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October 16th, 2002 Nick Budnick | News Stories
 

The Making of a "Terrorist"

John Ashcroft says native Portlander Patrice Lumumba Fordis a threat to national security--but friends and family are having trouble connecting the dots.

     
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Lincoln High teacher Mike Sweeney ranks the Class of '89 as one of the best. His senior social-studies students learned about Vietnam and apartheid and even watched a documentary on the war in Afghanistan, where Russians tried to stamp out the U.S.-backed predecessors of the Taliban--including a guy named Osama bin Laden.

The high point of the year came when Sweeney's seniors persuaded Ladysmith Black Mambazo, the South African Zulu a cappella choir made famous on Paul Simon's Graceland album, to perform at Lincoln. Exotic, friendly men with warm smiles and delightful accents walked the halls, greeted kids and even braved the cafeteria burritos. The students were wowed, with spirits "high as kites," recalls Sweeney. When it came time to introduce the visitors to a packed auditorium, Sweeney assigned the job to a quiet, unassuming boy known to his classmates as Patrick.

With his permission, Sweeney introduced the boy by his given name: Patrice Lumumba Ford. To the Zulus, Sweeney and Ford, it was a name fraught with meaning, since Patrice Lumumba, the first democratically elected president of the former Belgian colony of the Congo, was ordered "eliminated" by U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower in August 1960, then tortured and murdered with CIA complicity five months later.

After the concert, Sweeney asked Ford how it felt to introduce the African choir. "It felt good," said Ford, captured on the videotape his teacher still keeps, a shy smile pushing up the boy's scraggly high-school mustache. "I felt that I had a part in it."

Today, Sweeney finds it ironic that just as Patrice Lumumba was targeted by the U.S. government, his local namesake is now in the same position. On Oct. 4, U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft announced the indictment of six Portlanders, including Ford, describing them as a "suspected terrorist cell members." They quickly became immortalized in Newsweek and elsewhere as "The Portland Six."

News of Ford's arrest brought home the war on terrorism. This was not some foreign-born Muslim cleric wrongly accused of having traces of explosives in his luggage. This is was one of our own, one who now stands accused of seeking to fight alongside al Qaeda against U.S. troops in Afghanistan.

Today, the boy once known as Patrick now goes simply by Lumumba. Interviews and Portland Police Bureau records combine to paint a picture of an intelligent, gentle, exemplary young man, well-known in Portland's African-American community, who was raised in an atmosphere of learning and political activism. But they also reveal a man who, just prior to the events of 9/11, was so upset by this country's Middle Eastern policy that he sent an email to Mayor Vera Katz's office that was troubling enough in its anti-Semitism to be forwarded to the Portland police. They reveal a man who bought a gun three days after 9/11 and, worried about this country's hostility toward his new Islamic faith, asked a cop whether he could use it in self-defense. It is possible that Patrice Lumumba Ford is the threat that the federal government claims. But looking at the charges through the prism of his life, something does not add up.

With its ingredients of dissent and FBI surveillance, there is a generational déj vu to the saga of Lumumba. His father, Kent Ford, was the Portland head of the Black Panther Party, a combination self-defense force and health-and-welfare agency active in many U.S. cities during the '60s.

The Panthers had a fondness for guns and revolutionary rhetoric, and Kent Ford was watched constantly by police. Lumumba was raised with his half-brother, James Britt III, in the Irvington neighborhood. Britt recalls a time when a man identifying himself as a meter reader from the gas company knocked on the Fords' door. "That was strange," says Britt, "since we didn't have gas." Britt says the man turned out to be an FBI agent looking into an unsolved bombing.

Britt also recalls an evening in his youth when Kent Ford went to meet with the police, leaving guns behind and saying to him, "If they come, you know how to use this."

But the Panthers also had another, softer side--for instance, setting up breakfast programs. Lumumba's mother, Sandra Ford, set up free clinics to provide medical care to African Americans. Britt's father, businessman James Britt Jr., says the boys were raised in an atmosphere that encouraged "giving back to humanity."

"If there had been anything un-American going on," he said, "I would have used all my contacts and resources to remove my son from that household."

Family friend Kathleen Sadat agrees. "Lumumba was raised by people who taught that we exist in a multicultural world and the trick is learning how to get along with other people, not to destroy them," says Sadat, a longtime activist who worked for Gov. Neil Goldschmidt and City Commissioner Gretchen Kafoury.

Although Lumumba was raised in Northeast Portland, which has far more cops per block than any other part of Portland, he had only a single contact with the police before last fall.

That evening, on Feb. 16, 1992, Lumumba was behind the wheel of a 1979 Chevy with his half-brother and had pulled into the family's driveway on Northeast Schuyler Street. Officer Brad Bailey, who followed him, wrote in his report that Lumumba was driving at excessive speeds.

When asked, Lumumba didn't have his license on him, and Britt "got out and was belligerent," according to the police report. Other family members came out of the house, and one woman called the officer a "honkey asshole."

The 21-year-old Lumumba told Bailey he "should be arresting car thieves instead of picking on him," adding that "I wasn't dealing with a bunch of stupid niggers,'" wrote Bailey, describing the arrest. "He was under the impression that the only reason I stopped him was because of race prejudice, and he said I didn't know what I was dealing with."

The anger evident in the police report seems rarely to have broken the surface; Lumumba is widely described as a gentle, mellow guy.

"He was a very impressive fellow, and enthusiastic," says Lew Frederick, a former reporter who now works for Portland Public Schools. "He was very multicultural in his sense that we solve problems by working with one another."

Lumumba attended Holy Redeemer Elementary School in North Portland, then the Black Education Center, a private school in Northeast Portland. He attended Harriet Tubman Middle School, then Lincoln, which was well-known for its social-studies program.

Already fascinated with cultures overseas, he did an international-relations internship in Mayor Bud Clark's office in 1986, at the age of 15. At Lincoln, he joined the Model United Nations club.

In 1989, he entered Morehouse College, a prestigious, historically black all-male school in Atlanta. He dropped out and returned to Portland sometime in the next couple of years, later telling a Portland State University professor he found Morehouse "too elitist."

He enrolled at PSU, pursuing a Chinese and international studies major. Taking advantage of two programs, including one operated jointly by Oregon's universities, he studied for three semesters in China, based in Beijing but travelling all over the country.

It was in China, in the mid-1990s, that Lumumba made his conversion to Islam.

Although Buddhism dominates in China, the country has 18 million Muslims, split among 10 different ethnic groups. One group, the Uighur, live in northwest China near the Afghan border, number seven million and are ethnically related to the Central Asian peoples in Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan. There the Chinese government has been conducting what has been described by Amnesty International as a brutal crackdown on the Uighur separatist movement.

Britt has said Lumumba's affinity for underdogs sparked his conversion. Upon Lumumba's return, PSU professor Jonathan Pease says he spoke warmly of his connection with Muslims there.

Lumumba's teachers in China in 1997 describe him as an attentive, responsible and pleasant student. But instructor Pat Lucas says that at times, Lumumba's religious beliefs sparked complaints.

For example, during Lumumba's third semester in China, Lucas recalls a conversation following a March 7 bus bombing in Beijing that was blamed on Islamic terrorists, when Lucas warned students to stay away from bars frequented by Americans.

Lumumba promptly objected to Lucas' message, in a way that irked a fellow student. "He said Christians bomb people, but we don't call them 'Christian terrorists,'" recalled Lucas.

Another time, a female student told Lucas that Lumumba had criticized her for drinking beer (alcohol is forbidden by the Koran). And a female Chinese-language teacher complained that Lumumba had told her a woman had no place instructing him.

Lumumba's admonitions were delivered without anger, as if he was feeling his way, says Lucas. "You could tell Islam was still new to him."

Apart from the occasional remonstration, there's no indication that Lumumba had adopted the evangelistic zeal that often accompanies a religious conversion. "He was devout, but he
wasn't a missionary," says Oregon State University Professor John Young, another of his instructors in China. "He didn't have a chip on his shoulder."

Upon returning to Portland, Lumumba's newfound faith was not detectable, but his intellect was, says PSU professor Gerald Sussman, who had Lumumba in an advanced-level international-relations class. "He was head and shoulders above everybody in the class," says Sussman. "He was a very nice guy, smart and tremendously responsible."

Lumumba is described as a model intern in his two stints in Mayor Vera Katz's international-relations office, in 1998 and 1999. There, he was best-known not for his religion, but for his tendency to frequent the kitchen to fuel a carefully maintained physique. "He was always carrying a gym bag," says mayoral aide Sam Adams.

At the mayor's office, Lumumba could have passed for a frat boy, with close-cropped hair, an athletic build and handsome features. Sometime after leaving City Hall, however, he started growing out his beard and wearing a skull-cap and flowing, Arab-style clothing.

Upon leaving City Hall, Lumumba did another internship with Portland's sister city in Taiwan, Kao-hsiung, then spent a year in Nanjing, China, at the prestigious Johns Hopkins program. There, he married a non-Muslim Chinese woman, and the two now have a 21-month-old son, Ibrahim.

He returned to Portland with his wife, Chunlin-Xie, and moved not to his old neighborhood but into an apartment complex a block off Southwest Barbur Boulevard on Marigold Street, not far from the mosque he began attending, the Islamic Center of Portland. There, he continued his practice of praying five times a day, which he had begun in China.

Lumumba did not socialize with the half-dozen Arabs in the complex, says his neighbor, Libyan-born Adam Drissi--perhaps because they are nonobservant Muslims who like to drink alcohol while socializing. Nor did he fraternize with the Portland chapter of Nation of Islam, the Louis Farrakhan-headed sect that is viewed with distaste by many Muslims.

Lumumba did, however, become active in social events at his mosque, helping newly arrived Muslim immigrants get settled.

Starting in 2000, he taught martial arts at the Islamic School of the Muslim Educational Trust in Tigard. Later, he sold cell phones and ran a shuttle service using his gold Dodge Caravan.

Even then, friends say, he was no zealot. Eric Teat attended Harriet Tubman and PSU with Lumumba. Teat, a born-again Christian, says the two had a long phone conversation about 15 months ago about their religious views in which both focused on similarities, not differences.

In August 2001 came the first indication to authorities that Lumumba's religious beliefs had become political. He sent a series of emails to the mayor's office that were viewed as anti-Semitic. In one, WW has learned, Lumumba said Portland should break off sister-city relations with Ashkelon, Israel, citing that nation's treatment of Palestinians. He also made reference to Derry Jackson, the Portland School Board member who last year proclaimed, "I see the Jews running everything."

As emails to the mayor go, these were far from the most threatening Katz had received. But because of their fundamentalist Muslim overtones, and because the Mayor is Jewish, her office forwarded them to the Portland Police Bureau.

The emails are not part of the current indictment, but a sheriff's report from Skamania County, Wash., is.

On Sept. 29, 2001, less than three weeks after the 9/11 attacks, a sheriff's deputy found Lumumba and five others standing in the middle of a gravel pit wearing turbans and using rifles and pistols to blast away at paper targets. A few weeks later, one of those persons, Ali Khaled Steitiye, was arrested with $20,000 in cash, several weapons, 1,000 rounds of ammunition and a calendar with Sept. 11 circled in red.

Ashcroft's indictment claims that for Lumumba and five co-defendants, the gravel-pit gunplay was part of a drumbeat of preparation for a Muslim holy war, or jihad, preparation which began in the summer of 2001 with unspecified "physical training."

The indictment notes that Lumumba bought a 12-gauge Remington shotgun on Sept. 14 and accuses the group of "possessing firearms in furtherance of crimes of violence."

Lumumba's supporters have another theory: that he got the gun for self-defense.

In fact, according to a police report obtained by WW, on Oct. 2, just three days after being confronted by the sheriff's deputy, Lumumba called the Portland cops. Someone had broken into Lumumba's van in the parking lot of his apartment complex. He told officer John Hunt that "he was concerned that the damage to his van and stolen briefcase might be a hate-crime because of his religion." Hunt added that Lumumba "was concerned for his safety. He asked me a lot of questions about how much force he could use legally to protect himself and his property."

Calling a cop and asking him what legal means one can employ in self-defense is hardly the behavior of an outlaw terrorist, says Sadat, his family friend. Nor is she surprised that he bought a gun in the wake of the post-9/11 outbreak of anti-Islamic bigotry.

"I have a shotgun for the same reason," the 63-year-old says with a pointed stare. "You can't be surprised by the fact that black people in this country still feel very vulnerable to the hateful views of some whites."

Buying a gun is one thing. Traveling to Afghanistan, in the eyes of the U.S. government, is another.

The indictment alleges that Lumumba and his friends engaged in a conspiracy to go to Afghanistan in order to wage war against American soldiers and to support the Taliban government--and therefore al Qaeda--with "resources" and "services."

Lumumba's co-defendants include:

*Habis Abdulla Al Saoub, 36, a Jordanian-born man and reputed militant jihadist who worked in a downtown City Center Parking lot near Park and Oak streets and is considered to be the de facto leader of the group.

*Ahmed Ibrahim Bilal, 25, and Muhammad Ibrahim Bilal, 22, brothers who grew up mostly in Arab countries.

*Jeffrey Leon Battle, 32, a former makeup salesman, and his ex-wife, 25-year-old October Lewis; both moved here from Houston.

Starting on Oct. 10, 2001, three days after the U.S. started bombing Afghanistan, Lumumba, the Bilal brothers, Al Saoub and Battle allegedly began trying to make their way there, buying tickets to Hong Kong in preparation for a trip through China. None ever made it across the Afghanistan border.

Lumumba made his flight on Oct. 20 and returned on Nov. 19. The following day, he wired $500 to Al Saoub in Guangzhou, China; the indictment alleges he knew "the money was going to be used to support his attempt to enter Afghanistan to fight...against the United States and its allies."

Ashcroft announced the arrests the same day as the sentencing of American Taliban John Walker Lindh and the guilty plea of shoe-bomber Richard Reid. The timing seemed orchestrated to generate maximum publicity. The day before, in a move that is highly unusual in federal court, prosecutors structured the confidentiality seal on the indictment to be released in conjunction with the first arrest. This paved the way for the following day's press conference in Washington, D.C. Standing alongside Ashcroft as he declared it a "defining day" in the war on terrorism was Portland's U.S. Attorney, Mike Mosman, who had jetted out the day before.

The news hit the airwaves even as Congress was in session across town debating whether to attack Iraq. It also was the day before a coordinated protest against Bush's war plans, which turned out large crowds in cities around the world.

The tactic turned humdrum legal updates into a major story. "Feds bust Oregon terror cell," said Salon, the online magazine. "Triple Victory as terror cell cracks," said two Australian papers. CNN, via the KOIN website, dubbed it a "sleeper cell," and several headlines, including one on The Oregonian website, cited "links" to al Qaeda.

In reality, the indictment does not suggest that the group ever communicated with al Qaeda. Nor does it accuse Lumumba and his co-defendants of "terrorism"--which has been defined by the U.S. State Department as featuring a willingness to kill noncombatants.

In hearings last week concerning Lewis and Battle, prosecutors said Battle was intent on fighting U.S. troops. But aside from contemplating killing Jews at a synagogue, an idea that Battle subsequently dropped, the most threatening specific pieces of evidence they unveiled were vague emails as well as possession of books on jihad.

"If this is the best evidence the government has," attorney Jack Ransom said in the hearing, "I would suggest, your Honor, that there is a weakness of evidence."

In most cases flimsy evidence would soothe a defense lawyer, but conspiracy cases can rest almost entirely on hearsay and purely circumstantial information. For this reason, the case has sparked concern among civil-liberties advocates, including Portland Federal Defender Steven Wax, who is not representing a defendant in the case. "I don't know the evidence, so I can't comment on it, but I can say that a prosecution that is based more on thought than concrete evidence raises very troubling issues," says Wax, who oversees 20 federal public defenders. "The concern that this prosecution raises is one of chilling political dissent and the prosecution of thought crimes."

James Britt III is now a lawyer in Eugene and is involved in his half-brother's defense. He thinks the government's case is based on "snitches" who were "pressured to put people in a position to say the things that they wanted to hear."

Family members have said Lumumba hoped to join the Red Crescent, the Muslim counterpart to the Red Cross, in Afghanistan.

Law-enforcement sources have hinted at something far more sinister. A preview of the evidence against Lumumba, including audio tapes obtained via federal eavesdropping, was expected to surface at a bail hearing scheduled for Tuesday afternoon. But the hearing was delayed a week because his defense lawyers want to close the deliberations to the public, to avoid tainting potential jurors.

Legal sources say bail hearings can be used to introduce inflammatory evidence, even if it is sure to be thrown out before trial. In this case, the tapes are rumored to include discussions of a potential terrorist act.

It is possible that Lumumba, finding his newfound faith under attack after 9/11, got caught up in a violent group.

But Teat, Lumumba's school friend, doesn't buy it. He says the last time he saw Lumumba, just three months ago at Jantzen Beach, the two joked and laughed like old times: "He was playing with my kids--same Lumumba."

Today, looking at the video of Lumumba and his Lincoln High classmates, Sweeney proudly reels off his former students' accomplishments: Three are teachers, one is a policeman, and Lumumba's then-best friend joined the U.S. Navy.

Then, of course, there is Lumumba, who had easily as much potential as any of them.

"The Patrice Lumumba Ford I knew was somebody I liked. He was a remarkable student in a remarkable class," says Sweeney. "He went to college, had success in his studies, and showed a lot of interest in a lot of things. He was somebody I was interested in learning more about, and still am.

"Especially now."


According to the résumé Patrice Lumumba Ford submitted for his City Hall internship, he earned a 3.3 GPA overall at Portland State University and a 3.8 GPA in his major. His hobbies include birdwatching.




Last year, in exchange for Chinese support for the "war on terror," Colin Powell labeled China's Uighur separatist movement as "terrorists" based on suspected links to Osama bin Laden.




According to his résumé, Lumumba participated in a youth- mentoring program at Morehouse College. At PSU, he was a student ambassador, leading visitors on tours of the campus.




Lumumba's wife could not be reached for comment, and his parents did not respond to requests for interviews. His mother, Sandra Ford, says in her answering- machine message, "My son is now being represented by counsel, and that counsel has advised us that it's inappropriate for us to talk to the press at this time."




Sandra Ford's answering machine also says, "To all of our friends and loved ones and supporters, we are grateful; it is very necessary to our strength. We feel strong in support of Lumumba, who is a kind and gentle soul. This is, needless to say, a very scary thing. It makes me worry about what else is going to happen."




In addition to his $500 wire transfer to a co- defendant in China in November 2001, Lumumba is alleged to have sent another $483 this past January.
 
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