Ackawanna, N.Y. -- Federal officials today identified Kamal Derwish, a former resident of this city whose religious fervor had attracted a number of local young men, as the person who had helped arrange their training in what federal authorities say was a cell of Al Qaeda.
The officials said they believed that Mr. Derwish, who had been described in court papers as a co-conspirator of the six men arrested in recent days, was now in Yemen. They made it clear that they believed he was a pivotal participant in the operations of the group, saying he appeared to have "far more extensive" ties to Al Qaeda's network.
Federal officials in Washington said Mr. Derwish was at the center of the e-mail and telephone conversations among the men arrested here that the authorities had been monitoring for months. Investigators said they had become alarmed in recent weeks by the tone and nature of the communications, which they said appeared to use code words and to include talk of possible terrorist activity.
"The chatter was increasing, and there was language we couldn't understand," one federal official involved in the investigation said today of what began the pressure to make the arrests. "He is big time," he said of Mr. Derwish.
The details concerning Mr. Derwish, 29, are sketchy at this point. Onetime neighbors here said he had grown up in Saudi Arabia, came to Lackawanna as a teenager, and then returned to Yemen to be married. He came back here with a wife and the couple had a child while living in a pale-blue three-story frame house at 74 Holland Avenue. He was said by neighbors to have left once more for Yemen about two years ago.
During his second stay in Lackawanna, neighbors and friends said, he had developed a reputation as a fervently religious Muslim, someone so zealous he would not speak to a local deli owner because the man sold pork and beer. Eventually, they said, he attracted numbers of young men who came to his apartment to listen to his religious views.
"They got caught up in the rhetoric," said a young man who had gone to high school with some of the men implicated in the case.
So far, the portrait of the men the authorities say made up a "sleeper cell" has been both sobering and lacking in many specifics. They have charged the men with having trained in a terror camp in Afghanistan and thereby providing "material support" to terrorists. Prosecutors have also said they do not believe the suspects were planning to do anything soon, and neighbors and residents here have defended them and described them as harmless and "all-American."
One federal official said yesterday that more specific information about evidence could be disclosed in a bond hearing scheduled Wednesday.
Tonight, lawyers for the six men under arrest here met local Muslim residents and asked them to help raise bail for the defendants by pledging their houses and other assets. The lawyers have said their clients are innocent.
James Harrington, the lawyer for Sahim Alwan, one of the men investigators say admitted attending the Qaeda camp, said in an interview after the meeting that it "hasn't been established that traveling to Afghanistan is a crime."
Asked about the Justice Department's view that attending the camp was a crime, he said, "That is going to be a real substantial issue in the case."
Court papers present the government's rough picture of Mr. Derwish and his involvement. While the other men had told friends and relatives that they were going to Pakistan to study Islam in the spring and summer of 2001, the court papers say that Mr. Derwish, who was already in Pakistan, greeted them on their arrival. Within six to nine days of their arrival, the court papers say, Mr. Derwish had arranged for several of the men to travel to Afghanistan, where they first stayed at a guest house in Kandahar and prayed and listened to lectures about jihad and "justification for using suicide as a weapon."
Then, the court papers say, Mr. Derwish arranged for them to go to the Qaeda camp, where they were trained in the use of AK-47 assault rifles.
The affidavit quotes two of the defendants as saying that Mr. Derwish was in a more advanced training camp, learning, among other things, artillery and anti-aircraft fire. He appeared to know many of the instructors, the affidavit says.
Osama bin Laden himself appeared at the camp while the Lackawanna men were training, the affidavit says, and made a speech "espousing anti-United States and Israel sentiments."
When Mr. Derwish lived in Lackawanna as a bachelor, neighbors said, he roomed with Yahya Goba, who was also very religious and wears the untrimmed beard of a traditionalist. One of the other six men, Mukhtar al-Bakri, described Mr. Goba in court papers as the leader of the four-man group that traveled to the training camp.
"When he was single he lived with Yahya," said Samira Sallih, a neighbor, adding that neighborhood teenagers flocked to Mr. Derwish's apartment.
"They were coming to see what this man had to say about religion," she said. "He was more educated than the teenagers."
Sitting on her front porch across the street from Mr. Derwish's old residence, she said that two of the suspects, Shafal Mosed and Faysal Galab, "became more religious because of Kamal and Yahya."
A lot of the youths in the neighborhood, she said, were excited by the prospect of a trip to Pakistan to study religion.
"A lot of the young boys wanted to go," she said. "If he had listened to all of the people who wanted to go, half of Lackawanna would be in jail."