The 'Dirty Bomb' Suspect: Lots of Questions, Few Answers

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Jose Padilla, also known as Abdullah Al Mujahir

The announcement of a foiled "dirty bomb" plot — or at least the apprehension of a plotter who hadn't quite formulated his plan — serves as a timely reminder that congressional probes into pre-September 11 intelligence failures are taking place in the midst of continuing peril. But like those vague threat warnings that periodically emanate from the authorities these days, Monday's announcement of the detention of Abdullah al Muhajir poses more questions than it answers.

Attorney General John Ashcroft announced al Muhajir had been captured a month ago, and was now being transferred out of the criminal justice system and into military detention — a move that raised legal eyebrows, since al Mujahir was an American citizen, born Jose Padillo in Brooklyn, NY, and was raised in Chicago. President Bush has deemed the former gangbanger who converted to Islam after a spell in prison (and changed his name) an "enemy combatant." The reason is that al Muhajir had allegedly been trained by al-Qaeda in Pakistan to build a radiological bomb, and sent to the U.S. to reconnoiter possible targets. He'd been arrested at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport on May 8, after having flown in from Zurich under the watchful eyes of FBI agents.

U.S. officials say that al Muhajir was arrested on tips, with evidence provided by senior al-Qaeda captive Abu Zubaydah corroborated from other sources. His capture was certainly an impressive example of interagency cooperation and preemptive security based on sound intelligence. But from the information released by U.S. officials Monday, al Muhajir appears to have more in common with solo shoe-bomber Richard Reid than with the 19 hijackers of September 11. Indeed, rather than a specific conspiracy to detonate a radiological bomb at a designated target, al Muhajir may have been doing a feasibility study. There was no suggestion, for example, that either al Muhajir or any other al-Qaeda operatives might already be in possession of the necessary radiological materials. "They didn't seem to think they'd have a problem getting radiological materials," a U.S. official told the New York Times. "But they didn't have any." Of course the material necessary to build a radiological bomb — which is simply a conventional explosive wrapped in radioactive material in order to disperse the contaminant — could conceivably be stolen from a number of civilian institutions, such as hospitals or food-irradiating plants. But some experts also raised questions about whether al Muhajir would have mustered the technical expertise to build a successful dirty bomb.

Officials suggest al Muhajir had approached Abu Zubaydah and other senior al-Qaeda leaders in Pakistan last December and suggested a dirty bomb attack in the U.S. They liked the fact that al Muhajir had a U.S. passport, and trained him in wiring explosives, while he did research on the Internet into radiological dispersion. From the little reported, the impression is not of a star al-Qaeda engineer but rather of an eager volunteer with easy access to the U.S. Both the al Muhajir instance and the case of shoe-bomber Richard Reid suggest that some of the volunteers who found their way to al-Qaeda from Western countries after brushes with the law were kept at arm's length from the organization's deepest networks. U.S. officials told the Washington Post that al Muhajir was not part of Zubaydah's inner circle, and that they were able to find him even though the Bin Laden lieutenant had alluded to the American only in "generic terms" — although, presumably, there aren't too many Puerto Ricans from Brooklyn knocking around in militant Islamic circles in Pakistan.

Al Muhajir was reportedly tracked following an arrest in Pakistan in April on a passport violation. The FBI and CIA (working together, please note) had followed him through Europe and onto a Chicago-bound plane from Zurich. (U.S. officials made sure airport security carefully check his belongings, particularly his shoes.) They arrested him immediately on landing in Chicago, hoping he would cooperate. (He hasn't, according to reports.) The decision to nab him early rather than monitor his movements in the hope of revealing a hidden network already operating in the U.S. also raises important questions. For one thing, it means the authorities don't know exactly what al Muhajir intended to do, and more importantly, if he would have enlisted help. "There was not an actual plan," said Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz on Monday, adding that al Muhajir had returned home "to conduct reconnaissance operations for al-Qaeda."

A tension arises between the traditional methods of intelligence work and the demands of homeland security. Intelligence agencies have tended to avoid arresting a suspect until the last possible moment, in the hope that tracking him will yield valuable information about the enemy's methods and networks. But it's hardly surprising in the current climate of finger-pointing over September 11 that the authorities may be inclined right now to avoid taking any chances by rolling him up early. An alternative explanation might be that they already knew al Muhajir was not the tip of some organizational iceberg, but rather a solo volunteer, like shoe-bomber Reid, sent on a mission al-Qaeda could claim if it succeeded but that would cause minimal organizational damage if he was captured. Indeed, officials quoted in the U.S. media suggested that al Muhajir was on the run following the April arrest, and had believed he was escaping apprehension by his journey to Chicago.

All of this is speculation, of course. But with the case of Abdullah al Muhajir/Jose Padilla now in the hands of the military, speculation may be the only game in town.