- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 11, 2002

The Justice Department's announcement yesterday that it had arrested a suspected al Qaeda operative in Chicago on suspicion of attempting to build and explode a nuclear "dirty bomb" in the United States (most likely in Washington) provides yet another example of the lethal threat still posed by Osama bin Laden's terror network. A dirty bomb is a conventional explosive like dynamite packaged with radioactive material. It can kill or maim in several different ways through the initial explosion and subsequent airborne radiation contamination. Though much less deadly than an actual nuclear weapon, such a bomb could sow terror and effectively cripple a local economy.

The Chicago suspect, an American citizen who goes by the name Abdullah Al Mujahir, is a former street gang member who converted to Islam. Al Mujahir was arrested May 8 as he flew from Pakistan into O'Hare International Airport in Chicago. Attorney General John Ashcroft said that Al Mujahir served prison time in the United States in the early 1990s, then went to Pakistan and Afghanistan during 2001 and held meetings with al Qaeda officials. Mr. Ashcroft said that the suspect "trained with the enemy, including studying how to wire explosive devices and researching radiological dispersion devices. " The attorney general added that al Qaeda apparently thought that because Al Mujahir is a U.S. citizen with an American passport, he would be able to travel freely throughout the United States.

An administration official told reporters yesterday that Abu Zubaydeh, the most senior al Qaeda operative in U.S. custody, provided the information that led to Al Mujahir's arrest. Zubaydeh, who was wounded and captured by in Pakistan April 1, discussed several terrorist operations with Al Mujahir, the official said. He added that Al Mujahir and an unidentified associate researched dirty bombs in Lahore, Pakistan. The suspect is not believed to have been carrying a bomb at the time of his apprehension. U.S. officials told NBC News that the plot also called for attacks using conventional explosives on hotels, gas stations and other public facilities in this country.

At this point, it remains unclear whether the federal government plans to try Al Mujahir in military or civilian court. President Bush on Sunday night accepted the recommendations of Mr. Ashcroft and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld that Al Mujahir be regarded as an "enemy combatant" of the United States and therefore should be turned over to the Defense Department for trial, perhaps before a military tribunal. The administration will need to explain why Al Mujahir should be treated any differently from suspected terrorist John Walker Lindh, an American citizen who will be tried in U.S. District Court, or Zacarias Moussaoui, a non-citizen who will be tried in civilian court as well. The proper course of action would be to try Al Mujahir, like the other accused terrorists, in civilian U.S. courts.

That said, the administration deserves praise for its vigilance in heading off the possibility of a terrorist strike involving nuclear weapons following the September 11 attacks. The Al Mujahir arrest is just the latest sign that America cannot afford to let down its guard.

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