overline: Evidence gives sharper image of Portland 7's Asian journey and an earlier Portland plot also 1.2/24/3: Feds kept quiet about suspects' alleged idea to attack local Jews
In October 2001, Jeffrey Leon Battle and five other Portland area Muslims traveled to China as part of what the federal government says was a conspiracy to join al-Qaida and the Taliban in the fighting in Afghanistan.
The six men, as well as Battle's former wife, have been charged with conspiracy to levy war against the United States. Their latest legal arguments are due to be filed Tuesday.
Barring plea bargains or other developments, the defendants, dubbed the Portland Seven, are scheduled to go to trial next January. All but one, who is still at large, have pleaded not guilty.
Since the alleged conspiracy was made public in October, federal prosecutors have released a small portion of the evidence that investigators collected from witness interviews, an undercover informant, body wires, tape-recorded telephone conversations, search warrants and airline, hotel and other records. This story is based on the Tribune's extensive review of that information and on interviews with witnesses.
For 2,000 years, the Chinese city of Kashgar Ñ the westernmost city in the world's biggest country Ñ has been a trading center on the fabled Silk Road.
To its east are vast deserts; to the south, the icy peaks of northern Pakistan. And rising above Kashgar is the Khunjerab Pass, by which a traveler can make his way into northern Pakistan and, from there, Afghanistan.
In late October 2001, the pass Ñ usually blocked by snow by late November Ñ already had been closed to most travelers by the Chinese government. Concerned about Islamic zealots, refugees and political unrest after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks were linked to Afghanistan, the Chinese would, within days, close the pass to even Pakistani traders.
As for China's small, mutual border with Afghanistan, even local tribespeople were unlikely to attempt to cross it. The terrain is incredibly rugged; the area was occupied by the Northern Alliance, a multi-ethnic group that had united in opposition to Afghanistan's government, the Taliban; and the country had been under bombing attacks by the United States since Oct. 7.
It was here, federal prosecutors allege, that six Portland area Muslims were gathered in Kashgar's Soviet-style, concrete-block, modest Chini Bagh Hotel in late October 2001. Their goal: to cross into Afghanistan and fight Ñ with the fundamentalist Muslim terrorist group al-Qaida and the Taliban Ñ in a holy war against the United States.
Sharing Room 303 were two very unlikely bedfellows: Battle, an unemployed man from Portland, and Maher Mofeid 'Mike' Hawash, a Palestinian-born engineer from Hillsboro.
Battle claimed to have participated, before leaving Portland for China, in a plan to attack Jews in Portland in retaliation for Jewish attacks on what he called 'Muslim brothers in Palestine.' Hawash, on the other hand, apparently hadn't even attended mosque regularly before that spring.
Battle appeared to be living off the $100 recently wired to him by his former wife, October Martinique Lewis, who was back in Portland. Hawash, who had made more than $350,000 at Intel Corp. the previous year, had bought a $175 backpack and $189 hiking boots at Recreational Equipment Inc. in Tualatin shortly before the trip.
Perhaps the disparities between the two men affected their relationship even at the time: Battle, bragging to an undercover informant months later, couldn't even recall Hawash's name.
Other guests who stayed in the sparsely occupied hotel during the same four- or five-day period don't remember seeing Hawash, with or without Battle.
But the guests definitely noticed a group of large, bearded African-Americans and other men, whom they later identified as Battle, Habis Abdulla Al Saoub, brothers Ahmed Ibraham and Muhammad Ibrahim Bilal, and Patrice Lumumba Ford.
The men appeared to be trying to find a way to get over the Khunjerab Pass into Afghanistan, a hotel guest later told the FBI. They walked through local markets; spoke frequently with local Muslims and Pakistani traders; and Ford, on one occasion, was seen meeting with a representative of the Pakistani government.
The group attracted gawkers wherever they went. 'They stood out like a black football team in China,' said another hotel guest.
Even in their own hotel, the group was conspicuous. They hung around the lobby, doing chin-ups from the rafters and sparring with one another in the courtyard.
Their stories to other guests about why they were there were wildly inconsistent, with one of them insisting he had no idea that the fighting in Afghanistan was occurring so close by. Another broadly hinted that they were training to join the fighting themselves in the near future.
'Whatever they were up to,' a fellow hotel guest concluded, 'they were clearly out of their league.'
Foiled gun buy tips FBI
The trip to China was the second alleged conspiracy devised by Battle during 2001, federal authorities believe.
According to an undercover informant, Battle and Ali Khaled Steitiye (pronounced STAY-tee), who lived in the same Southwest Portland neighborhood, had planned to wear bulletproof vests and use automatic weapons to attack Jews at a local synagogue or Jewish school.
When and why this alleged plot was concocted is not clear from the information released to date; however, it may have been before Sept. 11, 2001.
According to Battle's statements to undercover informant Khalid Mostafa, he and Steitiye were willing to get caught if they could kill 'at least 100 or 1,000 Ñ big numbers' Ñ by 'hit(ting) them all at one time.'
They had, Battle said, even cased synagogues and Jewish schools, looking for a target that would meet this criterion.
Battle said that their motive was to avenge the 'slaughter' of Muslim Palestinians by Middle Eastern Jews who, he said, were getting money for weapons from American Jews.
'Every time they hurt or harm a Muslim over there, you go into that synagogue and hurt one over here,' he told Mostafa, apparently unaware that his statements were being recorded.
In August 2001, Steitiye attempted to buy an assault rifle from a Portland area gun dealer. The dealer turned him down when he learned through a background check that Steitiye was a convicted felon; the dealer later contacted federal authorities.
Steitiye had four felony convictions from the 1980s, including one, from Columbia County, on a previous charge of being an ex-convict in possession of a firearm.
On Sept. 29, Steitiye, Battle, Al Saoub, Ahmed Bilal and Ford were shooting weapons at a Southwest Washington gravel pit when a Skamania County deputy sheriff stumbled across them. The weapons included a .30-06 rifle with scope, an assault rifle and two 9 mm semiautomatic pistols.
The deputy took their names, told them they were on private property and let them go. 'We were going to 'pop' the cop if he wasn't cool,' Battle told Mostafa. But, he told the informant, the deputy turned out to be 'one of those guys who love guns. That saved his butt.'
Steitiye already was familiar with weapons. He had been raised in Palestinian refugee camps and had Ñ according to a memorandum later filed by federal prosecutors Ñ received extensive training in the use of shoulder weapons, pistols and hand grenades from a guerrilla group in Lebanon,
This background makes him 'the real deal,' according to Matthew Levitt, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy in Washington, D.C., meaning someone positioned to inspire, train and help finance American Muslims in taking alleged terrorist actions against the United States.
Despite Battle's and Steitiye's seeming level of preparation for an attack against Portland Jews, it was never carried out. Several possible reasons are suggested in Battle's conversations with Mostafa.
At one point, Battle told Mostafa that Steitiye had started 'tripping' and accusing him of working for the FBI. (In fact, Steitiye was under federal surveillance in fall 2001, but it was related to his attempted unlawful purchase of the rifle.)
At another point, Battle said that Al Saoub talked him out of attacking Americans in the United States and persuaded him to go instead to Afghanistan, where the United States had begun bombing Oct. 7 in an attempt to root out al-Qaida elements believed to be behind the 9-11 terrorist attacks.
Battle told Mostafa that he trusted Al Saoub because Al Saoub previously had fought against the Soviets in Afghanistan. Al Saoub, he said, could provide the group with the arms, ammunition and supplies they would need to fight the holy war.
On Oct. 17, Battle left for China. One week later, back home in Portland, Steitiye was indicted and arrested for his attempted purchase of the assault rifle in August.
In Steitiye's house, investigators found an Immigration and Naturalization Service card with his picture and a false name; several written items that, in their view, expressed support for Hamas, which federal prosecutors later called a 'known terrorist group'; numerous credit cards in other names and Ñ in a briefcase under the bed Ñ $20,000 in $2,000 bundles of cash.
Steitiye had a loaded 9 mm semiautomatic pistol in the waistband of his pants. Under the back seat of the van he was driving at the time of his arrest were a loaded assault rifle Ñ similar to the one he had unsuccessfully tried to purchase Ñ and more than 1,000 rounds of ammunition.
Al Saoub takes own path
Whether influenced by Al Saoub or someone else, Battle was not the only one who was making arrangements to travel to Central Asia in fall 2001. Airline, hotel and other records obtained by federal investigators and summarized in court documents reveal the following:
• On Oct. 9, Hawash Ñ the only one of the Portland Seven with any substantial assets Ñ transferred his interest in a Hillsboro house to his American-born wife, Lisa.
• Between Oct. 10 and Oct. 17, the six men purchased airline tickets to China (Hawash used frequent flier miles for his).
• Between Oct. 17 and Oct. 24, they flew to China in three groups, with Hawash leaving separately on the same day that Steitiye was arrested in Portland.
• Between Oct. 25 and Oct. 30, having rendezvoused on Hong Kong Island, they crossed the nearby border into southeast mainland China. They traveled first to †rŸmqi, farther from an ocean than any city in the world, and then to Kashgar. All six were registered at the Chini Bagh Hotel, where fellow guests have identified Ñ by photographs Ñ everyone except Hawash.
• Between Nov. 7 and Nov. 17, all but Al Saoub and Hawash checked back into the same †rŸmqi hotel where all six men had stayed in October. They then went to Beijing, where Hawash caught up with the others, and left mainland China Ñ without Al Saoub Ñ on Nov. 16 and 17.
Hawash and Ford separately flew straight home. Muhammad Bilal and Battle went on to other parts of Asia, not returning to Portland until December 2001 and February 2002, respectively. And Ahmed Bilal went to Malaysia, where he was attending school at the time he was arrested.
If the federal government knows where Al Saoub went after he registered with the other men at the Kashgar hotel in late October, it isn't saying. What it does say is that he left mainland China on May 23, 2002, after the U.S. bombing attacks against Afghanistan had ended but before a new interim government was installed July 2.
The U.S. Department of State has offered a $5 million reward for information leading to his arrest or conviction, along with witness protection for whomever provides such information.
The reward is the largest amount the department generally is authorized to offer, under the USA Patriot Act of 2001, for terrorism-related information.
Although Ford told Mostafa that the Taliban wouldn't let people like them fight because they were inexperienced and untrained, Battle said that the group Ñ except for Al Saoub Ñ gave up on its attempt to enter Afghanistan because the men had become impatient and missed their families.
Only Al Saoub, Battle told Mostafa, had the 'patience' and 'sincerity' to eventually make it into Afghanistan.
Deputy recognizes familiar face
On Dec. 11, 2001, while Al Saoub, Battle and the Bilal brothers were still overseas, Steitiye appeared in federal court in Portland for a pretrial detention hearing on the charges of illegal weapons possession, financial fraud and immigration fraud that had been filed after the October searches of his van and house.
Later that day, Police Chief Mark Kroeker held a news conference that made limited sense to reporters who, at that time, had never heard of either Steitiye or the Portland Seven.
Steitiye's 'connection to other activity is not to be talked about,' Kroeker said in the news conference. '(But) the leads from this treasure trove of evidence may lead us to something else that would help us to protect the citizens of Portland.'
In fact, it was Kroeker's news conference itself that led to a lucky break. The Skamania County sheriff's deputy who had stopped Steitiye and the other men at the gravel pit on Sept. 29 saw coverage of the news conference, recognized Steitiye's picture and called Portland authorities. The search for the men who had been with Steitiye at the gravel pit was on.
During the next eight months, more than 120 investigators secretly encamped around the Southwest Portland apartment buildings where many of the Portland Seven lived or had lived. They 'turned' Mostafa, an Egyptian and former Drug Enforcement Administration informant, by offering to overlook what investigators called Mostafa's own 'possible exposure for a false statement on a firearms purchase form' and 'financial benefits.'
They interviewed the alleged co-conspirators' families, friends and other witnesses; obtained court authority to use body wires, tape-record telephone conversations and execute search warrants; and reviewed airline, hotel and other records.
During the course of the investigation, federal prosecutors say, Battle made statements about both the alleged conspiracy to kill Portland Jews and the Portland Seven's plan to enter Afghanistan. Many of the admissions were secretly tape-recorded by Mostafa.
Ford also told Mostafa, on tape, that the group had attempted to enter Afghanistan to fight a jihad Ñ or holy war Ñ against the United States.
Ford told Mostafa that he had cautioned Battle not to talk about their failed attempt. 'We could be arrested for conspiracy right now,' Ford told Mostafa. 'If 'they' searched hard enough, 'they' could find proof.'
The Bilal brothers also made a number of admissions to witnesses, according to federal prosecutors, including that they had 'scammed' money for the China trip from members of Beaverton's Bilal (no relation to the Bilal brothers) Mosque by telling them that they needed it to help their father in Saudi Arabia. Mosque administrator Shahriar Ahmed confirmed that a collection, taken for the brothers' stated purpose, had raised about $3,000.
While Battle told Mostafa that Al Saoub and Hawash also went to China for the purpose of fighting a holy war in Afghanistan, there are no direct admissions by either Al Saoub or Hawash in the investigative information released so far. Nor are there any by Lewis. Lewis' mother has been quoted as saying that Lewis believed her former husband Ñ to whom she is still married according to the Muslim faith Ñ was on a 'spiritual journey'; Hawash's wife told investigators she believed that her husband was in China on business.
Case may turn on Battle
While the information released by federal prosecutors answers some basic questions about their case against the Portland Seven, it leaves other, important questions unanswered.
Why, for example, didn't federal authorities in Portland notify the local Jewish community about Battle's and Steitiye's alleged plan to attack Jews when they learned of it from Battle in May 2002, when Battle and several other members of the Portland Seven were back in town and Battle, at least, was shopping for an assault rifle and other guns?
'We were a little bit troubled by that,' said Robert Horenstein, community relations coordinator for the Jewish Federation of Portland, who, like other local Jewish leaders, said he heard about the plan indirectly after the Portland Seven were indicted. 'We let them know that in the future, we wish they would channel such information to appropriate people.'
Federal prosecutors declined to comment.
Why didn't federal prosecutors tell U.S. District Judge Anna Brown, who sentenced Steitiye on his own charges on Sept. 18, 2002, that they had evidence of the alleged planned attack against Portland Jews and of his weapons practice at the gravel pit?
Without that information, Brown Ñ who had pressed the prosecutors for evidence that Steitiye ever acted on his allegedly pro-terrorist political beliefs Ñ concluded that he was only a 'petty thief' and a 'typical felon in possession.' She sentenced him to 30 months Ñ more than defense attorney Dennis Balske had asked for but less than what the government wanted.
'Mere political thought,' Brown said during the sentencing, 'cannot be the basis to sentence a person. That's not the country we live in.'
Assistant U.S. Attorney Charles Gorder, who is in charge of anti-terrorism prosecutions for the U.S. attorney's office in Portland, said the government could not reveal facts to Brown that might have jeopardized its potential case against the alleged Afghanistan co-conspirators.
Nor could the prosecutor in charge of the Steitiye case request a continuance of that sentencing, Gorder said, because of uncertainty about when the Portland Seven investigation would be ready to submit for indictment.
In fact, Battle, still under the belief that Mostafa was a personal friend and not an undercover informant, helped him pack to move Ñ purportedly back home to Egypt Ñ on Oct. 4, just hours before Battle was arrested on the indictment that had been secretly returned the day before.
But Balske Ñ who vigorously argued against Steitiye's alleged terrorist associations Ñ and another attorney familiar with the Portland Seven case suggested other possible reasons for why the alleged planned attack wasn't made public:
• Federal prosecutors may have made a strategic decision to argue that the weapons practice was part of the alleged Afghanistan conspiracy Ñ which resulted in the trip to China, at least Ñ but not a preparation for the alleged planned attack on Portland Jews. (Battle, in the statements released so far, doesn't say what the weapons practice was for.) 'Sometimes the government doesn't want to stretch things out, to throw the broader net,' one attorney familiar with the case said privately.
• They may have had concerns about Battle's credibility. 'I'm guessing they assume Battle is a blowhard, a braggadocio,' Balske said. 'Because if they really believed him, they would have taken action.'
If so, Battle's credibility also may be an issue when the Portland Seven case goes to trial.
According to Battle, Hawash shared the group's goal of fighting a holy war with the Taliban in Afghanistan. 'He left with us to go fight,' Battle said in a secretly recorded conversation.
But Battle implied that Hawash had become disenchanted when the group was unable to get into Afghanistan. 'After that it was always, 'I am out of here; I am going home,' ' Battle quoted Hawash as saying.
In the publicly released documents, these alleged statements attributed to Battle are the government's only direct evidence that Hawash was in China as part of an illegal conspiracy and not for some other purpose. This may be especially problematic for the government because of other, indirect evidence that would support a claim that Hawash was not part of the alleged conspiracy.
According to the indictment, Hawash is the only one of the six men who did not possess and/or train with guns in the United States before the China trip.
He was the last to leave Portland, and he flew out alone.
He came home first, also alone.
He is the only one of the six men registered at the Kashgar hotel whom other guests have not identified as taking part in physical training exercises or talking to local Muslims, Pakistani traders or government representatives about ways to get into northern Pakistan.
On the other hand, the government's documents say, Hawash did write Ford a check for $105 for an unstated purpose on Sept. 8, 2001, six days before Ford bought a 12-gauge shotgun at a local gun store. The gun, the indictment alleges, was to be used in weapons training for the jihad. And, on previous business trips, Hawash had not transferred ownership of his house to his wife as he did the day before he bought his ticket to China.
Plus he was Ñ according to a former neighbor Ñ a personal friend of Al Saoub, whom the government apparently believes was the leader of the Portland Seven.
The seven Ñ minus Al Saoub and Lewis Ñ all are in custody in the Multnomah County Detention Center in downtown Portland. Lewis, who was at the center until May 27, is living, with the court's permission, with friends in Vancouver, Wash.
According to detention center Capt. Linda Yankee, the men are kept, at the FBI's request, segregated from one another 'so they can't communicate with each other or plot or do whatever we think they might do.'
Battle and Ahmed Bilal are, according to staff, on administrative segregation status because 'they are believed to be a threat to the security and safety of our institution,' Yankee said.
Battle's status is based on 'disruptive behavior' in January; Ahmed Bilal's segregation is for reasons that are not part of the public record, Yankee said.
All are allowed to have visitors.
Steitiye was not indicted in the Portland Seven case, even though, according to the indictment, he is suspecting of taking part in the alleged plot. He is serving the 30-month sentence he received in his own case at an unfenced federal prison camp at Lompoc, Calif., where he is classed as a nonviolent offender.
He is expected to be released from federal custody Ñ and deported Ñ on Dec. 27, just before the Portland Seven are scheduled to go to trial.