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Guilty Plea in 'Portland Six' Terror Case

An Oregon man admits role in plot against U.S., agrees to cooperate in co-defendants' trial.

August 07, 2003|Richard A. Serrano | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — A software engineer from Oregon pleaded guilty Wednesday to terrorism charges that he joined members of the "Portland Six" conspiracy in trying to get into Afghanistan to fight against U.S. military forces after the Sept. 11 attacks.

Maher "Mike" Hawash, who was added in March as a seventh defendant in the case, admitted in federal court in Portland that he helped fund the trip and that he traveled with the group in its unsuccessful attempt to link up with Taliban fighters to defend Afghanistan against the U.S.

"You and the others in the group were prepared to take up arms, and die as martyrs if necessary, to defend the Taliban. Is this true?" U.S. District Judge Robert E. Jones asked the 38-year old Palestinian immigrant. "Yes, your honor," Hawash said.

In pleading guilty, Hawash is likely to be sentenced to seven to 10 years in prison and fined $250,000. He also must "fully cooperate" with the government in its plan to take the other six defendants to trial in January.

The Portland Six case is the largest terrorism prosecution on the West Coast to arise from the Sept. 11 attacks, and Hawash's future testimony against the remaining six defendants could put the government at a key advantage.

In other terrorism cases, when one of the defendants pleaded guilty and agreed to testify for the government, the remaining defendants quickly admitted guilt as well.

But Hawash is unusual because he was added as a defendant after the six other men were charged. His arrest generated an outcry in the Pacific Northwest from backers who protested that the government was harassing immigrants.

One of those who decried Hawash's arrest, David Fidanque, executive director of the Oregon American Civil Liberties Uion, said that despite the guilty plea, he still questioned why prosecutors waited so long to charge Hawash and why the government initially held him as a material witness without formally accusing him of a crime.

"We may never know why the government did that," Fidanque said. "His plea certainly doesn't eliminate the concerns we have about the process that was followed in his case."

Hawash was born in Jordan and became a U.S. citizen in 1990. He lived with his family in the Portland suburb of Hillsboro and worked as an engineer for Intel Corp. for nine years until August 2001.

The plea deal, signed by Hawash, specifically states that he is guilty of conspiring to provide material support to the Taliban -- an organization designated by the U.S. as a terrorist entity.

The agreement, along with other government evidence in the case, asserted that the members of the group wanted to get into Afghanistan and to Taliban fighter camps via China and that they purchased firearms and trained with the weapons in Oregon in preparation for their travel there.

In the plea deal, Hawash acknowledged that soon after Sept. 11, President Bush "issued an ultimatum" to the Taliban to turn over Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden and his associates who were in a part of Afghanistan controlled by the Taliban.

Around that time, Hawash admitted, he was asked by two of the other defendants, Ahmed Ibrahim Bilal and Habis Abdulla Al Saoub, to "join a group of individuals who planned to travel from Portland to Afghanistan to assist the Taliban against the United States."

"Hawash agreed to do so," the plea agreement states.

Soon afterward, the U.S. began military operations against the Taliban in its hunt for Bin Laden. Nevertheless, Hawash "knew what he agreed to do was a violation of the law," the plea agreement says.

The group next met at an apartment belonging to Bilal and another defendant, October M. Lewis, "and discussed their plans and preparations for the trip." Pakistan then was not issuing visas to foreigners, so the group decided to travel instead to Kashgar in western China, "where they would then be able to cross into Pakistan and make their way to Afghanistan."

The plea agreement says that on Oct. 20, 2001, Hawash took Bilal and two other defendants, Muhammad Ibrahim Bilal and Patrice Lumumba Ford, to the Portland airport.

The agreement says that Hawash provided them an envelope of cash that another individual had given to him to give to the pair. "After Hawash finished getting his affairs in order and buying clothing and equipment for use in Afghanistan, he left the United States on Oct. 24, 2001, and flew to Hong Kong, where he was met at the airport by defendants Ford and [Jeffrey L.] Battle," the agreement says.

With Lewis remaining back in Oregon, the government contends, the rest of the group met in China and took a train to Kashgar. They spent several days there "unsuccessfully trying to gain entry into Pakistan through several different methods," the agreement says.

The group next went to Beijing but was turned down for visas to Pakistan. Convinced they could not get into Pakistan, and from there Afghanistan, Hawash returned to the United States, the agreement says. But he provided large sums of cash to most of the others in their continuing but unsuccessful efforts to reach the Taliban.

The other six defendants were indicted in October 2002. Hawash was arrested in March on a material witness warrant in the parking lot of Intel, where he was a contract employee.

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