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By Joel Skousen - World Affairs Brief

October 6, 2002

Describing today’s events as “a defining day in America's war against terrorism,” Attorney General John Ashcroft created national headlines by announcing the arrest of four out of six members of an al Qaeda “sleeper cell.” Three non Islamic suspects were arrested in Portland, Oregon, and one of Middle Eastern descent in Michigan. The two other Middle Easterners are still being sought outside the country. I’m on the scene here in Portland and it is my assessment that this is a molehill of a story being made into a mountain. If this is a “defining day” in the war on terrorism, Ashcroft has yet to deal with real terrorists. Even by Ashcroft’s admission there is no evidence any of these suspects had any criminal intentions here in America. The three in Portland were playing a supporting role for the other three Muslims who have been trying to join either the Taliban or al Qaeda in Afghanistan. The Portland suspects had a few small arms they had used for target practice, but no explosives or terror devices.

From the police response, you would think they were up against a small army. Tens of state and local police, sheriff’s deputies, and FBI agents, covered by helicopters overhead, surrounded an apartment complex in Portland (within blocks of a mosque, providing a convenient media talking point on innuendo) in a large assault early this morning. That’s supposed to be the big terrorist story. Despite the lack of a crime, the entire area is cordoned off.

This kind of overblown response appears to be part of an emerging pattern within Homeland Security, attempting to maximize the impact of any potential terrorist arrest, however insignificant--certainly not worth a national press conference, unless one is desperate to “show and tell.” Ashcroft and his terrorist task force teams seem consumed with trying to find any evidence to justify the government’s constant terror alerts, even though no organized terrorists acts have been committed on US soil since 9/11. Bringing into play multiple police forces, even when not needed, is also part of the Ashcroft modus operandi to showcase the federal government’s new “partnership between federal and local police forces.”

The Justice Department micromanaged this piece of propaganda masterfully. First, they sent out tantalizing news releases to local TV stations all around the country early this morning alerting them to this “terror related” arrest. The world was kept on the edge of their chair as early morning news talking heads told everyone they knew nothing except that a major “police action” was ongoing in Portland, Oregon, and that they were waiting for details from a special news conference to be broadcast by US Attorney General Ashcroft at 11 AM eastern time. Of course every TV station in America had the feed of the helicopter video covering the scene at the apartment complex – with nothing going on except one lowly car being searched.

The propaganda value of this engineered media stunt became obvious at the onset of Ashcroft’s news conference. Relying heavily on a written script, he began reviewing, cataloging and lauding the government’s efforts on the war on terror, thus far. And then the big announcement – that an indictment had been issued for six suspects (five of whom are US citizens). Their single crime, restated and expanded in four different ways, was “planning to join with and give assistance to al Qaeda.” The FBI had undoubtedly been tapping the suspects’ phones for months, so they do have their intentions on tape. Incidentally, this is the first “terrorist” arrest in country which the Justice Department has given any details at all about what they know about a terror subject sufficient to justify an arrest – and it was very sketchy. The media’s hopes for more answers during the question and answer section were dashed as Ashcroft answered every question with the standard refrain: “I cannot reveal anything more while the indictment is in progress.” The question and answer section was obviously held just for the sake of appearances.

The story was leaked that the suspects had converted to Islam, but this was obviously more talk than reality. The local mosque closest to the apartment said these men had never taken instructions in Islam, that none of them were known to the local Muslim community, but that they had recently come to the Mosque on one or two occassions but were not communicative.

The impression was given by the term “sleeper cell,” that these six were ready to pounce on innocent Americans. Apparently not so. They were most likely John Lindh copycats trying to join or support the Taliban in Afghanistan in solidarity with Osama bin Laden. The extent of their military training, except for one ex-military type, was some pistol and rifle shooting practice while trespassing on someone’s private property in Oregon.

A close analysis of the names of the 3 arrested in Oregon leads to other crucial issues not even raised by the establishment media. The 3 Americans seem to have taken noms de’guerre with Marxist overtones (Jeffrey Leon Battle, Patrice Lumumba Ford, and October Martinique Lewis). Patrice Lumumba was a Marxist dictator in the Congo, and "October Martinique" refers to famous October, 1794 rebellion of the slaves on the island of Martinique. "October" is a women who happens to be Jeffry Battle’s ex-wife. Thus, it appears that this Portland groups is composed of old line Marxists who have a history of switching names and causes as necessary in order to fight against America. There are thousands of anti-police thugs and leftists who are potential sympathizers with any anti-US cause. But, few of these match match the typical profile of international terrorists in terms of prior history and training. Ashcroft is grasping at straws.

They may well have wanted to join al Qaeda, at least temporarily, but such intentions don’t constitute a “sleeper cell” in the normal terminology of terrorism. Sleeper cell members are highly trained (usually outside the target country) in explosives, sniping, and sabotage. They are then infiltrated into the country to begin their attacks. The government has already admitted they have no evidence that any terrorist operations were being planned by these six suspects. In fact, the US has experienced no such attacks since 9/11, a fact which is, in itself, the largest non sequitur in the government’s claim that there are hundreds of al Qaeda cells within the country. If there are, where are they and why are they not attacking? The government attributes this lack of terrorism to the success of FBI efforts to uncover such cells. But so far they have only arrested a dozen Americans, and none fit the profile of a trained terrorist. Even if the FBI were actively hunting al Qaeda, that still doesn’t explain why we are not subjected to constant terror attacks. In countries like Israel, where security is 100 times more effective and concentrated than in the US, there are weekly terrorist incidents. Why not here, where security is almost non-existent (except for harassing American grandmothers at airports)? Real terrorism is almost impossible to prevent. Do we have a form of controlled terrorism? If so, who is doing the controlling and for what purposes?

Ashcroft has made much of shoe bomber Richard Read’s confession that he was a member of al Qaeda and that he really intended to blow up the trans-Atlantic flight he was on. But the first part is suspect. Read’s confession was part of a scripted plea bargain, in which he had to agree to state a connection with al Qaeda. Frankly, I don’t believe he was working for al Qaeda, except on his own independent initiative. A formally trained terrorist as part of al Qaeda would have known enough about explosives to realize that you can’t set off plastic explosives in your shoe by lighting them with a match; a blasting cap is needed. If this is the best excuse for a terrorist the government can come up with, I remain convinced that something is very wrong with this “war on terror.”

© 2002 Joel Skousen - All Rights Reserved

Joel Skousen is political scientist by training, and currently editor-in-chief of the World Affairs Brief