This book chronicles the lives of a group of young Yemeni-Americans who grew up and lived in Lackawanna, a suburb of Buffalo in western New York. Why did this seemingly innocuous group who were born in the United States venture out so far from their homes to dangerous foreign lands? Was there something particular about Yemeni-Americans that made them more vulnerable to the actions of demagogues? Did the U.S. legal system respond adequately to the difficult circumstances confronting the Yemeni-Americans once the FBI got wind of their apparently nefarious activities? These are some of the key specific questions that the author addresses in this book.
The author begins by helpfully pointing out that the Yemeni-Americans of Lackawanna stood out in their community in more ways than one. Their womenfolk dressed differently and were not allowed to watch soccer matches, or so it seemed to the assembled Caucasian “soccer moms.” White people judged their ostensibly odd practices, and there was a “fierce animosity” between the Yemeni-Americans and the local black population. As a result of these and other factors, many young Yemeni-Americans felt alienated in their own community. In addition, many of these young men considered their ethnicity to be an embarrassing factor for which, they hoped, immersion in Islam would be the cure. This unsavory state of affairs was taken advantage of by a charismatic young individual named Kamel Derwish, who seemed to know how the young Yemeni-Americans might make their aimless lives more purposeful.
On the suggestion of Derwish and an Imam by the name of Juma al-Dosari, a group of Yemeni-Americans from Lackawanna made the mistake of visiting “jihadi” hotels in Pakistan and the Al-Farooq training camp in southern Afghanistan. What this group experienced in Pakistan and Afghanistan was, apparently, quite different from what they had been told they would experience by Derwish and al-Dosari. As a result, dissatisfied with their sojourn in Afghanistan, all but one of these Yemeni-Americans returned to the U.S. a few months before 11 September 2001.
Life for these Yemeni-Americans took a significant turn for the worse when the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) arrested five of them, accusing them of having attended a terrorist training camp in Afghanistan. The author provides useful accounts of the contrasting perspectives of Americans in general and the Lackawanna Yemeni-American community in particular on the appropriateness of the charges that had been leveled at the arrested by the FBI and on the fate that ought to befall this detained group. In addition, the author rightly notes that circumstances in the U.S. had changed so rapidly in the aftermath of the dastardly events of 11 September 2001 that it was very difficult for the detained Yemeni-Americans to obtain not only adequate legal representation but also, more generally, a fair trial. As a result, the detainees experienced what the author calls “rough justice.”
In sum, this is an interesting book that sheds useful light on a subject of great contemporary relevance. On several occasions, the author inexplicably refers to the “Lackawanna six” even though there clearly were more than six people involved in all the activities that comprise the basic subject matter of this book. In addition, it is possible to question the author’s suggestion that the Yemeni-American community of Lackawanna is representative of most ethnic/immigrant communities in the U.S. Finally, although the author provides a perspective on the reasons that led the traveling Yemeni-Americans to eventually leave the Al-Farooq camp in Afghanistan, the true motives of these individuals remain translucent. These caveats notwithstanding, the author is surely right when she notes that the key outstanding question concerning what she calls “rough justice” is the following: Will the currently incarcerated Yemeni-Americans emerge from prison as energized “jihadists” or as Buffalo Bills fans? Readers are likely to profit by pondering the answers to this and other related questions in this age of terror.