2002, the year in review:
High-profile busts try to catch terrorist “sleepers” napping
Federal agents and prosecutors, often with local help, turned their attention to terrorist “sleepers,” sympathizers and supporters operating on U.S. soil this year, rounding up numerous individuals in high-profile busts from Portland, Ore., to Lackawanna, N.Y.
In Portland, six suspects were indicted by a grand jury in October on charges of conspiring to provide material support and resources to al Qaeda, and conspiring to contribute services to the terrorist group and the Taliban.
The defendants included a husband and wife, 32-year-old Jeffrey Leon Battle and October Martinique Lewis, 25; Patrice Lumumba Ford, 31, and Muhammad Ibrahim Bilal, 22. The other two suspects, Bilal’s brother, Ahmed Ibrahim Bilal, 24, and 37-year-old Habis Abdullah al Saoub, were still at large when the others were brought into custody.
“A group of Oregon residents, most of whom are U.S. citizens, after Sept. 11 decided to go to Afghanistan and fight for al Qaeda and Taliban against the United States military,” said Charles Gorder, an assistant U.S. attorney in Portland.
The arrests capped a 10-month investigation by federal agents, who were alerted when a sheriff’s deputy spotted four of the suspects firing weapons at a gravel pit in Washougal, Wash. The incident was reported to the FBI.
Five of the suspects allegedly left Portland for Afghanistan in October 2001, but were not able to cross over from China. Lewis wired Battle money eight times, totaling $2,130, with the knowledge that the funds would be used to fight U.S. forces, said Attorney General John Ashcroft.
In Lackawanna, outside of Buffalo, indictments were handed up in October against six men of Yemeni descent accused of being a terrorist sleeper cell awaiting orders to attack. The “Lackawanna Six” were arrested on Sept. 13, charged with taking clandestine trips in 2001 to Afghanistan, where they heard lectures on suicide attacks and learned how to fire automatic weapons at an al Qaeda training camp. Attendance at the camp would constitute providing support to a terrorist organization, said prosecutors.
Two of the defendants admitted to the training and to hearing a speech by Osama bin Laden, but all six deny providing any actual support to al Qaeda.
Two other men were also charged, including one believed to be the ringleader. A U.S. citizen named Kamal Derwish is believed to have been killed in Yemen by an American missile. The name provided by Yemeni authorities, Ahmed Hijazi, was a known alias of Derwish. The evidence is not conclusive, however, one U.S. official told The New York Times.
Authorities became interested in the men when three of the suspectswent through Kennedy Airport in New York on June 27, 2001, with Pakistani exit stamps on their passports. An e-mail message sent by one man to an alleged co-conspirator in western New York so disturbed agents that authorities increased security at military bases in Bahrain and closed the embassy there. It read: “Blessed is he who picks up a gun, for he is holy.” And, “The next meal will be very large, this thing will be very strong.”
In August, a black Muslim activist in Seattle, James Ujaama, 36, was indicted with plotting to open a terrorist training camp in Bly, Ore., in 1999. He also led discussions about poisoning the public, firebombing vehicles and building underground storage bunkers for weapons, said authorities, who also contend that Ujaama traveled to Afghanistan that year. He had been held since July as a material witness in the continuing investigation.
Another indictment was handed up in August involving five Detroit men accused of operating a sleeper cell for a group allied with al Qaeda. Four defendants — Karim Koubriti, Ahmed Hannan, Youssef Hmimssa and Farouk Ali-Haimoud — have been in custody since authorities raided their apartment a week after the Sept. 11 attacks. Found there was a videotape with surveillance footage of Disneyland in Anaheim, Calif., and the MGM Grand Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas.
In November, authorities in North Carolina arrested a fifth man, Abel-Ilah Elmardoudi, 36, who is believed to be an expert in airport security.
A Boston-area software firm, Ptech Inc., was raided by federal agents in December after a former employee suggested that the company was backed financially by a Saudi millionaire with suspected terrorist ties. Yasin al-Qadi, who once headed a charity believed to be a front for Osama bin Laden’s terrorist network, is listed by the Treasury Department as a “blocked person,” making it illegal for the company to do business with him.
Ptech creates software that provides a type of blueprint for how an organization operates, allowing users to cull and analyze information in various databases, according to The Times. Its clients include the Navy, the FBI, the Air Force, the Department of Energy and NATO. Federal agencies seemed to disagree as to whether the software could be used to infiltrate federal databases. While the FBI described it as “off the shelf,” and posing no risk, other law enforcement agencies, including the Customs Service, said the inquiry “has the potential to be a big deal” both in terms of financing and software, said one law enforcement official.