- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 16, 2003

The American held as an enemy combatant in a suspected scheme to detonate a “dirty bomb” in the United States has given federal authorities valuable intelligence information and will not be given access to a lawyer until his interrogation ends, senior Justice Department officials said yesterday.

“Once the intelligence collection efforts are judged not to be hampered or jeopardized by access to counsel, then there’s no objection to access to counsel,” said one department official.

Federal authorities believe Abdullah al Muhajir, a former Chicago gang member also known as Jose Padilla, met with leaders of the al Qaeda terrorist network during trips he made to Pakistan and Afghanistan after the September 11 attacks and that his continued cooperation is in the interest of national security.

The government has appealed a ruling by a U.S. District Court judge in New York saying al Muhajir had the right to meet with a lawyer, and at a hearing last month, a three-judge federal appeals court panel questioned the Bush administration’s decision to classify al Muhajir as an enemy combatant. The appeal remains under consideration.

Authorities say al Muhajir, a Muslim convert, met with top al Qaeda officials after the September 11 attacks, including Abu Zubaydah, a top lieutenant to Osama bin Laden.

The high-level meetings began in December 2001, when al Muhajir first met with Zubaydah, a major al Qaeda recruiter and a suspect in the September 11 attacks, they said. Zubaydah was captured March 28 during raids by Pakistani police at a “safe house” in Faisalabad.

“There is absolutely no doubt al Muhajir talked extensively with Zubaydah concerning al Qaeda’s plans to carry out a variety of attacks in the United States, including the use of so-called dirty bombs,” one U.S. official said following al Muhajir’s May 2002 arrest at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport on a flight from Pakistan.

Al Muhajir, a New York native and convicted felon whose Arabic name translates to “the emigrant,” was taken into custody by the FBI. He later was turned over to U.S. military authorities, who are holding him as an enemy combatant.

Authorities said the intended attacks included the detonation of a radiological dispersion device, or dirty bomb, against a number of targets, including government buildings in Washington, and separate explosions aimed at hotels and gas stations.

They said it was Zubaydah who sent al Muhajir to Lahore, Pakistan, after a meeting in Afghanistan, where he was trained in building and detonating dirty bombs. Zubaydah then arranged for al Muhajir to meet with several top al Qaeda leaders in Pakistan to talk about attacking U.S. targets, the authorities said.

His trip to Chicago in May 2002, authorities said, was to begin reconnaissance for a bombing site and seek a source for the radioactive material for a dirty bomb.

The conspiracy was pieced together by the FBI and other law-enforcement agencies from information obtained from Zubaydah, who has undergone extensive interrogation by U.S. officials since his capture. Authorities said he did not give up al Muhajir’s name but discussed enough of the plan to lead FBI agents to him.

It was Zubaydah who told interrogators this year that al Qaeda was close to building a dirty bomb and might try to smuggle one into the United States.

At the time of the Chicago arrest, Attorney General John Ashcroft said the capture had “significantly disrupted” the dirty-bomb plot. He said the FBI had obtained “very significant information” about al Muhajir’s involvement with al Qaeda “in very serious terrorist plots.”

Zubaydah is the highest-ranking al Qaeda member in U.S. custody and has also been tied to the bombing of the USS Cole in Yemen. His capture was an intelligence and public relations coup for an administration that promised to bring bin Laden and others responsible for the September 11 attacks to justice.

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