Homegrown terrorist Jeffrey Leon Battle considered America the “land of the kaffirs,” or unbelievers, and the American people “pigs.”
He once lamented to an acquaintance—who happened to be a government informant—that the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks did not sufficiently damage the U.S. economy.
“This is the land of the enemy,” he said of his own country in a May 8, 2002, conversation secretly recorded by the government. He explained to a friend how his “burning desire” to become an Islamic martyr had inspired his aborted quest to join forces with al Qaeda in Afghanistan, where he could kill American troops.
Battle, now 35, is serving an 18-year prison sentence for conspiring to wage war against the United States, a crime to which he confessed and pleaded guilty. But members of Congress who are stalling on renewing the Patriot Act and attacking President Bush for ordering the National Security Agency to intercept al Qaeda-linked communications in and out of the United States could learn something from studying the activities and communications of the Portland Seven terrorist cell that Battle and others began forming in Oregon in the months before—that’s right, before—the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
“During the criminal investigation of the Portland Seven case, we learned through an undercover informant that, according to one defendant (Jeffrey Battle), before the plan to go to Afghanistan was formulated, the group allegedly contemplated attacking Jewish schools or synagogues,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Charles Gorder, a prosecutor in the case, told me in a statement responding to my questions. “Battle indicated that they had been casing Jewish schools and synagogues.”
In his May 8, 2002, conversation with a government informant, federal prosecutors said in a sentencing memorandum, Battle discussed this plan. “If every time [the Israelis] hurt or harm a Muslim over there [in Palestine] you go into that synagogue and hurt one over here, okay, they’re gonna say, wait a minute, we gotta stop, we’re seeing a connection here, okay …,” said Battle. “We were going to hit all at the same time as each other. … We were willing to get caught or die if we could do [murder] at least 100 or 1,000, big numbers.”
Squad of Death
The day after this conversation, prosecutors say in their memo, “Battle spoke of his preference to commit an act of mass murder by staging a raid, as opposed to a suicide mission, because he wanted to be alive to see the damage inflicted.”
After the 9/11 attacks, however, Battle and five other members of the Portland cell decided that rather than attack inside the U.S. they would travel via China and Pakistan to Afghanistan to join forces with al Qaeda there.
In the late fall of 2001, calling themselves by the Arabic name Katibat Al-Mawt (“The Squad of Death”), the group made their way from Portland, Ore., toward the China-Pakistan frontier. When they failed after repeated attempts to gain entry into Pakistan from China, two of the six immediately returned to the United States. Three remained for a while in various parts of Asia, where Battle, at least, continued his futile efforts to gain entry into Pakistan. One of the six eventually did make it to Pakistan.
All along the way, these terrorists left an electronic trail.
Battle’s former wife, October Martinique Lewis, the seventh member of the gang, had stayed behind in Portland. She repeatedly wired Battle money in Hong Kong, Beijing, and, finally, Bangladesh, often informing Battle via e-mail after sending the wire. When she later pleaded guilty to money laundering, the Justice Department said in a statement that “she knew the money she wired was going to be used to support continuing attempts to enter Afghanistan to fight in jihad for the Taliban against the United States.”
When then-30-year-old Patrice Lumumba Ford, who, like Battle, would later plead guilty to conspiring to wage war against the United States, gave up trying to cross from China into Pakistan, he returned to Oregon. There he became a conduit for money for Habis Al Saoub, whom The Squad of Death called their “emir,” or leader.
Al Saoub was a 36-year-old Jordanian national with experience fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan, who had been granted permanent legal residence in the U.S. The Portland Oregonian reported that he was eventually killed with other al Qaeda terrorists in an October 2003 skirmish with Pakistani forces along the Afghan-Pakistan border. “Law enforcement officials suspected al Saoub had direct ties to al Qaeda even before he reached Portland, but they say any information about those ties remains classified,” the Oregonian said.
Referring to the action in which al Saoub was killed, the Oregonian reported: “Pakistani officials said the mission was aimed at an al Qaeda group suspected of crossing into Afghanistan to attack a U.S. base near the remote town of Shkin. Three U.S. soldiers were killed in that area in late August .”
When Squad of Death member Ford arrived back in Portland from China in late 2001, he twice wired money to Al Saoub. On Nov. 20, 2001, he sent him $500, and on Jan. 3, 2002, he sent him $483. In both instances, Al Saoub was still in China.
Affluent American Terrorist
Squad of Death member Maher “Mike” Hawash, a 37-year-old naturalized American software engineer born in the West Bank city of Nablus, had done very well in the United States. According to an affidavit prepared for the federal court by Oregon State Police Officer Thomas McCartney, Hawash and his wife had earned a gross income of $357,668 in 2000 derived “primarily from Hawash’s salary at Intel Corp.” But as with Osama bin Laden himself, affluence did not turn Hawash away from terrorism, and he eventually pleaded guilty to conspiracy to supply services to the Taliban.
He, too, had an electronic international communication with Al Saoub.
“After Hawash returned to the United States, he received a phone call from Al Saoub asking for money,” prosecutors alleged in their sentencing memo for the Battle and Ford cases. “Hawash arranged for $2,000 to be sent by someone in Nablus in the West Bank area of Palestine to defendant Al Saoub in China.”
And Hawash was not the only person in the United States that Squad of Death “Emir” Al Saoub telephoned from overseas while on his trek to Afghanistan. On Jan. 4, 2002, according to McCartney’s affidavit, “Sofiane Benziadi was arrested for immigration violations.” When interviewed four days later by federal investigators, “Benziadi stated that he had heard about several American males leaving the United States to travel to Afghanistan and fight beside the Taliban. … Benziadi went on to explain that he had talked with Al Saoub approximately two weeks prior to that interview. … Al Saoub never stated where he was calling from and would never say much during the telephone conversations because Al Saoub was afraid that Benziadi’s telephone was being monitored by the Federal Bureau of Investigation.”
In addition to sending money and e-mails to her former husband, October Lewis also spoke by phone with Battle during his efforts to enter Afghanistan. “Lewis maintained contact with Battle via telephone and e-mail while Battle was out of the country,” McCartney affirmed in his affidavit.
Some of the communications between Battle and Lewis might have raised preemptive suspicions had they been reviewed in a timely manner.
On Nov. 2, 2001, for example, Battle was in Kashgar, the city on the Chinese side of the mountainous frontier between China, Pakistan and Afghanistan. In an e-mail cited in the prosecutors’ sentencing memorandum, he told Lewis of his deep frustration in trying to get over the border. “[W]e’ve come up with some difficulty in are [sic] travel, some border blocks and undercover munafiqs [Arabic for ‘hypocrites’] and kafir [‘infidel’ or ‘non-believers’], but insha Allah! [God willing] Allah will open the door soon.”
Battle e-mailed Lewis again on Nov. 12, 2001, this time from Beijing, where he had unsuccessfully tried to secure a visa for Pakistan. “Baby this what I’m about to tell you is for your information only. It is not for you to inform anybody of this at all,” wrote Battle. “I tried to receive a visa to pakistand [sic] and was refused entry. This was one of the last attempts [sic] So I was faced with some major decisions to make at this point. So the decision was either 1. return back to the USA to a land of the kafir or 2. Move to a muslim land close to the work of Allah.”
On Nov. 14, 2001, Lewis e-mailed back: “… So what do you want me to tell the brother if he ask about you?”
Six days later, Battle replied from Bangladesh. He was obviously worried that his telephone calls back to the United States might be intercepted. “… As for the brother let him read this or you can tell him,” Battle wrote. “… If Allah finally due [sic] connect us in conversation My brother in Islam please don’t ask me question on the phone that could get myself or anyone I am associated with in trouble. Something I wont talk to you about for your safety and your family safty [sic].”
Did Battle have good reason to fear his phone calls might be intercepted? His communications, as well as communications involving other Portland cell members as they traveled through Asia, are a perfect fit for the criteria that Gen. Michael Hayden, deputy director of national intelligence, has said are used in the NSA intercept program ordered by President Bush: They were international communications in and out of the U.S. in which there was a reasonable basis to believe one party was linked to al Qaeda.
So did the NSA discover the Portland Seven through intercepts? Apparently not.
In a January 17 front-page story that deprecated the effectiveness of the NSA program, the New York Times cited the Portland Seven as one case that actually “might have” been assisted by NSA intercepts. But U.S. District Judge Mike Mosman, who had served as the Portland-based U.S. attorney who oversaw the prosecution of the Portland Seven, says otherwise. When I asked Judge Mosman if NSA intercepts were in any way involved in the case, he said, “I first heard about NSA intercepts in mid-December when I read it in the New York Times.”
The judge pointed to a more conventional genesis for the investigation. “It began with a tip from a deputy sheriff from Skamania County,” he said.
Skamania County is in Southern Washington State. The event there to which Judge Mosman referred occurred Sept. 29, 2001, a few weeks before the members of the Portland cell departed for China. Deputy Sheriff Mark Mercer, answering a call from a nearby resident who heard gunfire, came across a group of men shooting guns in a fenced and gated gravel pit. Some of the men wore turbans. Four of them, including Battle, Ford and Al Saoub, were later discovered to be members of the Portland terror cell. Another was Ali Khalid Steitiye, who was not a member of the Portland Seven, but who was convicted in 2002 on firearms, fraud and immigration charges, and, who, in 2004 would plead guilty to possessing a machine gun that, in the gravel pit that day in 2001, he successfully concealed from the deputy sheriff.
In his 2004 plea agreement, Steitiye conceded that: “While at the gravel pit, defendant Ali Khalid Steitiye made the machine gun available for firing by Habes Al Saoub (aka Abu Tarek) and other members of the group, knowing that they intended to travel to Afghanistan to join the Taliban in violent jihad in the wake of the events at the World Trade Center and Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001.”
‘Good Police Work’
Deputy Mercer, of course, had no way of knowing these men were practicing to kill Americans in Afghanistan. He told them to put down their guns, wrote down their names and let them go. At the direction of his boss, then-Sheriff Charles Bryan, he reported the incident to the FBI. In December 2001, when Bryan saw a news report that Steitiye had been arrested on gun charges, he recognized the name and reminded the FBI of the deputy’s report.
“It was just good police work,” Bryan told the Seattle Post-Intelligencer a year later, after members of the Portland Seven were arrested. “I’m proud of how [Mercer] handled it at the time. Now that I think about it, I’m glad he was safe when he went out on the call.”
Indeed, Mercer was lucky to survive his brush with the terrorists.
“We was up there blowin it up … We was lightin’ it up,” Battle later said in a recorded conversation cited in the prosecutors’ memo. “… [W]e looked at it as worship because what our intentions were, to learn to shoot for. And a cop came up and he was like hey … you don’t understand how close he was gonna get popped … yeah, we was gonna pop him.”
The prosecutors said: “Battle went on to explain that because they successfully hid their automatic weapons from the deputy and because ‘the cop was “cool”’ because he was a ‘gun guy,’ they decided not to kill him.”
If the National Security Agency must bow to a local deputy sheriff on the question of who started the investigation that nabbed the Portland Seven, the Patriot Act—which was debated in the weeks immediately after 9/11 and signed into law on Oct. 26, 2001—definitely gets credit for helping to bring the case to a successful conclusion.
“Two changes in the law made by the Patriot Act were helpful to the investigation and prosecution of the Portland Seven,” says Assistant U.S. Attornery Gorder.
The first change was the one that tore down the “wall” that formerly prevented federal investigators collecting intelligence information under a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act warrant from sharing that information with federal investigators conducting a criminal investigation. Gorder explains how this change factored into federal prosecutors’ calculations in dealing with Jeffrey Leon Battle’s confession to a government informant that his group had considered attacking Jewish schools and synagogues.
“By the time our informant recorded this statement from Battle,” said Gorder, “we had information that a number of other persons besides Battle had been involved in the Afghanistan conspiracy. Several of these other individuals had returned to the United States, but we did not have sufficient evidence to arrest them.”
“Pre-Patriot Act, we faced a dilemma,” said Gorder. “Should we arrest Battle immediately to make sure that he didn’t now carry out a domestic attack? If so, the other suspects would undoubtedly scatter or attempt to cover up their crimes. The intelligence side of the FBI could still conduct surveillance of Battle, but pre-Patriot Act they were forbidden to communicate what they learned with prosecutors and their own criminal investigators. With the intelligence-sharing changes of the Patriot Act, the FBI was able to conduct FISA surveillance of Battle to detect whether he received orders from some international terrorist group to reinstate the domestic attack plan on Jewish targets and keep us informed as to what they were learning. This gave us the confidence not to prematurely arrest Battle while we continued to gather evidence on the others.
“Ultimately, we were able to file charges on six defendants, and later a seventh,” said Gorder. “Without these changes in the Patriot Act, our case would have been the ‘Portland One’ rather than the Portland Seven.”
Another provision of the Patriot Act that the prosecutors found helpful was Section 220, which allows a judge in a jurisdiction where a crime is committed to issue a search warrant for an e-mail account even if the Internet Service Provider is in another jurisdiction. In the case of the Portland Seven, Gorder said, “[U]nder the old law an agent would have been required to spend taxpayer money to fly to New York and California to obtain a search warrant, rather than go to see a judge here in Portland.”
Finally, there is the psychological impact the high-profile Patriot Act had on Jeffrey Leon Battle and others who were involved—or who might have become involved—in a conspiracy to wage war against America.
“As an aside, you might be intrigued to know that at least some of the defendants in the Portland Seven case were aware of the broad outlines of the Patriot Act—and complained that it crimped their terrorist plans,” said Gorder. “Jeffrey Battle explained why his group eventually failed in their mission to get to Afghanistan—because their plan was not sufficiently organized, in part due to the Patriot Act.”
In fact, Battle specifically invoked President Bush’s name in reflecting on his own failure as a terrorist. He once told an informant: “[T]he reason it was not organized is, couldn’t be organized as it should’ve been, is because we don’t have support. Everybody’s scared to give up any money to help us. You know what I’m saying? Because of the law that Bush wrote about, you know, supporting terrorism whatever the whole thing. … Everybody’s scared … [Bush] made a law that say, for instance, I left out of the country and I fought, right, but I wasn’t able to afford a ticket but you bought my plane ticket, you gave me the money to do it … By me going and me fighting and doing that they can, by this new law, they can come and take you and put you in jail for supporting what they call terrorism.”
Gorder notes that although laws prohibiting material support for terrorists existed before the Patriot Act, the Patriot Act made them better. “Battle’s overall legal analysis was correct,” says Gorder, “if one provides material support such as a plane ticket for terrorist activity or a designated foreign terrorist organization, one can be prosecuted. Although these material support statutes existed before the Patriot Act, the Patriot Act made a number of changes to increase the penalties and make those statutes workable.”
If the Patriot Act is allowed to sunset, the impact it had on the plans of people like Jeffrey Leon Battle will sunset, too.
Finally, court documents point to another element that played a role in catching the Portland Seven: good, old-fashioned, nosy neighbors. When Squad of Death leader Habis al Soub was preparing to depart for China in October 2001, for example, he deposited a plastic grocery bag in a recycling bin at his apartment complex. A neighbor fished out the bag, which held a Jordanian passport and an Islamic “martyr’s will,” and turned it over to the FBI.
The ultimate lesson here may be that redundancy worked in catching the Portland Seven. Even though NSA intercepts were not involved in this case, NSA surveillance might in fact, in a similar future case, pick up exactly the sort of international communications the Portland Seven made. The Patriot Act was crucial in Portland in allowing the use of wiretaps to prevent a potential attack within the United States while giving authorities the opportunity to round up as many co-conspirators as possible. A local sheriff reported key information to the FBI. And alert neighbors helped protect their community against a very real threat.
The question for lawmakers in Washington, D.C. is simple: Do they want to keep
in place all the redundant layers of protection that stand between us and the next 9/11? Or do they want to strip one or more of them away?