Supporters say detainee changed in 2000 but call terror link 'unbelievable'

To a prominent group of Portlanders, Maher 'Mike' Hawash is a co-worker, friend and neighbor Ñ a U.S. citizen and software engineer detained without charges for undisclosed reasons on March 20.

To the FBI, Hawash is a Palestinian-born terrorism suspect, now charged with plotting to aid the Taliban and al-Qaida in a holy war against the United States.

It's hard to reconcile these two faces of the same man.

Photographs posted on the Web site showed a balding man in a plaid shirt with a toothy grin and a beaming groom getting married to a woman from Oregon. The booking photograph from the FBI showed a heavily bearded man with a serious demeanor.

While there's no doubt that Hawash had returned to his Middle Eastern roots during the last few years, his American friends can't fathom the drastic change the government alleges.

'If I were the FBI, I'd put that picture out there, too,' said Debbie Burke, who worked with Hawash at Intel Corp. in Hillsboro and has helped run a campaign to free him. 'It makes him look like a terrorist.'

That's exactly what the government is saying he is, according to a 41-page affidavit released this week by the Portland FBI's Joint Terrorism Task Force. It claims that Hawash joined five other Portland Muslims in October 2001 on an alleged mission to assist the fundamentalist regime of Afghanistan and its terrorist allies in a war against non-Muslim invaders.

The affidavit says Hawash traveled through western China with Portland terror suspects Jeffrey Battle, Patrice Lumumba Ford, and brothers Muhammad and Ahmed Bilal, where they allegedly attempted unsuccessfully to cross the border into Afghanistan to fight U.S. forces.

Another defendant who traveled with the group, Habis Abdullah Al Saoub, allegedly made it to Afghanistan, according to the affidavit. Al Saoub, who previously fought the Soviet army in Afghanistan and is believed by the FBI to have frequently visited Hawash's home in Hillsboro, is a fugitive. The FBI is offering a $5 million reward for information leading to his capture.

Hawash's supporters, many of them non-Muslim Intel employees, say they can't reconcile the government's portrayal of Hawash with their experiences with a fun-loving, open-minded and magnetic individual. They say they are confident Hawash will be found not guilty.

'To think of Mike going to fight with the Taliban is just ludicrous,' Burke said.

Tom Walsh, a 17-year veteran of Intel, put it more bluntly: 'I consider Mike an esteemed colleague. The idea that he would go to Afghanistan with a bunch of losers to kill people is just unbelievable.'

But 'Mike' is not the person being charged. According to the government charges, that person is Maher Mofeid Hawash, 38, who has not gone by the name Mike (adopted because it is easier for Americans to pronounce) for three years now. He has returned to his Arabic name, Maher, and to his Islamic roots as part of a transformation that brought tension to his family life and allegedly radicalized him to the extreme.

Success found in America

Hawash was born the third of six children in the West Bank city of Nablus. He and his family were exiled to Kuwait by the Israeli government but later returned to their ancestral home, a scene of intense fighting between Palestinians and Israelis. His mother still lives in Nablus, where an Israeli tank has been parked in front of her house during recent times of strife.

If Hawash's boyhood experiences in the Middle East gave him radical political leanings, he hid them well. He came to the United States at age 20, earned a pair of engineering degrees from the University of Texas at Arlington and rode the high-tech wave through the 1990s with high-paying jobs at Compaq Computer Corp. in Houston (1989-92) and Intel in Hillsboro (1992-2001).

At Intel, he made friends with an ethnically diverse work force, co-wrote a technical book with a Catholic East Indian-American and was the lone Muslim among a tightly knit group of eight software engineers who worked on multimedia software out of the firm's Jones Farm campus in Hillsboro.

His friend Rohan Coehlo, who co-wrote the tech book with him and was best man at Hawash's 1995 wedding to Lisa Ryan of Roseburg, recalls that Hawash was so popular with his co-workers that they threw five going-away parties for him before Hawash left for a stint to work at Intel's plant in Haifa, Israel.

'Whenever you are with Mike, it is an enjoyable social experience,' Coehlo said. 'People just like hanging out with him.'

At the last of the parties, Coehlo and a half-dozen others all shaved their heads in honor of the balding Hawash's no-frills hairdo. The next day, they all went to a fancy Intel reception where they were honored for their inventiveness, Coehlo said.

In Israel, Hawash won praise as a model employee. His manager at Intel, Benny Eitan, remembers him as a 'gentle and tender person' who visited his family in the West Bank often and tried to help people there. 'He was avoiding politics and was just trying to contribute to the local community in his modest way,' Eitan wrote in an e-mail to Hawash's supporters.

Steven McGeady, who was Hawash's boss at Intel, said he did not even know Hawash was Palestinian until he had to intercede to help get Hawash out of the West Bank during a security crackdown in which Israeli authorities would not allow Palestinians to leave Nablus.

A return to his roots

Hawash stopped going by the name Mike in 2000. That was the year his first child was born, his second child was on the way and his father died in Nablus. It also was the year records show that he gave more than $10,000 to the Global Relief Foundation, which has since had its assets frozen and been labeled a terrorist group by the U.S. Treasury Department.

After his father died, Hawash traveled to Nablus for the funeral and also visited Jordan and Egypt. When he returned to his suburban home in Hillsboro, he became much more serious about his faith, friends say. He prayed five times a day, gave up alcohol and grew a long beard.

The change put a strain on his marriage, Coehlo recalled. 'He became much stricter in what he would tolerate. He was adhering to the tenets of Islam, and this was difficult for Lisa at times.'

In December 2000, Hawash's mother came to Hillsboro for the birth of her grandchild. Neighbors observed that Hawash behaved differently during her stay, and that the people who came to visit were almost entirely Muslims.

In spring 2001, Hawash accompanied his mother on a trip back to Nablus, then made a pilgrimage to Mecca.

Coehlo said Hawash seemed much more at peace after returning from the pilgrimage, and his relationship with Lisa was as strong as ever.

Hawash followed the teachings of the Koran more closely after the pilgrimage, but Coehlo said he remained open-minded and enjoyed discussing religion in depth with people of other faiths.

Motive remains mystery

The affidavit mostly refers to where Hawash allegedly went and with whom during a three-week period in October and November 2001. It attaches motives to other defendants who made overtly anti-Semitic and anti-American comments to an FBI informant who recorded the conversations.

Nothing, however, has yet surfaced that explains Hawash's motives or gives a counterexplanation for what he was allegedly doing in those hotel rooms in China with a group of black converts to Islam who described themselves as a 'fighting force,' according to the affidavit.

The affidavit refers to evidence that Hawash knew the other defendants and spent significant time with them. In the affidavit, he is said to have helped the Bilal brothers set up a landscaping business and to have written a check for $105 to Ford in September 2001, just before the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

After the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, a friend of Hawash's, former Intel employee Bob Adams, called him up. 'He had two reactions,' Adams said. 'He was horrified by the loss of innocent lives. And he was really pained that someone would attach the Islamic faith to what happened that day.'

The government affidavit paints a different portrait. It says that after 9-11, Hawash became less friendly with his neighbors. In October 2001, according to the affidavit, Hawash bought outdoor clothing and a backpack, transferred ownership of his home into his wife's name and traveled overseas on a supposed business trip that the government claims had nothing to do with legitimate commerce.

In two cities in the western Chinese province of Xinjiang near the far eastern border with Afghanistan, Hawash allegedly stayed in the same hotels as Battle, Ford and the Bilal brothers, according to the affidavit.

Hawash's supporters insist that the charges against him amount to guilt by association. McGeady, the former Intel vice president who designed the 'Free Mike Hawash' Web site, said while it's true that Hawash went through major changes in 2000 and 2001, the 'double life' theory doesn't apply.

'As Mike matured and went through these life-changing experiences Ñ death of a parent, the national tragedy of 9-11 Ñ certainly aspects of his character changed,' McGeady said. 'But there's absolutely no reason to make the giant leap from there to Mike becoming a rabid, anti-Semite, gun-toting lunatic, right-wing fundamentalist Muslim.'

Hawash is scheduled to be formally charged in U.S. District Court in Portland on Monday.

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