Lawyers, law officers debate whether a terror cell took root among us
Is the Portland area a breeding ground for radical Muslim terrorism? Or are law enforcement officials seeing a threat where none exists?
The Portland FBI's Joint Terrorism Task Force has spearheaded the arrest of seven Portland Muslims since the terrorist attacks Sept. 11, 2001, in New York City and Washington, D.C. An eighth Muslim suspect is still at large.
The task force targets include the leader of a conservative local mosque, a mosque member trained in firearms and six others accused of conspiring to wage war against America.
Terrorism experts contacted by the Portland Tribune and KOIN (6) say those arrested represent the elements of a classic terror cell. The experts note that such cells traditionally are headed by a religious or inspirational leader, include at least one weapons expert and are mostly staffed by foot soldiers who carry out the cell's missions.
'It looks like a textbook case,' Carroll Payne Jr., publisher of World Conflict Quarterly, said of the eight Muslims. 'All the elements are there.'
Local law enforcement officials, who will not speak on the record, confirm they suspect that all of those arrested were working together.
'That's what we're afraid of,' one official said.
But the defendants' lawyers and others scoff at the notion. They accuse the government of being caught up in post-Sept. 11 hysteria, imagining conspiracies that are not real.
'It's like a John Candy summer movie,' said Stanley Cohen, the lawyer for Sheik Mohamed Abdirahman Kariye, religious leader of the Islamic Center of Portland, also known as Masjed As-Saber. 'It looks hot, it looks sexy, but there's nothing there.'
Cohen acknowledges that those who were arrested represent the basic elements of a terror cell. But he calls it a coincidence and denies that the entire group was working together on any terror plot.
'The government has this script. They've got all these little pieces, and they're trying to fit them together,' Cohen said.
Civil libertarians decry roundup
Law enforcement has changed dramatically since last year's terrorist attacks. U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft is spearheading a terrorism crackdown in which hundreds of Muslims have been arrested from coast to coast.
The Portland arrests are part of a yearlong roundup of Muslims that has been widely criticized by civil libertarians. Local activists have repeatedly denounced the war on terrorism as a version of McCarthyism that unfairly targets Muslims because of their religion.
The first Portland arrest occurred Oct. 24, 2001. Ali K. Steitiye was charged with illegally possessing a loaded assault rifle, a loaded 9 mm pistol and 1,000 rounds of ammunition. A search warrant turned up $20,000 in cash, phony credit cards and a false immigration document in his apartment.
Steitiye was found guilty of weapons, fraud and immigration charges earlier this year. He is serving a 30-month prison sentence.
The second arrest took place Sept. 8 when Kariye was picked up at Portland International Airport and charged with Social Security fraud. Airport officials originally announced that they found traces of TNT in luggage belonging to one of the sheik's relatives, but follow-up tests did not confirm the findings.
Kariye is scheduled to go to trial Feb. 25.
Most of the other arrests took place Oct. 4. Jeffrey Leon Battle, Ahmed Ibrahim Bilal, Muhammad Ibrahim Bilal, Patrice Lumumba Ford, October Martinique Lewis and Jabis Abdulla Al Saoub are charged with conspiring to wage war against America. The group is being called the Portland Six.
According to the federal indictment, the men tried to reach Afghanistan during the war against the Taliban in late 2001, while Lewis stayed home and wired some of them money. None of them reached their alleged destination.
Battle and Ford returned to Portland, where they and Lewis were arrested in their apartments. Muhammad Ibrahim Bilal was picked up at his sister's home in Detroit. His brother Ahmed turned himself in to authorities in Malaysia a short time later.
Their trials are currently set for late next year. Al Saoub is still at large.
The indictment against the Portland Six names Steitiye as an unindicted co-conspirator in the plot. He allegedly trained most of the men how to use firearms in a gravel pit in rural Washington before they left for Afghanistan.
After he was arrested, Steitiye told investigators that he originally learned to shoot from guerrilla groups in refugee camps in Lebanon, where he was born and raised.
Terrorism expert Matthew Levitt of the Washington D.C.-based Institute for Near East Policy agrees with terrorism expert Payne that Steitiye's involvement suggests a classic terror cell. Levitt says the others would respect Steitiye because he grew up in refugee camps.
'He'd be the real deal,' Levitt said.
Steitiye's attorney, Dennis Balske, denies that his client is part of a cell or terror plot. He describes his client as nothing more than a gun nut who was targeted by the government simply because he is a Muslim.
'I've seen nothing to suggest that he's anything more,' Balske said.
Doubts linger about evidence
The obvious question is: If the government suspects that all of the current and former Muslims are part of a single cell, why aren't all of them charged with conspiracy?
'If they had something more on Kariye, you'd better believe we'd know about it by now,' Cohen said.
For example, Cohen dismissed recent reports that the FBI has any evidence to link Kariye to El Sayyid-Nosair, the convicted terrorist believed to have inspired the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center. Nosair currently is serving a life sentence in federal prison in New York.
According to Cohen, Kariye does not know Nosair and has never visited him in prison. Cohen says a visitors log obtained by the Portland Tribune that included Kariye's name was prepared by Nosair's supporters without Kariye's knowledge.
But Payne and the others say there are many obstacles to proving a larger conspiracy, beginning with the fact that many of the Muslims belong to a foreign-speaking immigrant community with its own customs.
It is almost impossible for the government to penetrate such closed communities without an informant. Although an informant gathered evidence against the Portland Six, he was not recruited until after Steitiye and Kariye were arrested.
'You charge what you can prove,' Payne said.