- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 12, 2002

From combined dispatches
Abdullah al Muhajir was born Jose Padilla in Brooklyn, N.Y., moved to Chicago at age 4 and lived in Florida through much of the 1990s.
The 31-year-old former street gang member served a stretch in a South Florida prison, where he converted from Catholicism to Islam. After serving his sentence, he left for the Middle East sometime in 2001.
Al Muhajir, son of a Puerto Rican immigrant, is the first American accused of bringing al Qaeda's terrorist campaign to U.S. soil. He was arrested May 8 at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport, en route from Pakistan. Held secretly for weeks in New York and then flown Monday to a Navy brig in Charleston, S.C., he is being treated as an enemy combatant.
Police records reveal an angry man with a history of violent crime ranging from armed robbery to opening fire on a motorist. But a friend from his teen years in Chicago was surprised to hear about the trouble facing the man she knew as Jose Padilla.
"He was so quiet, so nice. He doesn't look like a person who would do something like that. It would surprise me if he did," said Nelly Ojeda, 64, who lives in the same Chicago three-story building where Padilla lived.
Mrs. Ojeda said the boy nicknamed Pucho used to play basketball at his grade school down the street
. He would have friends over and they would watch TV, play Nintendo and play in the back yard, she said.
But in 1985, Padilla, who was 14 at the time, kicked a victim in the head a stranger who had been stabbed by a friend "because he felt like it," according to a police report cited by the New York Times. Padilla also reportedly pushed an officer during the encounter.
At age 15, he was convicted as a juvenile of aggravated battery, armed robbery and attempted armed robbery and was in custody in Illinois until May 1988. Officials would not elaborate on Padilla's past with a Chicago gang called the Latin Disciples.
In 1992, a year after being released from parole, Padilla was convicted in Florida of aggravated assault with a firearm. Officials say he showed a handgun to another driver after a traffic encounter; when the driver followed Padilla to get his license plate number, Padilla pulled in front and fired out the passenger window. No one was hurt.
When Padilla was arrested outside his Lauderhill, Fla., home, he had a .38-caliber revolver in his waistband, police said. Sunrise, Fla., Police Lt. Charles Vitale, who made the arrest, said Padilla was cooperative and had been living with a girlfriend.
At that point, Padilla still identified himself as Catholic and told police he had worked at a Holiday Inn setting up banquet rooms for two weeks. Records show he has his name "Jose" tattooed on his right arm.
While in the Broward County, Fla., jail Padilla was accused of battery on a jail officer and resisting without violence in January 1992. He settled the charges and was sentenced to one year in jail; the rest of the term was suspended and he was placed on probation for a year. State records show he completed a substance-abuse program during that time.
The suspect's mother, Estela Ortega, lives in Plantation, Fla. Another neighbor from Chicago, who said she kept in touch through the years with the mother, said Padilla married a woman from the Middle East several years ago and the couple moved there.
Padilla joins Taliban suspect John Walker Lindh, of California, and Yaser Esam Hamdi, who was born in Louisiana but raised in his parents' native Saudi Arabia, on the roster of Americans detained for suspected ties to al Qaeda.
Attorney General John Ashcroft said al Muhajir traveled to Afghanistan and Pakistan during 2001 and met with al Qaeda officials, where he "trained with the enemy, including studying how to wire explosive devices and researching radiological dispersion devices."
Officials believe this knowledge, in concert with his U.S. citizenship, made him valuable to the terrorist group. Al Muhajir stands accused of plotting to detonate a radioactive "dirty bomb," possibly in Washington.


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