6 accused of running Oregon terror cell
Less than three weeks after the Sept. 11 attacks, a sheriff's deputy in rural Washington encountered a half-dozen bearded men, wearing skull caps and robes, blasting firearms at a gravel pit on private property.
The deputy asked the men to lay down their weapons, then took their names, and let them go. "If they'd been dressed like loggers, then he probably wouldn't have given them a second look," Skamania County Sheriff Charles Bryan said.
Uneasy, the deputy, Mark Mercer, told his boss, and Bryan passed the names to the FBI.
Yesterday, after a yearlong investigation, federal prosecutors in Portland indicted six people, including five U.S. citizens, for conspiracy to levy war against the United States and to support al-Qaida and the Taliban.
"We've neutralized a suspected terrorist cell within our borders," Attorney General John Ashcroft said yesterday.
The indictment charges that five of the men from the Washington gravel pit trained themselves for war in the Portland area, then headed to Afghanistan to fight against the United States. A Portland woman is charged with wiring cash to her ex-husband to finance his journey. Each could get life in prison if convicted.
Starting at 4 a.m. yesterday, Portland's joint terrorism task force raided several apartments in Portland, arresting Jeffrey Leon Battle, 32; his ex-wife, October Martinique Lewis, 25; and Patrice Lumumba Ford, 31. Another man, Muhammad Ibrahim Bilal, 22, was arrested at his sister's home in Dearborn, Mich.
Two remain out of the country and are the target of a global manhunt: Ahmed Ibrahim Bilal, 25, brother of Muhammad; and Habis Abdulla Al Saoub, 36.
The Justice Department has indicted at least 17 people, many of them U.S. citizens, on charges of supporting terrorism. Others include six men from Lackawanna, N.Y., accused of attending an al-Qaida training camp, and James Ujaama, a former Seattle man accused of trying to start a terrorist training camp in Oregon. Authorities yesterday said there is no connection between Ujaama and the Portland indictments.
The Portland investigation is ongoing and Ashcroft yesterday didn't rule out the possibility of further indictments.
One of the suspects, Ford, worked as an intern for Portland Mayor Vera Katz as recently as September 1999 and previously for Mayor Bud Clark in 1986. He allegedly placed strange calls to Katz's office in August 2001, and staff contacted the police.
"Preventing terrorism is the shared responsibility of each and every one of us, everywhere, all the time," Katz said in a statement.
Ford, who lives with a Chinese woman and has a 15-month-old son together, grew up in Portland and earned a master's degree in Chinese language from Johns Hopkins University. He currently sells cellphone accessories.
"He's a serious young man, thoughtful, introspective and intellectual," said Ford's brother, James Britt, 39, a lawyer in Eugene. "He's a good father and provider. He's a decent human being and a man of strong convictions. He decided he wanted to study martial arts and he put his heart and soul into it. He studied Chinese and put his heart and soul in it. He wanted to be Muslim and he put his heart and soul into it."
Britt believes his brother's arrest was because of political hysteria brought on by the Sept. 11 attacks.
Jeffrey Battle, indicted with Ford yesterday, was said by Ashcroft to have enlisted in the Army Reserve to get military training to be used to fight for the Taliban against his own country. Battle enlisted in the Army Reserve in September 1999 and graduated from basic training at Fort Jackson in South Carolina in February 2000.
The two brothers, Muhammad and Ahmed Bilal, lived in Beaverton, Ore. There they attended prayers at the Bilal Masjid mosque. Ahmed Bilal taught Arabic to children at the mosque's Sunday school, according to director Dr. Shahriar Ahmed.
"He was a novelty: an American who spoke very good Arabic," Ahmed said. "Since he was an American, he could relate to the kids, joke around with them."
According to the indictment, three of the suspects, Ford and the Bilal brothers, began training to fight a jihad in the summer of 2001.
Three days after Sept. 11, Ford bought a shotgun at a Washougal, Wash., gun store. On Sept. 29, he and the others went to a gravel pit in southern Washington to train, the indictments say. They also had a Chinese assault rifle, a hunting rifle, and 9 mm semiautomatic handguns. Their racket caused a resident to call the Sheriff's Office, which dispatched deputy Mercer.
Also at the firing practice, the indictment said, was Khaled Ali Steitiye, listed as an unindicted co-conspirator in the indictment filed yesterday. Authorities say he is a sympathizer of Hamas, the Palestinian militant group, and familiar with small arms and explosives.
Steitiye has been under federal investigation since August 2001 after attempting to buy an assault rifle without admitting he had felony convictions for theft, fraud and an illegal weapon.
Federal prosecutors allege Steitiye began weapons training with various Palestinian guerrilla groups at age 8 and underwent "serious training" between the ages of 12 and 19, when he moved to the United States.
They say he is familiar in the use of small arms and explosives. On Oct. 24, Steitiye was arrested by the FBI in Portland in possession of a number of firearms, several hundred rounds of ammunition and $20,000 cash.
The government's case
According to the indictments:
As U.S. forces attacked the Taliban and al-Qaida, the men tried to enter Afghanistan. In October, Al Saoub discarded all of his personal belongings and left "a martyr's will" directed to the mujahedeen leader Mohammad Ibin Abdallah. The men flew out of Portland International Airport.
On Nov. 2, Battle called his former wife, Lewis, and told her he had not been able to cross the border from China into Afghanistan and needed money. Over the next several days she wired him more than $1,200.
Ford could not cross into Afghanistan either and returned to the United States on Nov. 19. Soon he wired $500 to Al Saoub, who was still in China.
On Nov. 30, Battle sent his ex-wife an e-mail that said "three of the brothers could have made it by now," which the government said refers to efforts to get into Afghanistan.
Muhammad Bilal returned to the United States on Christmas Eve.
Battle came back to the country Feb. 5.
In August, Muhammad Bilal asked a potential witness to lie to authorities about the source of funds he and his brother used to fly to China, the indictment said.
A high-ranking law-enforcement source said yesterday that investigators received information on at least one of the men indicted yesterday, Al Saoub, from an al-Qaida fighter in custody in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.
The Department of Defense has custody of the more than 600 Taliban and al-Qaida fighters captured in the war in Afghanistan.
Several of the men charged yesterday were converts to Islam. In the wake of the Sept. 11, several of them attracted the suspicions of their neighbors, who called authorities.
One of Battle's neighbors, 36-year-old computer student Matt Hawkey, said he became an FBI informant after Battle's young son told his Hawkey's daughter that Sept. 11 was a good thing.
Hawkey said he spied on Battle and his associates when they met occasionally in a parking lot in the apartment complex.
He said he gathered license-plate numbers of the men's cars and relayed them to FBI agents. He and other neighbors at the apartment complex said FBI agents moved into an apartment there to watch Battle and his friends.
Several residents, however, said they saw no suspicious meetings.
Hawkey said that when the meetings occurred he would take his dog for a walk to try and get a closer inspection. Hawkey said Battle was unapproachable. "If you tried to talk to him he would just head in the opposite direction."
Battle and Ford did not keep a low profile last month during protests over the arrest of Sheik Mohamed Abdirahman Kariye, the imam or prayer leader at the large Islamic Center of Portland Masjid As-Saber.
Kariye was charged with Social Security ID fraud, which sparked emotional protests at the federal court house by mosque members, many of whom are immigrants from Somalia and other North African and Middle Eastern countries.
As a Seattle Times reporter tried to talk to protesters at the court house, Battle and Ford disrupted interviews, telling people to not cooperate.
There were no protests yesterday at the courthouse. Ford pleaded not guilty. Battle and Lewis had their arraignments rescheduled for Monday.
Oregon U.S. Attorney Mike Mosman said that at this point there is no known terrorism connection between the six indicted yesterday and Kariye.
At Battle's apartment complex, Hawkey said he and a few neighbors were drinking beer having a "terrorist-catching" party.
This story was written by David Heath and reported by Heath, Hal Bernton, Mike Carter, Christine Willmsen, Susan Kelleher and Cheryl Phillips.