A Pawn in High-Powered Battle of Wits

Intelligence and counter-terror sources consulted by DEBKA-Net-Weekly are mystified rather than enlightened by the account by US authorities on Tuesday, June 11, of how they foiled a radiological bomb plot by detaining one of the plotters, an American citizen called Abdullah Muhajir aka Jose Padilla, at Chicago’s O’Hare airport on May 8.


Attorney general John Ashcroft in Moscow, followed closely by deputy defense secretary Paul Wolfowitz and FBI director Robert Mueller in Washington, reported Muhajir was picked up on his return from Pakistan. He had been assigned to scout out security arrangements at the target site, they said, after taking part in high-level al Qaeda discussions on the building of a “dirty bomb” and its detonation in the Washington area.


Many terror experts wonder what occasioned this dramatic to-do over the Padilla case, when the checkered career of the 31-year old American of Puerto Rican descent was well known to several intelligence and counter-intelligence services friendly to Washington. Some had even built up dossiers on him, dating from 1995, when he converted from Roman Catholicism to Islam and began working for extremist Middle East Islamist groups in the Middle East, including the Egyptian Jihad Islami.


DEBKA-Net-Weekly intelligence sources, filling in some blanks, report that during the years 1998-2000, when he ostensibly lived in Cairo with his Egyptian wife, he actually traveled extensively on behalf of his fundamentalist terrorist masters. Sometimes he used his American passport, others, Saudi and Pakistani documents made out in his Muslim name. His travels took him to Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Ethiopia, Kenya, Abu Dhabi, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Kosovo, Albania, Bosnia and the Palestinian Authority. Some sources raise the suspicion that he also served the CIA as a double agent for penetrating radical Muslim terror groups, including al Qaeda and its close associate, the Egyptian Jihad Islami.


During those two years, he is known to have formed a connection with Palestinian terrorist operatives, entering the Gaza Strip at the Egyptian-Israeli crossing point in early 2000. Israeli security at the border crossing let him off lightly, not wishing to betray their interest in the American. But they did keep a discreet watch on his movements as the guest of local Hamas and Jihad Islami leaders. They took note of Padilla’s meeting with Nabil Aqal, a commander of the Hamas military arm, Izz-a-deen al-Qassam. Aqal’s name recurred eighteen months later in July 2001 as the selfsame senior Hamas contact man who hosted another western national belonging to al Qaeda, the shoe bomber Richard Reid from Great Britain, who faces trial in the United States for attempting to blow up an American Airlines Paris-to-Miami flight on December 22, 2001. (See also DEBKA-Net-Weekly Issue 62, May 31, 2002.)


When taking the time factor into account – al Qaeda planners take at least 18 months to two years for preparing a major terror strike – it is conceivable that the American operative’s call on Aqal in the Gaza Strip blazed the way for Reid. Indicating that US intelligence treated this link seriously, American agents, who in April 2002 tailed Padilla from Pakistan to Egypt and onto the Chicago flight from Zurich, were authorized from Washington to search him with a toothcomb with special attention to a new pair of Adidas sports shoes he acquired in Cairo. After the experience of the British terrorist, they were directed to make sure Padilla’s shoes had not been packed with explosives for blowing up the Zurich flight to Chicago. Both the suspect and his belongings were clean.


DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s sources also reveal that, during his month’s stay in Cairo earlier this year, Egypt refused to let American agents tail Muhajir and check on his contacts, insisting that Egyptian security watchers would shadow him every moment from landing to departure and promising to hand over their reports.


The Americans therefore had no way of knowing if he bought the shoes himself or was handed them by al Qaeda, as a move in the ongoing cat and mouse game between the terror network and US intelligence.


Notwithstanding his broad travels, DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s sources familiar with his record say he is no heavyweight terrorist professional. A past smalltime member of a Chicago gang and drug pusher, Muhajir has been exploited by al Qaeda as a messenger and, sometimes, as a decoy for US intelligence. Although when he converted to Islam in the early nineties he promised to turn a new leaf and get out of crime, he was not able to kick his own drug habit. Muhajir stayed in dope smuggling on behalf of various organizations, including al Qaeda, but demanded a bigger slice in the major league traffic. His Islamist masters did not trust him enough to integrate him in the major smuggling rings, calling on him only for insignificant missions and only then on condition he carried messages around the countries he visited.


Not all the addresses he was given were real; some were front organizations or bogus to test his bona fides. Our sources have found no intelligence data indicating his al Qaeda bosses trusted him enough to hand out the real addresses of important operational figures or centers.


Given Muhajir’s lightweight personality and standing in the organization, DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s counter-terror sources dispute two theories, whose publication followed on the original disclosure of his arrest. One was that Abu Zubaydah, the most senior al Qaeda captive in American hands, gave away the “dirty bomb” plot and the lead to Padilla. The second, that Padilla himself had been assigned with executing the radiological bomb attack.


Neither holds water for the following reasons.


In the first case, even the dates do not fit the theory; in the second the subject’s personality does not.


Abu Zubaydah was caught in Faisalabad, East Pakistan, on March 28 by a joint US-Pakistani team. As DEBKA-Net-Weekly reported on April 19, this al Qaeda high-up was so badly wounded during his capture that it took American doctors days trying to resuscitate him, starting in the US military plane that transported him from Pakistan to an American military hospital on the Indian Ocean island of Diego Garcia. Through April, they fought for his life and finally pulled him through. However, according to our sources, Padilla left Pakistan for Cairo on April 8, when Abu Zubaydah was still at death’s door. There is no evidence that the suspect met him before this. He is not known to have ever reached Faisalabad, spending most of his time in Islamabad or Karachi. Neither is there evidence that the two met earlier, in December 2001, as claimed, to discuss radiological bombing strikes in the United States. Abu Zubayadah was heavily engaged in other urgent business throughout that month. Heavy Tora Bora battles were in progress in East Afghanistan and, according to DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s military and intelligence sources, Abu Zubaydah was in charge of managing the grand al Qaeda exodus from Afghanistan and Pakistan and setting up the escape corridor that carried the fugitives through Baluchistan and Iran to the Gulf states including Saudi Arabia and the Middle East. That month, he was constantly on the move, flitting between Tehran and Baluchistan, once spotted fleetingly in north Iranian towns along the escape route. He was not seen in Afghanistan after late October when he turned up at Konduz airfield in northwest Afghanistan to oversee the Pakistani-Saudi airlift to safety of thousands of al Qaeda fighters defeated at the battle of Mazar-e-Sharif. Abu Zubaydah left the country aboard one of the last departing transports.


It is scarcely believable that in the middle of this hectic month, this high-ranking al Qaeda officer would find time to meet a low-grade courier and talk about a radiological bombing attack in America.


The impression gained by our intelligence sources is that the US officials who made the announcement overplayed their hand in an effort to show they had caught a big fish. To build up Padilla, they showed him in discussions with top al Qaeda leaders on a strike of great magnitude. Another of their motives may have been to dangle the suggestion that Abu Zubaydah was spilling the beans, part of the intelligence and military war of nerves between Washington and the terrorists.


America wants to demonstrate that the Afghan War is over. One way was to have the loya jirga convene in Kabul this week to select a head of state and place the interim prime minister Hamid Karzai at the head of an administration that will govern the country until the 2004 general election. Karzai’s election as president is necessary to draw a line against the past and the Taliban-al Qaeda regime in Kabul, and to demonstrate that Afghanistan and Pakistan are no longer launching pads for mounting terrorist attacks against the United States.


In contrast, the Taliban and al Qaeda aspire to demonstrate that the Americans have missed their goals and the Afghan War was but one stage in their ongoing war with the United States. The Islamic organization’s strategists believe that a single devastating terror attack in the United States in the near future would blot out the American military victory there and their own defeat.


In this battle of wits, each side is striving to make the opposite side stumble and lose their resolve. The men in Washington calculate that the realization that its top men are being picked off one by one and are “singing” has a good chance of demoralizing the operations chiefs of the Islamic terror network and putting them off their terror offensive against America. Some might even be persuaded to turn themselves in.


Padilla is a pawn in this game. Transferring him to the Defense Department’s custody and solitary confinement in a military brig at Charleston, S.C. as an enemy combatant for an indefinite period violates his constitutional rights as an American citizen. On the other hand, he is fully protected from, and out of the reach of, any al Qaeda cells and sympathizers in the United States wishing to shut his mouth or exact vengeance.


Should they become convinced Muhajir-Padilla was a double agent working under cover for US intelligence, the Islamic group would have to admit its ranks are more permeable than it thought.


Both adversaries use such stratagems to misdirect attention from hidden moves.

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