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U.S. Detains Alleged Dirty Bomb Terrorist

Bomb Plot Disrupted in Early Planning Stages

By Dan Eggen

Washington Post Staff Writer

Monday, June 10, 2002; 1:21 PM

An American citizen, with alleged ties to the al Qaeda terror network, has been arrested on suspicion of plotting to build and detonate a radioactive "dirty" bomb in an attack in this country, Bush administration officials said this morning.

Jose Padilla, 31, who now goes by the name of Abdullah al Muhajir, was in the custody of the U.S. military and was being treated as an enemy combatant, Attorney General John D. Ashcroft said. "We have disrupted an unfolding terrorist plot to attack the United States by exploding a radioactive dirty bomb," Ashcroft said, speaking via television hookup from Moscow. He went on to say that the government has "multiple, independent, corroborating sources" on Padilla's plans.

Padilla was arrested May 8 as he flew from Pakistan into Chicago's O'Hare International Airport. He has been held secretly under the supervision of a judge since then, government officials said this morning.

A senior Justice Department official said that Padilla's transfer to military custody did not mean he would be the subject of a military tribunal. "He is being held as an enemy combatant . . . [but] he is not being put in the tribunal system."

Padilla was born in Brooklyn and moved to Chicago when he was about 5. He was arrested in Florida in 1991 and served about a year in prison on a gun charge. It was during his time in prison that he converted to Islam, and began calling himself al Muhajir, the Justice Department official said. He left the country in 1998 and traveled extensively in the Middle East, including long stays in Pakistan and Afghanistan. He reportedly met with senior al Qaeda officials in 2001, but it was unclear if that meeting took place before or after the Sept. 11 attacks that claimed 3,000 lives in New York, at the Pentagon and in Pennsylvania.

Padilla's movements were tracked by the government from the time he left Pakistan until he was arrested at O'Hare. "We were fully aware of his movements from the time he left Pakistan," a senior Justice Department official said.

President Bush hailed the arrest this morning. "I can tell you that we have a man detained who is a threat to the country. . . . He is off the streets, where he should be," Bush said during a photo opportunity with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

In a press conference today, Deputy Attorney General Larry Thompson, FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III and Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz briefed reporters on the suspected dirty bomb plot.

"There were discussions about this possible plan. . . . And it had not gone as far as we know, much past the discussion stage, but there were substantial discussions undertaken."

When asked about reports that Washington, D.C., was a target of an attack, Wolfowitz reiterated that the plan was in the early stages, adding that intelligence gathered "did indicated knowledge of the . . . area."

A "dirty" bomb involves exploding a conventional device wrapped in or laced with radioactive material that can kill victims in the immediate area and spread highly toxic material to humans, causing death, injury and panic.

Padilla was taken Monday morning to a high-security U.S. Navy brig in Charleston, S.C., said Pentagon spokesman Lt. Col. Rivers Johnson, who said Padilla was transferred from Justice Department custody in New York City.

The timing of the announcements--with Ashcroft speaking from Moscow and Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld still out of the country--raised questions about whether something prompted the government to act today. But a senior Justice Department official said "There was no rush. This was a very deliberative process."

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