The Bush Administration must be praying they got this one right. As revelations of prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib continue to cast doubts on the Defense Department’s conduct of the war in Iraq, the case of Brandon Mayfield—the Oregon lawyer jailed for supposedly aiding the Madrid bombers—is sharpening debate on the Justice Department’s pursuit of the War on Terror. Should FBI allegations against Mayfield prove less than credible, critics will find further support for their contentions that the White House is engaged in an anti-Muslim witch-hunt. Conversely, should Mayfield prove culpable in the 3-11 massacre, suspicions that anti-Western Muslims are hatching plots from inside America will gain increasing strength—as could support for John Ashcroft and his enforcement of the PATRIOT Act. The stakes are that high.
To briefly review Mayfield’s situation, on May 6, FBI agents detained the 37-year-old lawyer on a material witness warrant, after searching his home in Aloha, Oregon (a suburb of Portland) and his office in nearby Beaverton. Law enforcement officials later claimed that Spanish authorities had discovered Mayfield’s “fingerprints” on a plastic bag found in connection with the Madrid bombing, which killed 191 people and injured over 2,000. Mayfield’s name immediately raised eyebrows: an ex-serviceman and Muslim convert who embraced Islam in 1989, he represented Jeffrey Leon Battle in an unsuccessful child custody case in 2002. Last fall, a federal judge in Portland sentenced Battle to 18 years in prison for attempting to travel to Afghanistan and join the Taliban in fighting America.
Since 9-11, the Justice Department has raised hackles among civil libertarians by its increasing use of material witness warrants to imprison terror suspects indefinitely without charging them with crimes. Under the 1984 Material Witness Law, prosecutors may obtain a court approval to detain individuals whose testimony is crucial to a Grand Jury investigation and who may attempt to flee. Government officials have refused to reveal the exact number of people held in this sort of custody in the War on Terror, although press reports have estimated “several dozens,” many of whom have sat in maximum security prisons for months, often without ever testifying. At least eight of these people, including Mayfield, have been American citizens.
By May 7, however, the feds’ case against the lawyer appeared to go wobbly. Spanish officials revealed that the “fingerprints” found on the bag was in fact a single print, which American investigators had matched to Mayfield. While Spanish police found only eight points of similarity between the attorney’s print in his army records and the one found on the bag, the FBI discovered 15. There is no international standard to determine how many points of similarity constitute a match between two fingerprints. On May 8, U.S. officials admitted that they had arrested Mayfield before fully looking into his recent activities due to fears that the news media had gotten wind of their interest in the lawyer, possibly inducing him to flee. Friends and family members described Mayfield to reporters as a mild-mannered Muslim who hadn’t left the country in over a decade.
Still, it’s not difficult to see how Mayfield attracted prosecutors’ attention. His association with Battle connects him tangentially with the so-called “Portland Seven,” a group of six American citizens and one Jordanian who plotted to aid the Taliban. He also fits the profile of a domestic terrorist through his status as a Muslim convert and former member of the U.S. armed forces. This small, but troubled, group includes Battle, a former Army reservist, who may have joined the military in order to learn how to kill Americans in Afghanistan, and former Army sergeant John Allen Mohammad, better known as the “Beltway Sniper.” In November, 2002, former Marine Abdul Raheem Al Arshad Ali (born Andre Anderson) was arrested for supplying a handgun to Semi Osman, an ethnic Lebanese who had served in the Army and Naval Reserve. (Osman himself was arrested for attempting to establish a terrorist training camp in Bly, Oregon). Some Muslim converts have even turned against their country while on active duty. For example, while stationed in Kuwait in March, 2003, Sergeant Hasan Akbar (born Mark Fidel Kools) rolled a grenade into a tent killing two GIs and wounding three. And last February, Amir Abdul Rashid (born Ryan Anderson) was arrested for allegedly attempting to supply military information to Al Qaeda. (Interestingly, while not a Muslim, Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh reportedly returned from Gulf War I a vehement Arabist.)
Then there’s the connection with Fort Lewis. Although there are only between 100-150 Muslims on the sprawling army base in Washington State, its alumni includes Mayfield, Allen and Anderson, while Osman served at a naval facility fifteen miles away in Tacoma, Washington. Captain James Yee, the former Lutheran turned Muslim cleric also served at Fort Lewis. In September, 2003, Yee was arrested on vaguely-defined suspicions of espionage while ministering to prisoners at the Guantanamo detention facility; the army, however, eventually dropped all charges against him. And though it may seem more the stuff of Black Helicopter conspiracies, it should be noted that McVeigh once listed his address in a hotel register as “P.O. Box 4221, Fort Lewis, Washington.”
None of this is to suggest that Fort Lewis is a breeding ground for Islamic radicals— indeed, non-Muslim Pat Tillman, recently slain in Afghanistan, was stationed there. Still, there is a disturbing pattern of terrorist-oriented activity taking place in the Northwest, particularly among ex-servicemen. And this, in turn, may help explain what led government investigators to Mayfield’s fingerprint records in the first place.
But there may be other reasons—albeit highly circumstantial—that we can learn by following some dots. Recent press reports have described a Portland lawyer named Tom Nelson as Mayfield’s spokesman and “mentor.” Nelson, it seems, directs an organization called Americans United for Palestinian Human Rights. Last September, Nelson’s group protested the FBI arrest at a Portland airport of Sheikh Mohamed Abdirahman Kariye, for the illegal use of a Social Security number and the unlawful possession of government documents. (He later received probation after pleading to fraud charges). Kariye, in turn, is imam of the Portland Islamic Center-Masjed as-Sabr, an organization connected to the Islamic charity Global Relief Fund, which authorities have accused of links to Al-Qaeda. Last August, federal prosecutors released tapes of one of the “Portland Seven” telling how Kariye was financing his trip to Afghanistan and that the Islamic Center is “the only mosque to teach about jihad.” The speaker is Jeffrey Battle, former client of the now-beleaguered lawyer, Brandon Mayfield.