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Diverse Picture of Terrorist Suspects Develops

Two brothers are painted as either ordinary citizens or potential threats to U.S. Investigators, relatives have differing views.

October 17, 2002|Peter Y. Hong | Times Staff Writer

PORTLAND, Ore. -- Muhammad Bilal was jailed earlier this month on charges of plotting a terrorist war against the United States. His sister says the only campaign Bilal was engaged in was a long struggle to finish high school.

His brother, Ahmed, would have been locked up that day, too, but authorities said he had fled abroad and was a dangerous fugitive. Their father says when he heard that Ahmed was wanted, he called his student apartment in Malaysia. Ahmed not only answered the phone, he followed his father's advice and turned himself in right away.

The Bilals were indicted Oct. 3, along with four others, for conspiring to fight in Afghanistan against the United States on the side of Al Qaeda and the Taliban.

Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft called the Bilals and their cohorts a "terrorist cell within our borders." But relatives say the Bilal brothers were battling nothing more than dead-end jobs and failed marriages.

The conflicting portrayals of the Bilals underscore the split between authorities and civil libertarians over the significance of the Portland-based "cell." To one side, the group is a band of fearsome terrorists; to the other, they may be victims of overeager law enforcement and, at worst, revolutionary poseurs.

Adding to the confusion is a lack of information: Prosecutors say much of the evidence in the case is secret until the trials, and overwhelmed and mistrustful families of those arrested have said little to reporters.

But in a series of interviews last week, members of the Bilal family ridiculed the notion that the brothers were secretly plotting to kill Americans.

"Their lives are as transparent as a pane of glass," said their father, Ibrahim Bilal, an English teacher in Jiddah, Saudi Arabia.

"Someone told me the FBI followed my sons for a year," he said in a telephone interview from his home. "That must have been boring, like watching paint dry."

The Bilals' mother, Jaleela Bilal, who also spoke by phone from Saudi Arabia, denounced news accounts incorrectly identifying her sons as Saudis. Though raised abroad, the Bilals are Americans with roots in the San Francisco Bay Area.

In fact, the brothers lived in the Portland area for most of the last five years. Muhammad, now 22, came to Oregon in 1997, after dropping out of his Saudi high school. Ahmed, 24, followed a year later, the family said. The boys lived at first with their mother's siblings, Robert and Carol Conger.

Ahmed and Muhammad showed little interest in religion, much less jihad, Robert Conger recalled. Conger, 62, said his nephews "wanted to be young Americans" after spending their teenage years in Saudi Arabia. But the boys fell in for several months with a wild crowd -- what Conger called "American losers" -- interested mainly in drinking and drugs.

Ahmed and Muhammad returned to practicing Islam to distance themselves from that group and sober up, Conger said. About three years ago, they moved to separate apartments near the Congers.

Muhammad held a series of odd jobs and eventually went to work for a general contractor who lives across the street from the Congers. During a stint as a door-to-door salesman, Muhammad met a girl on his sales route. The two married soon after and had a son, who is now 2. She was 17, he was 19, relatives said. They divorced after about a year.

Ahmed taught at an Islamic school and later started a short-lived lawn-care business. He married and divorced twice, relatives said.

Late last year, the brothers started on what would become an ill-fated venture. The Bilals left Portland with Patrice Lumumba Ford, 31, one of the six arrested. Although the three flew to Hong Kong, the indictment alleges they were headed to Afghanistan, via China and Pakistan, to fight for Al Qaeda.

Family members say the Bilals took the trip not to engage in combat, but to recover from domestic strife. Both had recently split with their wives, said Royce McLemore, an aunt. "The boy was trying to get over his wife kicking his booty," McLemore, 59, said of Ahmed.

Their sister, Aisha Bilal, said her brothers timed their trip so they could observe Ramadan in Indonesia, the world's largest Muslim nation. She said her brothers have little knowledge of politics, and that Muhammad was concerned more with Dragon Ball Z, a popular cartoon featuring interplanetary superheroes, than world affairs.

Muhammad returned to Portland last December and worked at a bagel shop in the suburb of Hillsboro until August, when he left for Michigan. There he lived with his sister Aisha's family and was trying to complete his high school education. Ahmed remained abroad to enroll at Islamic International University in Malaysia, a 12,000-student school known for its science and pre-professional programs, the family said.

McLemore said Bilal family members have taken long, impromptu travels since 1973. That year, Art Foster Jr., as patriarch Ibrahim Bilal was then known, decided to take his wife and three kids on a journey to Africa.

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