US Catches al Qaeda “Dirty Bomb” Plotter
debkafile Special Report, 10 June, 2002
Washington staged an all-star performance to announce that an American member of the Islamist terror network al Qaeda had been had been arrested on May 8 on suspicion of plotting a “dirty bomb” attack in the Washington area. The name of the man in custody, Abdullah Mujahir also known as Jose Padilla, was first released by US attorney general John Ashcroft Monday, June 10, during a visit to Moscow. The plotter was picked up as he landed at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport from Pakistan. The deputy secretary of defense, Paul Wolfowitz and FBI director John Mueller followed with supplementary details of the foiled plot.
American-born Jose Padilla, 32, spent time in prison in the 1990s. There, he changed his name and after his release traveled to Afghanistan and Pakistan, where he met al Qaeda officlas and studied how to wire explosives of different kinds. During his last visit, he took part in al Qaeda discussions on a plot to set off of a radiological explosion in the Washington area. Those discussions had not gone beyond “the initial planning stage”, but it was decided to send Mujahir back to America on a “reconnaissance mission”. He was picked up upon landing on the basis of intelligence obtained from al Qaeda members in US custody, possibly even the most senior, Abu Zubayda.
After President George W. Bush signed a decree declaring the suspect an enemy combatant under the law of war, the justice authorities were able to transfer him to Department of Defense custody. He is currently held at the Charleston, South Carolina naval facility.
Mujahir was known to Middle East counter-terror agencies, according to debkafile‘s intelligence sources, and they report he also spent time in Lebanon and the Gaza Strip in 1999, studying explosives techniques with Hizballah and Palestinian bomb experts.
Those sources point out that he is not the only al suspected Qaeda bombing plotter rounded up by US law enforcement authorities in recent months. More than 100 are thought to be in detention and undergoing interrogation.
debkafile and DEBKA-Net-Weeklyhave since October 12, 2002 been reporting on various aspects of al Qaeda’s preparations for purchasing or building a dirty bomb or bombs for exploding inside the United States with the help of its cells in Spain, North Africa and Pakistan. International organized crime groups have been used as intermediaries for the purchase of radioactive substances. The intelligence sources we consulted estimated that the Islamist network may have acquired between 3 and 6 radioactive bombs for exploding in the United States and Israel. Some put as high as 50-70,000 the potential number of casualties if such a device were to be detonated in an American city like Washington.
debkafile‘s intelligence sources say Mujahir was not a prime mover. His American passport made him useful for spying out the security measures employed at potential target sites in the United States. However, the Bush administration is under increasing pressure to show results in protecting America from terrorists, in the face of spreading public criticism of US intelligence and counter-terror agencies’ performance. The suspect may have been chosen, not because he was important, but because he talked about a “dirty bomb”.
As to Ashcroft’s choice of Moscow as the venue for his disclosure, debkafile notes that Bush during his visit to Moscow and St. Petersburg in late May faced Russian complaints that the US war against global terror had so far been disappointing.