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4 in U.S. Held as Members of Terrorist Cell

Probe: Arrests are made in Oregon and Michigan. In other cases, a tearful Lindh says he's sorry, and a defiant 'shoe bomb' defendant says he isn't.

October 05, 2002|JOSH MEYER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — Calling Friday a "defining day" in the fight against terrorism, Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft announced the arrests of four people on charges of conspiring to wage war against U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan, as so-called American Talib John Walker Lindh was sentenced and shoe-bomber Richard Reid pleaded guilty to trying to blow up a transatlantic airliner.

FBI agents arrested two men and one woman in a series of predawn raids in Portland, Ore., and another man near Detroit. They were identified as members of a terrorist cell who were bent on traveling to Afghanistan after the Sept. 11 attacks to fight alongside the Taliban army and Al Qaeda terrorists.

In all, six people--five men and one woman, all but one U.S. citizens--were indicted by a federal grand jury in Portland on Thursday. The charges, which were unsealed Friday, include conspiracy to levy war against the United States and conspiracy to provide material resources and support to a terrorist organization, Al Qaeda. Each defendant could face life in prison if convicted.

Two of those indicted remained fugitives late Friday and were believed to be overseas. The others made court appearances in Portland and Detroit and were ordered held in custody without bail. One of them, Jeffrey Leon Battle, 32, is a former U.S. Army reservist who joined the military to receive "training in U.S. tactics and weapons" that he hoped to later use while fighting against U.S. troops, according to the indictment.

"Today is a defining day in America's war against terrorism," Ashcroft said at a news conference at Department of Justice headquarters.

"We've neutralized a suspected terrorist cell within our borders. We've convicted an attempted suicide bomber. And an American pledged and trained and captured in violent jihad is sentenced."

As Ashcroft spoke in Washington, Lindh, 21, was appearing in a packed federal courtroom in nearby Alexandria, Va., to be sentenced as part of a plea agreement with the U.S. government.

In sometimes tearful remarks, Lindh renounced Osama bin Laden and his Al Qaeda network before the hushed courtroom and the judge. He said he never would have enlisted to fight with the Taliban had he known it was sheltering Al Qaeda. After accepting full responsibility for serving as a Taliban soldier, Lindh was sentenced to serve 20 years in federal prison.

Earlier in the day, Reid, 29, appeared at a hearing in Boston, in which the British vagabond agreed to plead guilty to terrorism-related charges. Reid was arrested Dec. 22 while trying to detonate explosives packed into his sneakers while aboard a crowded commercial airliner heading from Paris to Miami.

"I am an enemy of your country," Reid said, after pronouncing his allegiance to Bin Laden and Al Qaeda and at times laughing at the judge and court observers. He could face life in prison without the possibility of parole when he is sentenced.

Ashcroft and other authorities described those taken into custody in Portland and near Detroit as committed terrorists who tried for months late last year to gain entry into Afghanistan and fight with the Taliban and Al Qaeda. Ashcroft said their indictments bring to 17 the number of people charged in the United States since Aug. 28 with participating in terrorist plots. In recent weeks, authorities have arrested men in upstate New York, Seattle and Detroit on terrorism-related charges.

"Today is a day of justice for the citizens, the soldiers and law enforcement officers who defend our nation and our values, and defend them each and every day," said Ashcroft, who appeared with several of his top deputies and FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III. "It is a day both of victory and a day of resolve, of well-deserved thanks for a job well done, coupled with a rededication to the job that lies ahead."

Throughout the day Friday, U.S. authorities and law enforcement officials overseas searched for Ahmed Bilal, 24, and Habis Abdulla Al Saoub, 36, also known as Abu Tarek, who were indicted but not arrested. Al Saoub is the only non-U.S. citizen among those indicted; authorities described him as being Jordanian, but also a permanent resident alien in the United States.

Authorities would not say whether they knew the whereabouts of Ahmed Bilal and Al Saoub.

The others indicted were identified as Patrice Lumumba Ford, 31, also known as Lumumba; Bilal's brother Muhammad Ibrahim Bilal, 22 and October Martinique Lewis, 25, also known as Khadijah, who is Battle's ex-wife. Battle is also known as Ahmad Ali and Abu Isa, according to the indictment. Ford has worked as an intern for two Portland mayors, according to city officials there.

Muhammad Bilal was held without bail after a court appearance in Detroit Friday, while Ford pleaded not guilty to all charges during an arraignment in federal court in Portland. Arraignments for two others were postponed until Monday.

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