MIAMI — An FBI agent yesterday recounted for federal prosecutors how terror suspect Jose Padilla provided vague details about his days in Egypt during questioning in May 2002 at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport.
Mr. Padilla was returning to the United States en route from Switzerland — and before that, the Middle East and South Asia — when FBI Agent Russell Fincher and others asked him for details about his past, including his place of birth and formative years.
He provided the federal agents with details about his childhood in Chicago, though said he could not recall his home address, his phone number or his roommate’s name when he lived in Cairo from 1998 until 2000.
The defendant “had the ability to recall and remember details over a long period of time,” Mr. Fincher testified yesterday on behalf of the prosecution. “The absence of that detail regarding questions of substance led me to believe Mr. Padilla was being evasive about his travels overseas.”
Mr. Padilla, 36, is the lead suspect in the trial of three men accused of belonging to a South Florida terror support cell.
He told the agents that he also had traveled to Saudi Arabia for the hajj, or Islam”s holy pilgrimage, as well as Pakistan. However Mr. Padilla denied spending time in neighboring Afghanistan, where prosecutors contend he trained at an al Qaeda terror camp in combat and explosives.
His life in Cairo — where Mr. Padilla studied Arabic, married an Egyptian woman and sired two sons — and his purported training in Afghanistan supposedly were funded by the Florida support cell with the help of co-defendants Adham Amin Hassoun and Kifah Wael Jayyousi. All three men are accused of providing money, equipment and material support to terrorist organizations abroad. Mr. Padilla also faces the additional charge of being a willing recruit of al Qaeda.
Mr. Fincher testified that Mr. Padilla’s failure to recollect details of his time in Egypt and Pakistan, where he said he could not remember the names of anyone with whom he associated, illustrated “a diminishing level of completeness of answers” that raised FBI suspicions about his activities overseas.
Federal authorities clandestinely recorded thousands of hours of conversations over nearly a decade involving the three men and others. The conversations are riddled with what prosecutors contend are code words for waging jihad, or holy war, in places such as Chechnya, Bosnia and Somalia, the scenes of bloody battles involving Islamic adherents.
Mr. Padilla was arrested after the May 2002 interview and charged with plotting to detonate a “dirty bomb” on U.S. soil and blow up several apartment buildings in major American cities.
Those charges eventually were ruled inadmissible because Mr. Padilla was not read his Miranda rights and did not have legal counsel present at the time. Mr. Padilla, a U.S. citizen, spent more than three years in a military brig in solitary confinement before being transferred to a civilian detention facility and added to the case against Mr. Hassoun and Mr. Jayyousi.
Instead, federal prosecutors have built a case around the wiretapped conversations — during which the other two defendants supposedly praise terrorist mastermind Osama bin Laden after a 1997 interview with CNN — and the “mujahadeen data form” that Mr. Padilla purportedly completed after training in Afghanistan.