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Wednesday, September 8, 2010

The Buffalo Wing of Al Qaeda?

Three Muslim medical students were driving in two cars from Illinois down to Miami to continue their internship at Larkin Hospital. The country had just been moved to a “high” “orange” terrorist alert status in anticipation of the anniversary of September 11. As evening approached of on Thursday, September 12, 2002 they stopped at a Shoney's restaurant in northern Georgia for a meal. Calhoun, population 10,600 and 90% White doesn’t see a lot of young Muslim men and Ayman Gheith’s skullcap certainly made him stand out. So when Eunice Stone came in for a meal with her son, she sat in the booth separated only by a latticework from the three men and proceeded to ease drop on their conversation.

When Eunice over heard one of the men make a reference to “bringing it down” she had heard enough. The man was talking about bringing a car down to Miami, but Eunice jumped to other conclusions, and sadly for these three young men and America so did the whole Home Front Security apparatus of the United States.

As the three men left the restaurant, Eunice scrambled to get their license plate numbers and called the police. And so a terrorist alert went out. The three men were apprehended in Florida on I-75 at 11:45PM. Florida Highway Patrol, who there lying in wait for the cars claimed they were stopped for failing to pay a highway toll, a charge that was latter dropped when the men produced a receipt.

The three men were held in separate vans by the side of the road for more than 17 hours before they were finally allowed to get in their cars and go on their way. In those 17 hours the eyes on the nation where drawn to that isolated stretch of Florida highway known as “Alligator Alley”.

First the cars were searched and when nothing was found, Collier County brought in its bomb-sniffing dogs. When the dogs alerted on residue left from medical equipment the police went into high gear. By 3 AM they had shut down a 20-mile stretch of I-75 in both directions. They created a 3-mile no-fly zone that disrupted air traffic. Miami-Dade Police Department flew in with two robots for bomb removal. Van, trucks and police vehicles of all descriptions line the road and hundreds of law enforcement officers from all over were busy setting up tents in the middle of the highway. The FBI and Justice Department got involved early. Governor Jeb Bush got personally involved. The new helicopters where soon overhead.

Most of America awoke to this terrorist scare on Friday the 13th. It dominated the coverage of the morning news shows of the three major networks, and the three major cable news networks covered virtually nothing else all day.

All the while propaganda points were being made in support of the war on terrorism. The threat at home and a broad was connected to the need to go to war against Iraq. Eunice Stone was called a hero and was interviewed numerous times on Fox News. Each time her story became more embellished, by the end she had them laughing and joking and celebrating 9/11.

Meanwhile back on that highway the three men sat in custody in road side vans accused of failing to paid a $1.50 toll, and not even being told about the terrorist charges until shortly before they were released. The FHP & FBI knew within the first few hours that the medical students story checked out and that there was nothing incriminating to be found in the vehicles. Still they dragged it out. They re-searched the cars and then the searched them again, they searched them again and then they searched the 8 miles back to the toll booth in case they threw something out. They blew up a backpack with a water cannon. Then the searched the car again. The FBI used the Broward Sheriff's Office helicopter to fly in special boot detecting equipment and everything was X-rayed. Then they searched the car again. By 5: 00PM 50 of the more than 200 local, state and federal law enforcement personnel involved had a meeting to review the day’s events. "We had a very significant drill," was how Collier County Sheriff Don Hunter summed it up.

Meanwhile there was a problem. While significant hay had been made all morning long about the “terrorist threat” that had been stopped on a Florida highway. Those forces in the government and the media that would like to take the war on terrorism into a war with Iraq were having a very good day. They were scoring points.

But there was a problem. The story was unraveling. The men had nothing to do with terrorism. They had broken no laws. They couldn’t even stick them with failing to pay the toll. They had a receipt. And Eunice Stone’s story was sounding more and more shaky every time she was interviewed on FNC. Sooner or later the men would have to be released. Sooner or later their side of events would come out. Then the incident might be seen in an entirely different light as a farce, or worst yet, as simply another example of our famous Southern hospitality when it comes to people of color.

That would be very bad. Bad indeed if the next new cycle continued to highlight Eunice Stone while these men were free to tell their story and the nation had time to consider the injustice that had been done to them. Bad for the war on terror. Bad for state and federal official that had to now account of the hundreds of thousands of dollars spent on this particular traffic stop. Very bad for those who are now trying so desperately to build popular support for a war against Iraq.

What to do? How to play this? Those were the questions that concerned Larry Thompson and others at the Justice Department as they managed events on I-75 and the public face of the war on terrorism they were producing.

They needed a diversion. They needed a following act. The surprise arrest of an Al Qaeda terrorist cell somewhere in the U.S. would do very nicely. But it had to be done quickly, so that the next morning’s headlines could be about another government success in the war on terrorism rather than government farce and persecution.
Since at least September 11th, 2001 the government has had under investigation many suspected terrorists of Middle East or Muslim ancestry. In Lackawanna, a suburb of Buffalo, NY had been investigating a group of American’s of Yemeni’s ancestry that had traveled to Pakistan and possibly Afghanistan in the spring of ’91. The FBI had talked to all of the five men arrested that night on previous occasions. The FBI had been investigating them for 6 months and it was no secret. One became so concerned he hired an attorney. Two were scheduled to appear before a Grand jury on September 26th.

But this Friday 13th turned out to be unlucky for them. In the justice department frantic search for a diversion to the Florida farce, came to notice in a new light. Within hours the local FBI office and Buffalo police were mobilized and the media had a new story: An Al Qaeda cell smashed right here in the U.S. The first arrest was made in Lackawanna less than an hour after “terrorist suspects” were released in Florida.

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