On September 13, 2002 three men were stopped along a highway in Florida. They were detained and searched for 17 hours because someone overheard them making suspicious comments while eating at a roadside restaurant in Georgia. The authorities found neither explosives or weapons in their cars or any other evidence of a plot, and they were released. The three men were all medical students of Arab descent, and even though they have not been charged with anything, they are still being punished. The Miami hospital where they were to intern has cancelled their internships. Apparently, in this case, they are presumed guilty even after being proven innocent.
On the same day, five men were arrested in Lackawanna NY, a suburb of Buffalo. The men were soon joined by a sixth, who was arrested in the Persian Gulf emirate of Bahrain and flown back to Buffalo on September 15. According to the government’s initial claims, the men, all U.S. citizens of Yemeni descent in their twenties were a terrorist sleeper cell waiting for orders from al Qaeda. The media immediately picked up the story, running with whatever the government fed them and unquestioningly regurgitating allegations against the six men identified as Sahim Alwan, Faysal Galab, Shafal Moded, Yasein Taher, Yahya Goba, and Muktar al Bakri.
On September 13, CBS news reported: "U.S. Arrests Al Qaeda Cell in NY." The story went on to say "The FBI has arrested what appears to be an active al Qaeda cell inside the United States. Agents detained five men in a Buffalo, N.Y. suburb-all graduates of Osama Bin Laden’s al Qaeda terrorist camps in Afghanistan."
In another version of the story, reported by the Buffalo News, the men were "believed to have had contact with those involved in the September 11 attacks on the United States."
As it turns out, the government’s case against these men is much less severe than originally reported. The men are being charged with providing, attempting to provide, and conspiring to provide material support to a foreign terrorist group because they are believed to have attended a terrorist training camp in Afghanistan sometime before September 11. While attending a training camp is not a crime in the United States, apparently the government believes that it can make a case that attending one of al Qaeda’s training camps constitutes materially supporting a terrorist organization.
FBI Director Robert Mueller has admitted that the FBI and law enforcement agencies have no reason to believe that these men were actually planning any attacks. He stated that "We have not seen any plan for an imminent attack in western New York or anywhere in the United States." In addition, sources were eventually quoted by CNN as saying that the group of arrested men could not actually be described as an active terrorist cell nor did they appear to be under direct al Qaeda control.
According to law enforcement agencies, authorities decided to arrest the men because of an "increase in chatter from the group and the gravity of what they were saying.
Another official called the group’s correspondence "cryptic." During the bail hearing, September 18-20, prosecutors revealed what some of those disturbing correspondences were. They produced an email in which al Bakri refers to a "big meal" that "no one will be able to withstand except for those with faith." The other was a phone call from Al-Bakri in Bahrain to one of the defendants in which he said, "Goodbye" and "You won’t be hearing from me again."
These quotes were given without context, or at least the mainstream media reports of the hearing did not provide any of the surrounding sentences, but instead chose to report the ominous sound-bites all on their own. Most reports did not bother to include al Bakri’s defense that his "goodbye" meant that he was "getting married and dropping out of sight." (He was to be married in Bahrain.)
Nor did they print statements made by al Bakri’s lawyer who stated that the government translations of the "big meal" email were not accurate. It seems as though the media is much more interested in sensation and scaring the American public than in fairly reporting both sides of this case.
In addition, the mainstream media has made a big deal over allegations that the accused men heard Osama bin Laden himself speak during their alleged time at the training camp in Afghanistan. According to most news stories, they listened while bin Laden "espoused anti-United States and anti-Israel statements." There are also reports about a cassette tape found in one of the suspect’s home. The cassette is reported to be labeled with the words "A Call to Jihad" written in Arabic.
Whether or not the government, which had the men under surveillance for over a year, actually has a case against these alleged terrorists-to-be is of no importance to the mainstream media. According to the papers, television, and radio, these six men are already considered guilty of a number of crimes, including listening to anti-American sentiments (not a crime), attending a terrorist training camp (as yet, unproven and not a crime), participating in a terrorist sleeper cell (unsubstantiated), and planning attacks on U.S. civilians (unsubstantiated and no longer a charge).
Instead of working to ensure that these men get a fair trial, the mainstream media is helping the U.S. government spread its unproven accusations. Instead of asking the hard questions and pressuring the government to make a solid case, the mainstream media is letting the law enforcement agencies and politicians claim these arrests as proof of the success of the war on terrorism.
CNN, on September 14, reported that "the arrests were a significant development in the U.S. efforts to disrupt Osama bin Laden’s al Qaeda terrorist network." In a press conference held in Washington, DC on September 14th, Deputy Attorney General Larry Thompson, NY State Governor George Pataki, and FBI director Robert Mueller took credit for fighting terrorism, pointing to the arrests in Lackawanna as proof that the government is working to stop the terrorist threat against the U.S. Thompson stated that the arrests "demonstrate the commitment of the Department of Justice to aggressively pursue terrorists and those who aid terrorists, wherever they reside."
Whether the allegations against the six arrested men will turn out to be true, only time and a court case will tell, but the credit for fighting terrorism and the political advantages that go along with that have already been gained.
The U.S. government and the mainstream media have done their best to capitalize on these events. The media has made the story as sensational as possible, often obscuring the facts and uncritically quoting the government version, thus denying the rights of these men to be presumed innocent until proven guilty.
Nothing has been confirmed so far; there has been no trial, and yet these men’s lives and the lives of people in their community have already been irrevocably tainted. In the same line, the U.S. government has also taken advantage of the arrests. Though we will never know whether the arrests were politically motivated in the first place, elected officials and intelligence agencies have certainly wasted no time in claiming credit for a job well done. As they grab the limelight, they too ignore the possibility that instead of catching terrorists, they are robbing people of their civil rights.