The Case of the Dirty Bomber

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It must have been one of Jose Padilla's proudest moments. He had spent his life chasing respect but rarely earning it—marking a dreary passage from a Chicago gang to juvenile detention to grownup prison to a Florida fast-food job and, finally, to a new life as a Muslim in the Middle East. And there he was, somewhere in Pakistan just six months after the Sept. 11 attacks, allegedly presenting an ominous proposal to Abu Zubaydah, Osama bin Laden's operations chief.

Padilla, 31, had prepped hard for his meeting, but his ambition outstripped his guile. Senior U.S. officials tell Time that Padilla, conducting research on the Internet, had come across instructions for building a nuclear bomb—"an H-bomb," as a top official described it. The instructions were laughably inaccurate—more a parody than a plan—but not recognizing that, Padilla took them to Abu Zubaydah and other al-Qaeda planners and said he wanted to detonate such a weapon in the U.S. "He was trying to build something that would attain a nuclear yield," says a senior Bush Administration official monitoring Padilla's case. In response, Abu Zubaydah apparently cautioned his eager job applicant to think smaller—to get some training and attack America with a so-called "dirty bomb," a conventional explosive packed with radioactive waste that would spew when the bomb blew up. "They sent him to the U.S. to see what he could do—plan and execute," the official says. What he did was get arrested as soon as he stepped off the plane on May 8, having come full circle, back to Chicago, the site of his first encounters with the law.

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It is tempting to feel reassured by Padilla's story. Clearly, he is not the deadly, skilled operative Attorney General John Ashcroft seemed to be describing when he announced Padilla's arrest in a fear-inducing video hookup from Moscow last Monday. In fact, history may judge the Administration's legal treatment of Padilla—locking him up indefinitely with no plan to try him—as more alarming than Padilla himself. But since unsophisticated men can still do great harm, it was also comforting to know that U.S. intelligence agents had carefully tracked him down and picked him up.

Still, Padilla's lasting value may be as a warning bell—a reminder to keep exercising our imagination. "The main plotters and financiers for the Sept. 11 attack are still out there," says a top FBI official. "Padilla is one symptom of the fact that the core group is still around. They're able to communicate and move money around." The foot soldiers will not necessarily be Arab, nor will there always be a disciplined mastermind like Mohamed Atta leading them. The next attacker could be a man with a Midwestern accent, or a man who makes up for his lack of aplomb with sheer rage. He could be someone like Padilla, whose metamorphosis—from a pudgy Catholic boy to a radical Muslim accused of conspiring to kill his fellow citizens—started out all too commonly.

Padilla grew up in a small gray-stone apartment building in the predominantly Hispanic Logan Square neighborhood of Chicago. His nickname was "Pucho," because of his chubby cheeks, says Nelly Ojeda, 63, who has known the family ever since they moved into the apartment above hers 24 years ago. Padilla played baseball in the school yard across the street and attended St. Sylvester Church with his mother, brother and two sisters. To Ojeda, he was nothing but polite. At Darwin Elementary School, school counselor Art Ryder remembers him not as a bully but as a force. "You always got the feeling that he wasn't looking for trouble—but if you started it, he'd finish it. He had eyes that could stare right through you." Growing up in a place racked by gang violence, that fearlessness could be an asset.

In his early teens, Padilla joined the Latin Disciples, a mostly Puerto Rican gang. When he was 14, Padilla and several friends assaulted and robbed three men. When one victim gave chase, one of the other boys stabbed him in the stomach, according to court records. Padilla helped the boy throw the man to the ground and then kicked him in the head. The pair took cash from the victim's pockets and left him in an alley, where he died. Padilla was convicted of aggravated battery and armed robbery and went to juvenile detention until he was 18.

Padilla went on to rack up a grim but not exceptional rap sheet of adult crimes—ranging from assault to unlawful carrying of weapons to the attempted theft of a doughnut. Almost every incident includes a charge of resisting arrest or fleeing the scene. He swiped at cops with knives, fists and feet, according to court documents. In between bookings, he worked as a dishwasher or in the laundry of Chicago hotels and restaurants. In October 1991, after he and his family had moved to South Florida, he was arrested for firing his .38-cal. revolver at another driver during a road-rage incident in Sunrise, Fla. "He was a scary, scary guy with a Yankees cap covering his eyebrows," remembers the other driver, Victor Lento, 32.

A calm seemed to settle over Padilla after he came out of jail in late 1992. Maybe he had aged out of petty crime, or maybe his girlfriend, Cherie Maria Stultz, had helped him control his temper. At a Taco Bell in Davie, Fla., Padilla and Stultz found jobs with and a mentor in the restaurant's manager, Mohammad Javed, a Pakistani immigrant. "They were poor but trying to make something of their lives—buy a car, establish a good credit rating, things like that," Javed says. Javed, a Muslim who now runs an Islamic elementary school in Broward County, insists he did not proselytize to his young employees. When Padilla, who had undoubtedly heard about Islam in prison, began asking him how to convert, Javed says he told Padilla to find a mosque on his own.

And so Padilla began a 10-year odyssey, moving ever closer to radical elements within Islam. In South Florida, as many as 60,000 Muslims attend two dozen mosques and religious sites, spanning the spectrum of ideology. A subculture of extremism has taken hold in certain pockets. "Hamas and Hizballah have a wide network here," says a prominent Islamic community leader. "We have been taking a nap on this issue for far too long. These are people who are convinced that the West is evil and America is 'Darul Harb,'" the Place of War. The community leader, who requested anonymity, describes a growing radicalized cadre of mostly Middle Eastern men who aggressively recruit young Muslims. These men often drive BMWs and Mercedes and lure followers with money, he says.

Padilla attended at least two mosques in the Broward County area that have since been linked to extremist activity. One is the Darul Uloom Islamic Institute in Pembroke Pines. Last month two men in their 20s who had frequented the Darul Uloom mosque were arrested on federal charges of plotting to blow up electrical power stations in South Florida as part of a "holy war" against the U.S. Maulana Shafayat, imam of the Darul Uloom mosque, says he condemns extremist ideology. But, he concedes, "a certain percentage [of converts] do get radical. They are mostly less educated, and they are the ones who feel they are oppressed."

In 1994 Padilla converted formally to Islam at al-Iman mosque in Sunrise. The imam at the mosque at that time, who would have overseen Padilla's conversion, was Raed Awad—the former Florida fund raiser for the Holy Land Foundation, a Muslim charity that the Bush Administration has linked to Hamas. In December the Texas-based offices of the foundation were raided and shuttered by the Treasury Department. Attempts to reach Awad, who has since left the mosque, were unsuccessful. Awad has denied any link between the charity and Hamas. Law-enforcement sources say the FBI is interested in learning more about the role he played in Padilla's conversion.

Around the time of his conversion, Padilla legally changed his name to Ibrahim. (No surname is listed on court documents, so Time is using his birth name.) In 1996 he married Stultz, who had also converted. He started wearing a red-and-white kaffiyeh, or headdress, and expensive watches and clothes, although he was unemployed for much of the time. In 1998 Padilla suddenly left his wife and moved to Egypt, telling acquaintances at al-Iman mosque that he was going to learn Arabic. Padilla has since told investigators that his travels were sponsored by "friends" interested in his education. Using the name Abdullah al-Muhajir, he moved to a suburb of Cairo. But he was frustrated, officials say, by the secular, state-controlled brand of Islam taught in mainstream schools. He plunged into the extremist underground, where he was advised to study in Pakistan and Afghanistan. He moved to Pakistan, where, like many militants, he married the widow of a jihadist. Last year Padilla met with Abu Zubaydah for the first time, U.S. officials say. In spring of this year, he met with Abu Zubaydah again—and allegedly made his nuclear-bomb pitch.

In March Abu Zubaydah was captured in Pakistan. A month later, he hinted to his FBI and CIA interrogators that he had talked to people who wanted to put together a dirty bomb, says a U.S. official. He provided no details, but agents started comparing intelligence as well as material from safe houses they had raided. Out popped Padilla's name, the official says. They then matched the name to a passport photo of Padilla and checked the identification with Abu Zubaydah, who confirmed it. The chase was on.

The CIA caught up with Padilla in Cairo in early May, where officers learned he was planning to fly to the U.S. When he boarded his connection in Zurich, bound for Chicago, he was trailed by FBI agents. FBI officials, including Director Robert Mueller, had debated whether to continue following Padilla in hopes of turning up accomplices. But they could not risk losing him, sources tell Time, as they had a couple of times during his far-flung journey, so they took the more cautious approach. After Padilla deplaned in Chicago, customs officers pulled him aside not far from the baggage carousel. In a secondary screening room, FBI agents identified themselves and took Padilla into custody. He appeared neither surprised nor angry, says a federal agent. During the next month, the feds tried and apparently failed to build a case against Padilla that would stand up in court. On Sunday, June 9, the day before Padilla could have been released under laws protecting U.S. citizens from indefinite detention, President Bush approved Padilla's reclassification as an "enemy combatant." He was transferred after midnight to the brig of a South Carolina naval base.

On Monday morning Ashcroft held his hastily arranged press conference in Moscow. He alarmed Americans and roiled the markets by describing Padilla as a "known terrorist" pursuing an "unfolding terrorist plot"—leaving the impression that other bombers were still at large. He said, wrongly, that a dirty bomb "can cause mass death and injury." White House officials fumed at what one called Ashcroft's "grandstanding." The officials concede they approved Ashcroft's statement but complain they were given it only at the last minute—and didn't anticipate his overly dire tone.

If the Administration was confused about how to handle and describe Padilla, it was because the al-Qaeda threat keeps changing—the enemy keeps appearing in different guises. Padilla was an unlikely attacker, a small-time crook with grand plans. He doesn't fit the profile, but perhaps that's the point. There is no profile anymore.

—Reported by Massimo Calabresi, Sally B. Donnelly, Elaine Shannon, Mark Thompson, Douglas Waller and Michael Weisskopf/Washington; Tim Padgett, Ghulam Hasnain and Jeanne DeQuine/Sunrise; and Noah Isackson, Ron Stodghill II and Maggie Sieger/Chicago