The Portland Six

At 6 a.m. Friday, Jeffrey Leon Battle and October Martinique Lewis were asleep in their Portland, Ore., apartment when the team of federal agents, dressed in combat gear, crept up to the front door. For months, the FBI had been secretly tracking the couple's every move, phone call and e-mail, accumulating evidence to prove the two Americans, both converts to Islam, were members of a cell of Osama bin Laden's followers who planned to join Al Qaeda. Convinced they had enough to make their case, the Feds moved in.

Quietly, the agents prepared to make what they call a "keyed entry." The key: a battering ram. Crashing through the door, the Feds rushed to the bedroom, where they handcuffed the couple, who had jolted awake but were still in bed. At about the same moment across town, Patrice Lumumba Ford, another suspected member of the group, stepped out of his apartment to discover eight federal agents with guns ordering him to the ground. That same morning, agents in Detroit arrested Muhammad Bilal, yet another alleged member. Two other alleged conspirators remain free.

It has become a familiar ritual in recent months--the explosive arrest in a quiet town (Lackawanna, Portland), followed by a high-profile news conference. "We've neutralized a suspected terrorist cell within our borders," U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft said Friday. He praised the arrests, along with the court appearances of John Walker Lindh and shoe-bomber Richard Reid, as a "defining day" in the war on terror. If convicted, the "Portland Six"--charged with conspiring to provide "material support" to Al Qaeda and "tak[e] up arms against the United States"--could be sentenced to life in prison. (Ford pleaded not guilty on Friday; the others are in custody awaiting arraignment.)

Yet the boldness of the attorney general's announcement seemed somewhat at odds with the dry facts presented in the indictment. On paper, the government's case seems to point more to a group of failed terrorist wanna-bes than trained Qaeda killers. Unlike the government's case against the "Buffalo Six," who allegedly attended Qaeda camps, none of the Portland suspects even made it to Afghanistan--though they allegedly tried. This could make it difficult to prove that they "provided" support to terrorists, especially since the Feds have presented no evidence yet that the Portland suspects had any contact with Al Qaeda or other terrorist groups. But investigators point out a key difference between the Portland group and their Buffalo brethren: the Buffalo suspects allegedly traveled to Afghanistan months before September 11. The Portland Six, they say, turned to bin Laden after he murdered 3,000 Americans. They had guns, and allegedly intended to wage jihad.

Federal investigators are still trying to figure out exactly how the various members of the Portland group came together--and when and why they allegedly decided to turn against their country. All seemed to share an obsession with radical Islam. Battle, 32, was raised in Houston, where he played high-school football and studied to be a hairdresser. Battle's mother, Deanna Douglas, told NEWSWEEK that, as a child, her son was a "jovial, really lovable" prankster.

Battle says she raised her son to be a Jehovah's Witness. But soon after seeing the Spike Lee movie "Malcolm X," he became "very obsessed" with Islam. Battle and his girlfriend October, now 26, converted and began wearing traditional Muslim dress. The two moved to Portland, married and worked for a time at a nursing home. The couple eventually divorced but, oddly, still lived together. Odder still, in 1999 Battle suddenly announced he was joining the U.S. Army Reserves, telling his mother he wanted to get medical training to become a doctor. But a few months after September 11 he was discharged. Last week Ashcroft charged that Battle joined the military only to learn how to fight against Americans. Neighbors recall that last winter, Battle's 6-year-old son argued with other children about the terror attacks. "He told me, 'I'm trying to tell them that 9-11 is a good thing'," Janette Dean, the mother of one child, told NEWSWEEK.

The motives of the other Portland suspects are sketchier still. Ford, 31, grew up in Portland, the son of a former local Black Panther leader. Ford studied international relations at Portland State University and later at Johns Hopkins, and briefly worked as an intern for Mayor Vera Katz. In 2000 he took a job teaching phys ed at a private Islamic school and at some point hooked up with the other Portland suspects, including 24-year-old Bilal. Authorities are still looking for Bilal's 22-year-old brother, Ahmed Ibrahim Bilal, and Habis Abdulla Al Saoub, a Jordanian national implicated in the alleged plot. After Ford's arrest, uneasy neighbors dubbed their apartment complex La Vista Tora Bora.

The Feds were first tipped off to the group by a local police officer. On Sept. 29, 2001, Skamania County Deputy Mark Mercer says he came upon Battle, Ford and several other men at a gravel pit in rural Washington, where they were firing rifles and semiautomatic pistols at paper targets. Plenty of locals used the place for shooting practice, but seldom in flowing robes and turbans. Curious, Mercer asked the men for ID, then sent them on their way.

That might have been the end of it. But a couple of weeks later, police arrested a Lebanese-born ex-con named Ali Khaled Steitiye when he tried to illegally purchase an assault rifle at a local gun shop. Mercer recognized the man from the gravel pit. He called the Feds, who began an intensive investigation.

By that time, Battle, Ford and the others had purchased one-way plane tickets to Hong Kong--the first leg of their journey to the Qaeda camps, prosecutors say. According to the indictment, Battle sent Lewis an e-mail saying they were having trouble getting into Afghanistan. Battle made it to Bangladesh; Ahmed Bilal reached Indonesia. Then they ran out of money. Back in the States, Lewis sent $2,130 in wire transfers to Battle. Eventually, Battle, Ford and Muhammad Bilal gave up and came home.

In the 10 months that followed, the Feds kept close watch on the group--but apparently turned up little further evidence of a plot. Yet law-enforcement officials insist the investigation isn't "anywhere near finished," and that there may be more evidence forthcoming--in Portland, and beyond.

The Portland Six | News