- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 11, 2002

A U.S. citizen named as a member of the al Qaeda terrorist network has been captured by the FBI in a conspiracy to build and detonate a radioactive "dirty bomb" aimed at U.S. targets, including the nation's capital.
Attorney General John Ashcroft, during a televised announcement in Moscow, said Abdullah al Muhajir, also known as Jose Padilla, a New York native and former Chicago gang member, was detained May 8 after his arrival from Pakistan at O'Hare International Airport in Chicago.
"We have captured a known terrorist who was exploring a plan to build and explode a radiological dispersion device, or 'dirty bomb,' in the United States," said Mr. Ashcroft, who is meeting with Russian government officials on a five-day trip.
Mr. Ashcroft called al Muhajir "an enemy combatant who poses a serious and continuing threat to the American people and our national security."
President Bush hailed the capture, saying: "We have a man detained who is a threat to the country and that, thanks to the vigilance of our intelligence gathering and law enforcement, he is now off the streets, where he should be."
None of the intended targets was identified, although authorities said al Muhajir, 31, had "knowledge of the Washington, D.C., area" and that the nation's capital was considered a logical target.
It also was not clear how close the suspected terrorist was to obtaining an explosive device, although FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III said the conspiracy had not extended past the planning stages. Al Muhajir reportedly was carrying plans for the attack when taken into custody.
There also was no explanation on the timing of yesterday's announcement or what cooperation al Muhajir had given authorities, if any. He was secretly held in New York by the Justice Department under the supervision of a federal judge after his May 8 detention.
Authorities said al Muhajir returned to the United States to conduct reconnaissance operations for al Qaeda. They said he had been under surveillance for several weeks by the FBI and CIA as he traveled between Pakistan, Egypt and Switzerland.
Law enforcement officials said al Muhajir and two others who also may have been involved in the conspiracy were detained in Pakistan on immigration violations before his arrest, but al Muhajir was allowed to board his U.S.-bound flight after being tricked into believing he had escaped. FBI agents were on the plane, and he was arrested at the gate at O'Hare.
Deputy Attorney General Larry Thompson declined to comment at a press briefing on whether authorities had identified any conspirators in the bombing scheme.
Mr. Ashcroft described a dirty bomb as one involving the detonation of a conventional explosive that not only kills victims in its immediate vicinity but spreads radioactive material that can cause further death and injury.
Dexter Ingram, a threat-assessment analyst at the Heritage Foundation, said the effect of a dirty bomb on a target depends on the type and amount of radioactive material it contains but that it could cause extensive injuries and leave an area unhabitable for up to a year.
The Center for Strategic and International Studies said in a recent report that a 4,000-pound dirty bomb detonated on the National Mall could contaminate a small area of the District, resulting in its evacuation. The report said the blast might cripple the government and businesses for months.
Law enforcement authorities said a dirty bomb is considered a key terrorist weapon because of the panic it creates.
Mr. Ashcroft said authorities determined from "multiple, independent and corroborating sources" that al Muhajir is closely associated with al Qaeda and that, as an operative for Osama bin Laden's terrorist group, he "was involved in planning future terrorist attacks on innocent American civilians in the United States."
In March, Abu Zubaydah, a top bin Laden lieutenant, was arrested in Pakistan and is reported to have told U.S. officials that the terrorist network was close to building a dirty bomb and might try to smuggle one into the United States.
Senior law enforcement authorities said information from Zubaydah led to al Muhajir's surveillance and arrest. They said al Muhajir met last year in Afghanistan with Zubaydah and then traveled to Pakistan at Zubaydah's request to meet with other al Qaeda officials.
Al Muhajir and an unidentified associate are believed to have researched the construction and detonation of dirty bombs in Lahore, Pakistan, authorities said. They said that in addition to Washington as a potential site the conspiracy had targeted hotels and gas stations.
Mr. Bush, based on a recommendation from Mr. Ashcroft, signed documents late Sunday designating al Muhajir as a "combatant" giving authority to the Defense Department to take him into custody. Al Muhajir had been held without charges until the Bush designation.
As a U.S. citizen, he appears ineligible for trial under the military tribunals outlined last year by Mr. Bush for captured terrorists, although several key law enforcement officials said court decisions arising from prosecutions during World War II could lead to a military trial for al Muhajir.
"We have acted with legal authority both under the laws of war and clear Supreme Court precedent, which establishes that the military may detain a United States citizen who has joined the enemy and has entered our country to carry out hostile acts," Mr. Ashcroft said.
Deputy Defense Secretary Paul F. Wolfowitz said at a press conference that al Muhajir was being held "under the laws of war." He said the government's priority was to "protect the American people from future attacks" and that it had to be able to question persons about threats.
Al Muhajir, who was born in Brooklyn and moved to Chicago when he was 5, is being held under heavy security at the Consolidated Naval Brig in Charleston, S.C. He was flown yesterday aboard a military C-130 aircraft to South Carolina.
Mr. Ashcroft said al Qaeda officials knew that as an American citizen holding a valid passport, al Muhajir could travel freely in the United States without drawing attention to himself.
He said al Muhajir assumed his new identity after his release in 1993 from a U.S. prison. He had a lengthy criminal record and had been convicted in Florida in 1991 on assault and gun charges. Authorities said that after his prison conversion to Islam, he left the United States in 1998 and traveled to Afghanistan and Pakistan, where he trained with al Qaeda.
A statement attributed yesterday to al Qaeda spokesman Sulaiman Abu Ghaith said: "We have the right to fight [Americans] by chemical and biological weapons so that they catch the fatal and unusual diseases that Muslims have caught due to their chemical and biological weapons."


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