Lackawanna’s 1st Ward has long been considered the Muslim part of town – home of a mosque and Islamic school, Arab-owned corner stores, the first native of Yemen to serve on the City Council, and of course, the Lackawanna Six who spent some time in an al-Qaeda training camp in Afghanistan. And now, much to the chagrin of local residents, Muslims are spreading out across all of Lackawanna.
Buffalo News In a sign of the continued growth, they want to establish another place to pray. And this time, they’re looking clear across to the other side of the city, to a busy commercial stretch of Abbott Road in the 3rd Ward. A group affiliated with the Lackawanna Islamic Mosque wants to create a second prayer center inside a former office building at 1446 Abbott Road, and it could face fierce opposition from residents in the surrounding neighborhoods.
Members of the group appeared Thursday evening at a meeting of the city’s Zoning Board of Appeals to request a variance because they don’t have enough parking space on the property, according to city code. Most meetings of the Zoning Board draw a handful of spectators, or fewer. But a spillover, standing-room-only crowd of more than 100 people jammed into Council Chambers to hear more about the mosque plan.
Ultimately, the board voted, 3-1, to table the request for further consideration. The variance request for the mosque was the only item on the board’s agenda, but the meeting lasted more than an hour and percolated throughout with a palpable tension from 3rd Ward residents opposed to the idea of a mosque in their neighborhood.
At one point, board member Anthony J. Nicometo urged people to refrain from pitting themselves against one another.
The Lackawanna Islamic Mosque bought the brick building in 2012 for $45,000. It was once the home of a New York State unemployment office. It also has been the site of a pool hall and a collections agency. The group is seeking a variance because the building’s parking lot has 43 parking spaces, and city code requires at least 82, based on the square footage of the building.
The city’s zoning law requires one parking space for every five people. But Algawani argued that the standard Bremer used isn’t applicable to a mosque. “The math formula that is used is only set to Christian standards,” he said. “Church and mosque are two different settings.” Muslims, he said, stretch out during prayer, using as much as a 32 square feet per person. “Our prayer area is going to consist of a space for 75 men and 24 women,” he said.
At the meeting, opponents of the mosque plan brought up concerns about increased traffic, possible negative effects on nearby businesses and the removal of a sizable piece of property from the city’s tax rolls.
“They’re saying they’re growing bigger and bigger, so they’re going to need more and more parking,” said resident Daniel P. Geercken. Privately, some residents expressed concern about the Muslim call for prayer sounded over loudspeakers, saying they consider the sound grating and intrusive.
Since 9/11, communities across the country increasingly have resisted the construction of new mosques, so it was no surprise to find unease about a second mosque in tightknit Lackawanna, a community slow to embrace change and sensitive about its national image as the home of the Lackawanna Six, the young Muslim men arrested in 2002 on suspicion of plotting terrorism and later convicted of attending a terrorist training camp overseas.
Faith K. Gordon, chairwoman of the Zoning Board, cautioned spectators Thursday not to delve into concerns unrelated to the issue at hand. “This is about a parking situation,” she said. “This would not be addressed any differently if this were a Baptist organization.”
Prior to suggesting that the Zoning Board table the variance request, Gordon encouraged the Muslim group to ask state officials to change their parking capacity standards for mosques.
Only board member Jeffrey P. DePasquale voted against tabling the measure. After the meeting, DePasquale said the group was far too short of parking spaces for the board to be able to grant a variance. “When you’re asking for one-third of what you legally need, that’s a stretch,” he said.
In 2001 Kamal Derwish recruited six young people into an al Qaeda “sleeper” cell of would-be terrorists popularly known as the Lackawanna Six. Like his recruits, Derwish was a native of the region of Lackawanna, New York on the shore of Lake Erie just to the south of Buffalo. Lackawanna is home to a community of approximately 3,000 Yemeni Muslims.
Born in Buffalo in 1973, Derwish, the son of a steelworker, was taken by his family to live in Yemen when he was five. The boy was then sent to live with relatives in Saudi Arabia, where he was educated under the influence of the kingdom’s fundamentalist Wahhabist sect of Islam. The Saudi government deported him to Yemen in 1997 because of his radical political activity.
Derwish returned to Lackawanna in 1998 and began giving lectures at a local mosque. He preached about the evils of listening to popular music, watching television, engaging in loose relations with women, and other behaviors forbidden by Wahhabism. He also made periodic visits to the Middle East. In 1999 he married in Yemen and thereafter returned to the U.S.
Derwish’s fervor and passion for Islam attracted a small circle of young male disciples in Lackawanna. He persuaded six followers in particular — Mukhtar Al-Bakri, Sahim A. Alwan, Faysal Galab, Shafal Mosed, Yasein Taher and Yahya A. Goba — to make a pilgrimage to Afghanistan with him in early 2001. While there, they attended for several weeks an al Qaeda training camp where they were instructed in weapons use and terrorist tactics. During their stay, the camp was visited by the revered Osama bin Laden.
In the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the FBI and CIA began to find threads of evidence linking Derwish and his six followers to al Qaeda. For instance, intelligence agents learned that Derwish had received advanced weapons training at an al Qaeda camp, and that during the mid-1990s he had fought alongside Muslim rebels in Bosnia. The agents also became aware of communications between Derwish and bin Laden’s son Saad, as well as between Derwish and Tawfiq bin Atash; the latter was one of the planners of the deadly 2000 terror attack against the U.S.S. Cole in Yemen.
Charged with supporting al-Qaeda in September 2002, all of the “Lackawanna Six” originally pled not guilty (see September 13, 2002). But by May 19, 2003, all of them change their minds and plead guilty. They accepted prison terms of 6 and a half to 9 years. Unfortunately, they are all out of jail now, with some living back in Lackawanna.