Padilla sought bomb in central Asia

MSNBC/June 13, 2002
By Jim Miklaszewski

The officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said at least two associates of Padilla are now in custody in Pakistan, and FBI agents are questioning them at an undisclosed location.

One was identified as Benjamin Ahmed Mohammed, but officials would not give any of their nationalities. The officials said at least a half-dozen American citizens were believed among the 300 al-Qaida suspects handed over to the United States by Pakistan in the past six months.

Authorities began to track Padilla in early April after the FBI provided photos of the former Chicago gang member to Pakistan's spy agency, Inter-Services Intelligence, the officials said.

Using false documents and aliases, Padilla traveled to an undisclosed central Asian country in April, the officials said. The officials said Padilla returned to Pakistan and left Karachi in late April or early May for Zurich, Switzerland. U.S. authorities have said Padilla made trips from Switzerland to and from Egypt before flying to Chicago, where he was arrested May 8.

Pakistani officials are expanding their search for more Padilla associates in the deeply conservative tribal areas along the Afghan border, where many al-Qaida fugitives are believed to have taken refuge.

The hunt for the Brooklyn-born Padilla, 31 also known as Abdullah al Muhajir, began after the arrest in March of Osama bin Laden's lieutenant, Abu Zubaydah, the officials said. Zubaydah is currently in U.S. custody. Advertisement

Padilla had apparently been assigned Zubaydah to explore the possibility of causing 'maximum damage to Americans,' intelligence officials said, also on condition of anonymity.

Held as 'Enemy Combatant'

Padilla is being held in the Charleston Naval Weapons Station brig in Hanahan, S.C., as an 'enemy combatant,' an unorthodox legal maneuver that allows U.S. officials to hold him indefinitely.

But the Justice Department will not bring Padilla before a military tribunal, department officials told lawmakers Thursday, according to congressional and Bush administration sources.

The Justice Department, making its case in a closed meeting of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said the United States can hold Padilla until President Bush decides the war against terrorism is over.

'They say it's not punitive - it's just purely prevention to stop him from attacking us,' said one congressional official, speaking on the condition of anonymity. 'He's going to stay in the can until we're through with al-Qaida.' Jose Padilla in a 1991 court appearance in Florida.

After a federal judge ruled that the original material witness warrant against Padilla was moot because of the combatant designation, his lawyer, Donna R. Newman, said the government's treatment of her client was unconstitutional. She said she had not been able to see Padilla since he was transferred to military custody.

Newman demanded in court papers filed Wednesday in New York that Padilla be released because he had not been charged with any crime. U.S. District Judge Michael Mukasey gave the government until June 21 to respond. WP: Suspect enters legal limbo

Attorney General John Ashcroft announced the arrest Monday, saying Padilla, a former petty criminal and alleged gang member from Chicago, was planning to detonate a radioactive 'dirty bomb' in the United States. Other U.S. officials told NBC News on condition of anonymity that the plot also called for attacks using conventional explosives on hotels, gasoline stations and other public facilities.

A 'dirty bomb' is a conventional explosive laced with radioactive material. Unlike a full-fledged nuclear weapon, a 'dirty bomb' detonated in a city center would not cause massive destruction or a large number of fatalities. But it could contaminate thousands of people outside the immediate blast zone, trigger panic and wreak enormous economic damage, experts say.

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