Column: The war on terrorism in my backyard

Twenty-five months, thousands dead, two violent wars, one simmering guerilla campaign, one roiling international manhunt and billions spent in time, toil and treasure.

Despite all this, the reality of the war against al Qaeda and their degenerate allies only hit home Sunday morning at approximately 1 a.m.

The New York Times published a rather large story regarding six men arrested as part of an al Qaeda terrorist cell in September 2002 in the Buffalo, New York, suburb of Lackawanna. It was the first post-September 11 arrest of a group of American citizens suspected of operating a terrorist cell. And it happened in my backyard.

My hometown is Grand Island, N.Y. An island in the middle of the Niagara River, it’s located north of Buffalo and south of Niagara Falls, a scant drive from either. When the story broke last year, the western New York self-pity gene kicked in.

The greater Buffalo area has been home to presidential assassinations, Super Bowl futility, Timothy McVeigh, O.J. Simpson, Love Canal, the Attica prison riots and, of course, blizzards. And now, to top it all off, terrorists.

Back to The Times piece and its relevance. The writers describe a moment when the authorities began to monitor the suspects’ activities, after being made aware of their pre-September 11 trip to al Qaeda camps in Afghanistan in 2001.

Local police and the FBI were receiving tips and warnings about the suspects’ intentions – they were going to steal propane tanks and dress as Muslim women and detonate bombs in shopping malls on July 4, 2002.

“I can tell you one thing,” the Lackawanna police chief said in the article. “On the Fourth of July, I didn’t let my wife or family go to any malls.” As it turns out, the suspects never gave any indication they were about to strike, then or ever, although they all eventually plead guilty to training with a terrorist organization.

“Beats” is a script term in movies, television, comic books, etc. Used to indicate the length of a character’s pause before responding in order to maximize comedic timing or reflect shock.

I read the two Times paragraphs and the chief’s quote.

One beat.

Two beats.

Hold on. Bombs at malls? But those are my malls. Which malls? The Walden Galleria, western New York’s equivalent to Tyson’s Corner? The Boulevard Mall on Maple Road, just minutes from the University at Buffalo’s north campus? The Prime Outlet Mall, just off Niagara Falls Boulevard in the town of Niagara?

These malls are where my family shops, where my friends shop. These malls. These targets.

Quite suddenly, like a bucket of cold water in the face, the War on Terror ceased to be the all-consuming concern of state and federal security apparatus. It became my all-consuming concern.

As the realization sank in, I became angry. It was not, however, the same anger I felt on September 11. That was moral outrage at a grievous injury inflicted on my country. As frightening and disconcerting as the days following that event were, there was never any direct and immediate threat to my friends and family.

The New York Times article revealed a direct threat, literally in my backyard. Worse, these “al Qaeda-in-training” weren’t alone. Kamal Derwish, a “card-carrying member of al Qaeda,” as the FBI calls him, was born in Buffalo. He helped recruit young men for bin Laden’s training camps. And he met his just demise in the Yemeni desert at the hands of a CIA Predator drone last year. Score one for the good guys.

While the threat to the nation as a whole has never been underestimated, it is now personal. Derwish’s presence made the mall bomb threat credible, even if the “Lackawanna Six” had no intention of executing the plan.

How would it feel to find an honest-to-God Nazi agent in your town in 1943? How about meeting a KGB agent at your mailbox at the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962?

I know how it feels – terrible.

-The writer is a first-year graduate student in the Graduate School of Political Management.

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