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.*
In an interview from Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, with ABCNEWS' Brian Ross, the Bilals' father said the charges against his sons were ludicrous — as ludicrous as the idea that hijacked airplanes brought down the World Trade Center. In the Middle East, many Arabs do not believe the U.S. government's account of the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks.
The investigation into the suspected Portland cell began more than a year ago, officials said.
Not long after Sept. 11, 2001, a deputy sheriff in Washington state happened upon several of the defendants dressed in turbans and robes firing weapons in a gravel pit in the town of Washougal, just across the Columbia River from Portland, officials said. Later, the sheriff for whom the deputy worked called the FBI because he saw a local television news report on the arrest of one of the gravel pit shooters, Khaled Ali Steitiye, on various weapons charges.
The investigation into Steitiye, who is named as an unindicted co-conspirator in the Portland indictment, led authorities to the six defendants, four of whom also fired weapons in the gravel pit, officials said.
The indictment said Ford, Battle, Muhammad Bilal and al Saoub began weapons training in Washougal starting in late September 2001 to prepare to fight with Taliban forces. The weapons allegedly included a 12-gauge Remington shotgun, a Chinese SKS assault rifle, and semi-automatic pistols.
"Today's case is a textbook example of the central role that cooperation with local, state and federal enforcement officials plays in the prevention of terrorist attacks," Ashcroft said.
In the predominantly white and middle-class southwest Portland neighborhood where Battle lives, neighbors expressed surprise at the arrests. Mona Luqman, spokeswoman for the Portland Rizman mosque, next door to Battle's apartment complex, said she was "frustrated that something like this could happen in Portland and no one knew about it. It's really pretty scary."
Federal investigators probing possible homegrown terror cells have focused on the Portland area in recent months.
American Muslim James Ujaama, 36, remains in custody accused of supporting al Qaeda by trying to set up a terrorist training camp in Bly, Ore. A federal judge denied the Seattle-raised Ujaama bail earlier this week.
On Sept. 8, investigators arrested Sheik Mohamed Abdirahman Kariye, who served as an imam at the Islamic Center in Portland, as he tried to board a flight at Portland International Airport to the United Arab Emirates with his brother and four children.
Kariye, 41, is accused of using false information while applying for and receiving three different Social Security cards between 1983 and 1995. Prosecutors say Kariye also used an altered birth date in a 1998 asylum application. Kariye has pleaded not guilty to felony charges of unlawful use of a Social Security number and unlawful possession of a U.S. government document. A trial is scheduled for Nov. 5.
Authorities have not connected Kariye or Ujaama to the new arrests.
The latest bust comes weeks after law enforcement officials broke up another alleged terror cell comprised of U.S. citizens in suburban Buffalo, N.Y.
Six Yemeni-American men from Lackawanna, N.Y., remain in custody since their mid-September arrests on charges of allegedly providing support or resources to foreign terrorists.
Prosecutors believe the Lackawanna men comprised a cell of al Qaeda operatives who received training at a terror camp in Afghanistan. Investigators say they recovered a rifle with a telescope and a cassette titled "A Call for Jihad" at the home of one of the suspects.
With the new arrests, U.S. officials have charged at least 17 individuals since Aug. 28.
Federal investigators are looking for al Qaeda cells in several cities in the United States. Officials are looking at Portland, New York, Detroit, Minneapolis and Seattle, sources tell ABCNEWS.
In addition to the new arrests, would-be "shoe bomber" Richard Reid plead guilty in a Boston courtroom to all counts in the indictment accusing him of attempting to ignite a bomb on American Airlines Flight 63 and to murder 179 passengers and crew.
Also, so-called American Taliban John Walker Lindh was sentenced to 20 years in prison in federal court in Virginia.
Praising all these developments, Ashcroft said: "Today is a victory for justice and for citizens who are vigilant in the pursuit of justice."
* Please note: Due to an editing error, an earlier version of this report improperly attributed a different comment to Mr. Conger. We regret the error.