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Inside Politics

Do Good Spies Make Good Neighbors?

By Amanda Ripley

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When attorney general John Ashcroft suggested that the American public form a giant neighborhood-watch service after last year's terrorist attacks, people in the Portland, Ore., area must have been paying attention.

The arrest last week of four U.S. citizens accused of conspiring to join al-Qaeda was the culmination of yearlong cooperation among a clutch of curious neighbors, more than 100 fbi agents and an alert deputy sheriff. Officials have accused Jeffrey Leon Battle, 32; Patrice Lumumba Ford, 31; and Muhammad Ibrahim Bilal, 22, of trying to travel to Afghanistan late last year to support al-Qaeda. (They flew into Hong Kong but apparently lacked the cash and contacts required to pass border controls.) Two other accused men--Ahmed Ibrahim Bilal, 24, and Habis Abdulla al Saoub, 36, a Jordanian citizen--remain at large. Battle's former wife, October Martinique Lewis, 25, has been charged with wiring money to support the endeavor. So far, Ford has pleaded not guilty.

With the arrests, Ashcroft proclaimed that the government has "neutralized a suspected terrorist cell." It remains to be seen whether that is true or whether local vigilance has gone overboard. Just a few weeks after the Sept. 11 attacks last year, a deputy sheriff in Skamania County, Wash., responded to a complaint about gunshots at a rural gravel pit. Six men in Muslim caps were testing out an arsenal of weaponry, including an assault rifle and semiautomatic pistols. The deputy took their names. A month later, when one was arrested for carrying illegal weapons, the officer recognized him and called the fbi. Four of the others would later be named in the indictment.

Meanwhile, at the Westport Court apartment complex in southwest Portland where Battle and Lewis live, neighbors grew alarmed when the couple's son reportedly told another child that "Sept. 11 was a good thing." Residents called the fbi, and at least one agent moved in to observe, they say. The neighbors provided informal backup. "The fbi said I was not to approach them but I should listen for certain 'hot words,' like jihad," Matt Hawkey recalls. He and others routinely passed along license-plate numbers of the couple's visitors.

Behavior that once might have been called paranoid was praised by authorities. Says Skamania County sheriff Chuck Bryan: "We live in a much different country now."

--By Amanda Ripley. Reported by Polly Forster and Nathan Thornburgh/Portland

Copyright © 2002 Time Inc.

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