d Needham is no stranger to terrorism. He helped investigate the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103. He tracked the terrorists who bombed Saudi Arabia's Khobar Towers, a U.S. Marine Corps barracks, in 1996. And in the summer of 2002, Needham was on the streets of Buffalo, N.Y., his hometown, working a case that captured the attention of the intelligence agencies and President Bush.
The Lackawanna Six case, as it became known, is still making headlines. Closed just after the one-year anniversary of Sept. 11-on Sept. 13, 2002-the case has become a kind of Rorschach test for the government's tactics in fighting terrorism. "One by one," Bush said after the arrests, "we're hunting the killers down." But critics see the case as a sign of government's unfettered power: Six U.S. citizens were put behind bars, even though investigators acknowledge the six men were not planning a terrorist attack.
From any perspective, the Lackawanna Six case reveals how the war on terrorism is being fought, and, on some fronts, won. Career federal investigators-people like Ed Needham-simply do their jobs, aided by new legal tools and a top-level commitment to share information among agencies. "People ask how you fight terrorism, well it's doing exactly what we did," says Needham.
At the height of the investigation, Needham helped coordinate the work of 50 to 60 people from more than 10 federal, state, and local agencies, all working under the banner of the FBI's Joint Terrorism Task Force in Buffalo. The case began with just two agents: Needham and Adrienne Leary, a GS-11 FBI analyst. In June 2001, they received an anonymous tip that several young men from Lackawanna attended an al Qaeda training camp in Afghanistan in spring 2001.
Some of the men learned to detonate explosives. Others sipped tea with Osama bin Laden. But the suspects wouldn't admit to even visiting Afghanistan. In interviews with Needham, the men would only say they visited Pakistan for religious training, known as Tablighi Jamaat.
A break came in May 2002, when the CIA learned that the men were recruited to Afghanistan by a "card-carrying member of al Qaeda," in the words of Peter Ahearn, the FBI's special agent in charge in Buffalo. Although the FBI will not reveal his identity, the recruiter is suspected to be Kamal Derwish, a Buffalo native who was killed in a U.S. Predator drone strike in Yemen in November 2002.
After this revelation, the task force swung into action. Needham took the lead on the criminal side of the case, while FBI agent Dave Britten managed intelligence leads. Thomas Michalski, an IRS agent, pored over tax records. Lawrence Krug and James Higgins, two Immigration and Naturalization Service agents, led round-the-clock surveillance of several suspects, including some who were never charged.
As the case unfolded, Washington took notice. Buffalo sent briefings on the case to FBI headquarters at 6 a.m. and 2 p.m. each day. On Aug. 13, Needham and Britten traveled to Washington to brief FBI Director Robert Mueller on the case.
On Sept. 11, an FBI agent in Bahrain confronted Muktar al-Bakri, one of the six men, and persuaded him to reveal their activities in Afghanistan. The arrests followed shortly. "We slept about four hours in the three days before the arrests," says Needham.
Through their diligent work, the Buffalo task force secured six convictions on charges of providing material support to terrorist groups. And they gathered intelligence that helped the CIA, says Ahearn. "I believe truly that we prevented at least one terrorist attack because we were able to use the [Lackawanna Six] to lead us to others."