, who asked that his name be withheld.
No evidence was ever uncovered that the Lackawanna Six was a sleeper terrorist cell prepared to inflict havoc – only that some of them initially lied to federal investigators about their journey to Afghanistan.
Their lawyers and relatives described the trip as a case of poor judgment after being manipulated by a man who had come to Lackawanna and talked to them at their mosque, playing on their religious beliefs and presenting the trip as a way to deepen their Muslim roots.
The man, Juma Muhammed Abdul Latif al-Dosari, was later identified as the al-Qaida recruiter. He was captured in Pakistan in late 2001 and held for years at the Guantanamo Bay prison in Cuba, where he denied being a recruiter. After several suicide attempts, al-Dosari was released to Saudi Arabia in 2007.
Months after al-Bakri returned from his eight weeks at the terrorist training camp, he said, he was stunned when al-Qaida carried out the terrorist attacks of 9/11. It was his impression that al-Qaida was not well organized or capable of committing such atrocities.
“They were just running around in the desert,” he told The News.
When asked about the killing of bin Laden, al-Bakri also declined to comment, explaining that he does not wish to get caught up in any controversies.
And when asked if he is bitter at the government for prosecuting him, he answered no.
“I understand where they were coming from, but now I am looking for fair treatment. I did my share of suffering,” he said.
Sentenced to 10 years in prison, he was released July 1, 2011, after accrued good time was deducted. Soon after his release, he found work in a local cellphone store.
He then followed up on immigration paperwork first started in 2003 to gain admission to the United States for his wife.
The paperwork, he said, never moved forward, and he says he is now in the midst of a third government-imposed extension because federal officials say they need more time to review his request.
In recent months, al-Bakri added, he has sought help from Rep. Brian Higgins' office, only to receive a letter explaining that his request for a visa to bring his wife to the United States was considered a matter of “national security” and that further review was necessary.
That justification for the delay, he said, amounts to him being unfairly targeted because of his past.
Hiring a lawyer who specializes in immigration to speed up the process is beyond his means, he said, as he earns slightly above minimum wage.
John J. Molloy, the defense attorney who represented al-Bakri during the federal prosecution, says it is a matter of justice that the now-27-year-old wife be allowed to come here.
“We're doing everything we can to bring his wife here. Mukhtar works full time and has got a strong family behind him,” Molloy said. “He wants to make his life complete and the whole family has always expressed a strong love for this country.”
Dr. Khalid Qazi, president of the Muslim Public Affairs Council of Western New York, says that what al-Bakri is seeking is nothing out of the ordinary.
“My feeling is that they [the Lackawanna Six] did a very dumb, stupid thing and have paid heavily for that mistake,” Qazi said. “He [al-Bakri] has completed his sentence and wants to settle down as a normal person and raise a family like everyone else. But he is not able to get his wife into the country, even though he is told there are absolutely no charges pending against either him or his wife and that there is absolutely nothing with law enforcement against his wife.”
That being the case, Qazi said, he hopes the government will resolve al-Bakri's request “in a timely fashion.”
“All my brothers are married and have children. My twin brother Amin has four children,” al-Bakri said of his eagerness to become a father and raise his children in America.
“I'm hoping to get a business management degree from a local college and someday manage stores,” al-Bakri said.
'Time for me to learn'
As for his time in prison, he says it was difficult but not entirely lost time.
“You counted the minutes in prison. It seemed like some days would never end, but everything happens for a reason,” he said. “I took college courses and I'm one course away from an associate degree in business management. Prison was a time for me to learn and to shape up.”
Above all, he said, he was able to persevere and never lose hope because of his faith.
“God is merciful, more than merciful,” he said.
Now, he says he is hoping the United States government will show mercy and allow his wife to join him, so that they can finally begin their life together as husband and wife.
Reflecting on the last decade, al-Bakri said he unwittingly ended up in the middle of the tumult.
“I would never hurt America or any American. I'm American,” he said.
And it is in his adopted home of America that he says he wishes to spend the rest of his life – with his wife.
“Where else would I go?” he asks.