6 charged in effort to help al-Qaida
October 5, 2002


WASHINGTON - Six people, five of them Americans and all with roots in Oregon, have been charged with conspiring to wage war against the United States, Attorney General John Ashcroft announced yesterday.

The five men allegedly tried to enter Afghanistan after the Sept. 11 attacks to fight alongside al-Qaida and Taliban forces.

Ashcroft told an afternoon news conference that federal agents took two men and a woman into custody yesterday morning in Portland, Ore., and arrested a third man in Detroit. Two more men remain at large overseas. Officials refused to discuss their whereabouts.

Ashcroft hailed yesterday as "a day of justice for the citizens, the soldiers and law enforcement officers who defend our nation and our values, and defend them each and every day." With the arrests, he said, federal authorities had "neutralized a suspected terrorist cell within our borders."

The indictment does not accuse those charged with plotting attacks against Americans, either domestically or abroad. Ashcroft declined to answer when asked if authorities had evidence that the group may have been planning such attacks.

Rather, the five men - Jeffrey Leon Battle, 32; Patrice Lumumba Ford, 31; Habis Abdulla al Saoub, 37; and brothers Ahmed Ibrahim Bilal, 24, and Muhammad Ibrahim Bilal, 22 - are accused of trying to aid and join al-Qaida and the Taliban last fall in their fight against American-led military forces. Battle's former wife, October Martinique Lewis, 25, is charged with wiring money to him to help him get into Afghanistan.

Saoub and Ahmed Bilal are the men at large.

The latest indictment charges the six people with conspiring to wage war against the United States, conspiring at provide material support and resources to al-Qaida and conspiring to contribute services to al-Qaida and the Taliban. All but Lewis and Muhammad Bilal were charged with possessing firearms in furtherance of crimes of violence. Justice officials said all six could face up to life in prison.

The news conference had a celebratory feel as Ashcroft shook hands with FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III and other associates at the podium. He called the case "a textbook example" of cooperation among federal, state and local law enforcement agencies.

The arrests came on a day when John Walker Lindh was sentenced to 20 years in prison for serving with the Taliban in Afghanistan. And Richard Reid pleaded guilty in Boston to trying to ignite explosives hidden in his shoes while aboard an trans-Atlantic flight in December.

Taken together, Ashcroft said, these developments made yesterday "a defining day in America's war against terrorism" and "a day of vindication for the nation and President Bush."

The indictment portrays the five men as having been inspired by the Sept. 11 attacks to seek weapons training and attempting to find a way into Afghanistan.

From last October to February they scattered, landing in places such as China and Bangladesh. During that time Lewis, in Oregon, transferred money to Battle by wire, according the indictment.

Last December, Lewis wrote an e-mail to her ex-husband in Bangladesh, telling him that "the U.S. captured three Americans out there trying to fight on you know who side." Battle, apparently undeterred, received $300 from Lewis by Western Union nine days later, to continue his efforts to make it to Afghanistan, according to the court documents.

Officials said that none of the four people arrested yesterday - Battle, Ford, Muhammad Bilal and Lewis - ever reached Afghanistan, but were being charged for trying. Officials would not say whether they had evidence that the two men at large, Ahmed Bilal or Saoub, made it to Afghanistan or took up arms with the Taliban or al-Qaida.

The indictment focuses on the spending habits of the group and the efforts by some to obtain weapons training.

The lone non-citizen charged, al-Saoub, is Jordanian and was in the United States legally as a permanent alien. Battle, according to court documents, was administratively discharged in January of this year from the U.S. Army Reserve - "in which he had previously enlisted in order to receive training in United States military tactics and weapons, which he ultimately intended to use against the United States."

Muhammad Bilal was held without bail after a court appearance in Detroit yesterday. Prosecutor Barbara McQuade said he had recently traveled to China and Indonesia.

Ford pleaded innocent to all charges during an arraignment in federal court in Portland, Ore. Arraignments of Lewis and Battle were postponed until Monday.

"It's all a mistake, it's got to be," said Ford's father, Kent Ford. He said his son spent time as a foreign exchange student in Beijing in the mid-1990s, when he converted to Islam. Ford, whose father said he is named after the African resistance leader and first president of Congo, attended a graduate program in Nanjing, China, four years ago run in part by the Johns Hopkins University, a Hopkins spokesman said last night.

Yesterday's indictment follows arrests near Buffalo, N.Y., last month of five people accused of aiding terrorists. That group was portrayed as an al-Qaida cell operating within U.S. borders, and officials said they had reason to believe the group could have been awaiting orders to carry out terrorist acts on U.S. soil.

Justice officials credited the sheriff's department in Skamania County, Wash., for the latest arrests. Last Sunday, Deputy Sheriff Mark Mercer came across four of those charged - as well as a man named Khaled Ali Steitiye - at a gravel pit in Washougal, Wash., where they were firing weapons, including semiautomatic pistols and a Chinese-made SKS assault rifle, according to the indictment.

Steitiye was later arrested on firearms charges in a case with possible terrorist links, and Mercer saw Steitiye's face on television and recognized him. The sheriff's office alerted the FBI, a tip that helped federal agents with the investigation that led to yesterday's arrest, officials said.

According to the indictment, three defendants - Ford and the Bilal brothers - were already engaging "in physical training to prepare to fight a jihad" in the summer of 2001 - well before the attacks on New York and Washington.

In Portland yesterday, members of the Muslim community expressed anger at the arrests. "It seems like part of the witch hunt from the FBI," said Alaa Abunijem, president of the local Islamic Center. "The Muslim community in general is being targeted. People in general feel targeted."

 

 


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