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'Defining day' heralded against terrorism
PORTLAND, Ore. -- Hailing a "defining day" in the fight against terrorism, Attorney General John Ashcroft announced the arrests of four people in Oregon and Michigan on Friday on charges of conspiring to wage war on the United States and support al-Qaida. Two other suspects were being sought overseas.
The arrests came on the same day a tearful John Walker Lindh was sentenced to 20 years in prison for fighting for the Taliban and a smirking Richard Reid declared himself a follower of Osama bin Laden as he pleaded guilty to trying to blow up a trans-Atlantic flight with explosives in his shoes.
Ashcroft, announcing the arrests at a Washington news conference, said five of the six people named in the indictment are U.S. citizens and one is a former U.S. Army reservist.
Prosecutors say some of the suspects began weapons training days after the Sept. 11 attacks, and then tried unsuccessfully to get into Afghanistan to join up with al-Qaida and the Taliban in October, as U.S. forces began bombing parts of the country.
Ashcroft said one of those arrested, Jeffrey Leon Battle, joined the U.S. Army Reserves to obtain training in U.S. tactics and weapons. He said Battle, who was discharged in January while in Bangladesh, intended to use that experience against American soldiers in Afghanistan.
Battle later "caused himself to be discharged" from the Army, Ashcroft said, without elaborating.
Court papers identified the six as Battle, 32; Patrice Lumumba Ford, 31; Ahmed Ibrahim Bilal, 24; his brother Muhammad Ibrahim Bilal, 22; Habis Abdullah al Saoub, 37; and October Martinique Lewis, 25, the ex-wife of Battle.
Heading to Afghanistan
According to Ashcroft, five of the suspects set out for Afghanistan in October 2001 and tried to enter the country through China, but failed.
Lewis stayed behind and wired money to Battle eight times "with the knowledge the money would be used to support his attempt to reach Afghanistan" to help al-Qaida and the Taliban, the attorney general said.
Before leaving Oregon, al Saoub discarded a bag containing a Jordanian passport and a document titled "A Martyr's Will," according to the indictment. The will was addressed to someone prosecutors described as a mujahadeen, or warrior, but the indictment includes no other details.
Battle, Ford and Lewis were arrested in Portland, and Muhammad Bilal was taken into custody in Michigan. He had been living with a sister in the Detroit suburb of Dearborn for about a month but has lived in Oregon. Ahmed Bilal and al Saoub were being sought outside the United States.
Muhammad Bilal was held without bail after a court appearance in Detroit. Prosecutor Barbara McQuade said he had recently traveled to Hong Kong, China and Indonesia.
Charges against the six include conspiracy to levy war against the United States, conspiracy to provide material support and resources to al-Qaida, conspiracy to contribute services to al-Qaida and the Taliban, and possessing firearms in furtherance of crimes of violence.
Ford pleaded innocent to all charges during an arraignment in federal court in Portland. Arraignments for two others were postponed until Monday.
"It's all a mistake, it's got to be," said Ford's father, Kent Ford.
He said his son, named after the African resistance leader and first president of Congo, spent time in the mid-19990s as a foreign exchange student in Beijing, where he converted to Islam. He also said Ford studied international relations at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore; he also was an intern in the Portland mayor's office in 1998-99.
Ashcroft said the FBI is looking into whether other Portland-area residents may have also gone to Afghanistan with the same intention as those indicted. Authorities said the suspects received financial support for their travel from unknown sources in Oregon.
The indictment said Ford and the Bilal brothers began physical training "to prepare to fight a jihad" in the summer of 2001. It also said Battle, Ahmed Bilal and al Saoub engaged in weapons training in Washougal, Wash., starting in late September 2001, to prepare to fight with Taliban forces.
The investigation leading to the arrests started Sept. 29, 2001, when a Skamania County, Wash., sheriff's deputy responding to a noise complaint discovered some people in "Middle Eastern attire" firing weapons at a gravel pit. The sheriff's department contacted the FBI.
Skamania County Sheriff Chuck Bryan said one of the people at the gravel pit was Ali Khaled Steitiye, a Lebanese immigrant who was recently sentenced to federal prison for firearms, fraud and immigration offenses.
When Steitiye was arrested in December, police found a calendar with the date Sept. 11 circled. Steitiye is identified as a coconspirator in the indictment but has not been charged with terror-related offenses.
Ashcroft said the arrests represent "a textbook example" of cooperation among federal, state and local authorities in the war against terrorism.
Members of Portland's Muslim community were angered by the arrests.
"It seems like part of the witch hunt from the FBI," said Alaa Abunijem, president of the Islamic Center. "The Muslim community in general is being targeted. People in general feel targeted."
Federal authorities have also charged an American Muslim, James Ujaama, 36, with trying to establish a terrorist training camp in Bly, Ore., in 1999. He has denied the charges, but remains in custody in Seattle.