Person of the Week: Jose Padilla

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Padilla was on the nation's TV screens. But was he this week's most important catch in the war on terror?

An al-Qaeda plot was broken up this week — a well-organized conspiracy involving hardened, well-trained bin Laden operatives taking instructions from the surviving operational core of the organization, with the know-how, experience and the means to kill dozens of unsuspecting Americans. And it was busted through timely cooperation by a number of different intelligence agencies.

That plot, of course, had nothing to do with Jose Padilla, or his notorious alter ego, Abdullah al-Mujahir. It concerned three Saudi Arabian al-Qaeda operatives recently relocated to Morocco, who had planned to use a rubber dinghy packed with explosives to attack U.S. Navy vessels passing through the Strait of Gibraltar. The reason you're probably only faintly aware, if aware at all, of the foiled Morocco plot is that the U.S. media has been dominated this week by a mug-shot of former Chicago gangbanger Padilla, and talk of "dirty bombs."

Padilla entered public life via an announcement from Moscow on Monday, by Attorney General John Ashcroft, that an al-Qaeda operative had been captured at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport, en route to contaminate a U.S. city with a radiological bomb. Within minutes panicky cable news channels were running file footage of mushroom clouds. They then spent much of the next two days atoning via a more sober explanation of dirty-bomb scenarios — and why they're not nearly as scary as they sound.

But as the (not quite radioactive) dust settled on Ashcroft's dramatic announcement, some began asking not only why Mr. Padilla, a U.S. citizen, was being held in a Navy brig as an "enemy combatant," but also why he was dominating America's headlines — and its nightmares. Within hours of Ashcroft's announcement, administration officials were pointing out that Padilla had no radioactive material or any other bomb-making equipment. Nor had he chosen a target, or formulated a plan. And while his connections with al-Qaeda operatives were never in doubt, he suddenly began to look a lot more like the accused shoe-bomber Richard Reid (i.e. another disaffected ex-con from the West desperate to get in with al-Qaeda) than like the sophisticated professionals who put together September 11.

Details, of course, are sketchy, but it appears that Padilla converted to Islam after a prison spell in Florida, and eventually made his way to Afghanistan or Pakistan to make common cause with al-Qaeda. According to the government's account, he approached them with the idea of detonating a "dirty bomb" in a U.S. city, and they obliged by teaching him to wire a bomb. The impression, in the government's own account, is of a former street hoodlum desperate to join a new gang — and being kept at arm's length. An outsider taught to build a bomb (what's not to like, for al-Qaeda, about a U.S. passport holder asking to be taught how to kill his countrymen?) but not necessarily integrated into the organization he was desperate to join. The fact that the authorities arrested Padilla immediately on his arrival in Chicago rather than following him around in the hope that he would reveal al-Qaeda operatives already on U.S. soil says volumes about how little may have known about the organization.

There are plenty of reasons to suspect that al-Qaeda keeps men like Padilla and Reid at arm's length: Ex-convicts from Western prisons are inherently unreliable as recruits, not only because of their dubious past (Bin Laden's men tend to be repressed puritans rather than penitent sinners) but also because they'd be prime candidates for recruitment by Western intelligence agencies. And because Western volunteers are generally converts, al-Qaeda would not have the community and kinship networks available to them in the Arab world to verify the credentials of men like Padilla. That would dictate that while they would be given training and logistical means to harm al-Qaeda's enemies, they would be kept away from information that, in the wrong hands, would harm the network.

Padilla got some instruction in bomb-making, and some cash. And al-Qaeda leaders reportedly discussed with him schemes ranging from "dirty bombs" to blowing up gas stations — discussions which some captive terrorist leaders appear to have shared with U.S. agents. So Padilla flew back to Chicago under U.S. surveillance, and into the waiting arms of the FBI. That was a month ago; the story broke this week because the authorities had to move him out of the criminal justice system and into military detention, for lack of evidence (at least evidence which the government would be willing to reveal to a judge) to support keeping him in prison. By week's end, the nation's focus was on the constitutional and legal challenges posed by denying a U.S. citizen the rights of due process, rather than the threat presented by Padilla's discussions and training. Unkind voices in Washington even drew attention to the fact that the timing of the announcement had helped the administration forestall criticism over the government's handling of intelligence and security matters.

And what has almost certainly been lost in the cacophony of a news week dominated by Jose Padilla, is the recognition that a major blow has been struck against al-Qaeda — in far-off Morocco.