- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 2, 2004

The former Chicago gang member held as an enemy combatant in a plot to detonate a “dirty bomb” in the United States also planned to set off deadly explosives in high-rise apartment buildings, the Justice Department said yesterday.

Deputy Attorney General James Comey said Jose Padilla, a Muslim convert also known as Abdullah al Muhajir, conspired with al Qaeda operatives to rent at least three apartment buildings in the United States that used natural gas.

A Justice Department summary of interviews with Padilla by FBI agents, along with other intelligence data, said he told his al Qaeda handlers he could build either a nuclear device or a “dirty bomb” based on information from the Internet, although the handlers told him to concentrate on the apartment scheme.

“Padilla says that [now-captured al Qaeda operations chief Khalid Shaikh] Mohammed wanted him to hit apartment buildings in New York, although they also talked about Florida and Washington, D.C.,” Mr. Comey said. “According to Padilla’s new accomplice, who is also in custody … Mohammed wanted them to blow up 20 apartment buildings simultaneously.

“Padilla pointed out that he could not possibly rent that many apartments without drawing attention to himself, and that he might have to limit this operation to the destruction of two or three entire apartment buildings,” Mr. Comey said.

Instead, Padilla was arrested by FBI agents on a material witness warrant in May 2002 at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport after a flight from Pakistan. He was carrying $10,000 in U.S. currency from his al Qaeda handlers, Mr. Comey said.

Federal authorities have described Shaikh Mohammed as the mastermind behind the September 11 attacks.

The summary was given to Mr. Comey by Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, who said Padilla was directed by now-deceased al Qaeda military chief Mohammed Atef in 2001 to take part in “an operation to blow up apartment buildings in the United States with natural gas.” It said Padilla accepted the task.

Mr. Comey’s comments were in response to a letter from Sens. Orrin G. Hatch, Utah Republican and chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, and the panel’s ranking Democrat, Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont, who questioned Padilla’s enemy-combatant status.

Padilla defense attorney Andrew Patel called Mr. Comey’s comments “an opening statement without a trial.” He said the government was continuing to portray his client in a bad light without allowing a forum for rebuttal.

Mr. Hatch said the information confirmed that Padilla was “in the process of returning to America to carry out this plan when he was detained.”

Padilla and Yasser Esam Hamdi, who was captured on the battlefield in Afghanistan, are designated as enemy combatants.

“We have been working to compile and declassify what we know about Padilla from his own statements, from the statements of other al Qaeda detainees around the world, and from intelligence sources around the world,” Mr. Comey said. “Senator Hatch’s request energized that process.”

He called the Padilla information “remarkable for its scope, its clarity and its candor.”

Mr. Comey denied that release of the information was tied to criticism by some members of Congress regarding Padilla’s detention or a pending Supreme Court ruling in the case. He said the department acted only in response to public concern about Padilla’s confinement.

The Supreme Court is expected to rule soon on whether the government has the right to hold a U.S. citizen without charges as part of the war on terrorism.

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