After former president George Bush delivered a speech in China in 1998, a bright young American student stood up to ask a question. Why, Patrice Lumumba Ford wanted to know, had charges against Oliver North concerning the Iran-contra scandal been dropped during Bush's term in office nearly a decade earlier? Bush was taken aback by the directness of the question, according to several people present at the Johns Hopkins Nanjing Center.
Four years later, Ford, now 31, is entangled with another Bush. This time it's George W., whose Administration arrested Ford on Oct. 4, claiming that he was part of a terrorist cell in Portland, Ore. Ford and several others were charged with conspiring to levy war against the U.S., contributing services to al-Qaeda and the Taliban and possessing firearms in furtherance of crimes of violence. Ford has pleaded not guilty to all the charges.
The allegations have left some skeptical; there is no evidence, at least not yet, of a terrorist plot. And Ford, in particular, doesn't fit the profile of a terrorist. A Muslim convert and son of a Black Panther leader, he has long held strident political views. But he is also something of a model citizen. As a student, he once penned a note thanking a professor for a well-taught course. As an adult, he volunteered to teach arts and crafts to children in a Muslim community center in Portland. Tall and athletic, Ford is consistently described as calm and gentle and is admired for his linguistic abilities. Is this a man who would turn to violence against his country?
Ford grew up in a disciplined household, with a set time for homework and an early bedtime. The civil-rights views of his father Kent greatly influenced him. Ford is proud of being named after Patrice Lumumba, the Congolese independence hero, though he eventually chose to be known as just Lumumba--because, says his half-sister Cindy Fontenot, "Patrice sounded girlish to him." Says Fontenot, 34, a human-resources professional: "He was always very mature, someone to lean on because he was so strong but very sensitive."
The American public knows him instead as a suspected terrorist. The U.S. government claims Ford flew to Hong Kong last October with four others intending to enter Afghanistan to fight against American forces. None of the five actually made it to Afghanistan. Ford returned to Portland in November, according to the indictment.
Though the evidence against Ford seems murky (he is due to appear in court for a bail hearing this week), he may have been caught up in a possibly half-baked plot to get involved in the Afghan conflict. One of his alleged co-conspirators, Ahmed Ibrahim Bilal, gave himself up Oct. 6 in Malaysia, where he was studying at the International Islamic University in Kuala Lumpur. According to a Jordanian student at the university who asks to be identified only as "Abdullah," Bilal told him he had tried to enter Afghanistan but couldn't succeed once the U.S. bombing had begun.