Several U.S. citizens were arrested today on charges that they plotted to join al Qaeda and fight alongside Taliban forces against the United States in the war in Afghanistan, federal officials said.
Five U.S. citizens, including one with U.S. military training, were among six individuals indicted on charges of conspiring to levy war against the United States, provide material support to foreign terrorist organizations and contribute services to al Qaeda and the Taliban. Four of the suspects were also charged with possession of firearms in furtherance of crimes of violence.
At a Washington, D.C., news conference announcing the indictments, Attorney General John Ashcroft said four suspects were in custody while two remained at large overseas.
"Today is a defining day in America's war against terrorism," Ashcroft said. "We've neutralized a suspected terrorist cell within our borders."
The suspects offered their services to al Qaeda and the Taliban after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, Ashcroft said. They allegedly tried to go to Afghanistan to fight against the United States, and allegedly planned to journey through China and Pakistan, but never made it to their final destination.
Ashcroft identified the suspects as Jeffrey Leon Battle, Patrice Lumumba Ford, Ahmed Ibrahim Bilal, Muhammad Ibrahim Bilal, Habis Abdulla al Saoub and October Martinique Lewis. All suspects, who range in age from 22 to 37, were Portland residents at the time of the alleged offenses. All but one are U.S. citizens. Saoub, a Jordanian by birth, is a permanent resident alien of the United States.
Following the Sept. 11 attacks, Battle, Ford, both Bilals and Saoub acquired firearms and trained in preparation to fight a jihad, Ashcroft alleged. In October 2001, as U.S. troops fought in Afghanistan, the suspects began to travel to Afghanistan to join Taliban and al Qaeda forces fighting U.S. troops.
The five defendants purchased airline tickets to Hong Kong with the intent of traveling to Taliban-controlled Afghanistan via China and Pakistan, Ashcroft said.
In November 2001, Battle allegedly told Lewis, his ex-wife, that he had difficulty entering Afghanistan. On eight occasions, Ashcroft said, Lewis wired Battle money, apparently to aid his travel efforts. At some point, Battle wound up in Bangladesh, and caused himself to be discharged from the U.S. Army Reserves, in which he had enlisted to receive military training to use against the United States, Ashcroft alleged.
Three suspects, Battle, Ford and Muhammad Bilal, returned to the United States by early 2002. They and Lewis are in custody.
If convicted, the defendants would face up to life in prison, Ashcroft said.
Suspects’ Father: Charges ‘Ludicrous’
A federal grand jury in Portland handed up the four-count indictment on Thursday. At 6 a.m., more than 100 FBI agents and police officers in Portland participated in the arrests there of Battle, Ford and Lewis. Muhammad Bilal was arrested this morning in Detroit.
His brother Ahmed, along with Saoub, is still at large.
An uncle of the Bilals, who were raised by American parents in Saudi Arabia, told ABCNEWS that the family was taken by surprise and did not know what to make of the government's allegations.
"Maybe nothing went wrong except that they were traveling overseas and they have Muslim names, so God knows. Hopefully our justice system is fair enough to find out what really happened," said Roger Conger.*