Citizen Padilla (Part III: The Radioactive Patsy)
By Lewis Koch
January 24, 2008 - 1:44pm ET
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In his adolescence, Jose Padilla -- just sentenced to seventeen years for conspiracy to murder, kidnap and maim individuals outside the United States -- was filled with an uncontrollable narcissistic rage. No father was present in the house, just his mother and two brothers and two sisters.
He had a classic Chicago gang-banger record: trespassing, drug possession (marijuana), armed robbery, battery. At 14 or 15 (there are conflicting reports), he was found guilty of participating in a savage robbery-murder by other gang members. When police asked him why he continued to kick the victim (who had lain unconscious on the street) with such ferocity that he died, Padilla reportedly said, “I just felt like it.”
Padilla, a juvenile, was given the maximum sentence allowable and released from juvenile jail when he was 21. A series of meaningless fast-food jobs in Chicago and Ft. Lauderdale followed. As did trouble. He punched a policeman in a dispute over a doughnut. In 1990, Padilla found himself in adult Florida prison, serving 303 days for a more serious charge -- firing a handgun at a motorist who cut him off on a highway. It was in prison that Jose Padilla found direction, an outlet for that rage: radical Islam.
U.S. prisons have become the hothouses for growing hardened criminals and more than one Islamic extremist. Not unlike their counterparts in the Middle East, these young men live in poverty and filth. And like their “brothers” in the Middle East, they are often desperate, hopeless and filled with rage that could be channeled outward in acts condoned and even celebrated by radical Islam. Radical recruiters in the Middle East and in England have been successful introducing alienated, desperate youth new pathways to Heaven and a means to live in the hearts of all Islam, their bodies and words depicted in photos and videotapes, their sacrifice praised as heroic. There has been smaller but similar success in sections of Great Britain.
Given the time and effort and large pool from which to choose, it’s surprising, however, how unsuccessful prison imams in the United States appear to have been in recruiting such vulnerable targets. Blacks in the United States comprise 13 percent of the national population and 49 percent of those in prison. While there may be some temporary gain in popularity while serving time, dedication to Islam among blacks in prison appears to wane with release. There are exceptions, of course, but even those exceptions differ significantly from the results produced by radical imams in the Middle East.
Not one case exists of another prisoner in the Broward County jail from 1989 on -- or, for that matter, in any prison in the United States during this period -- as having had a jail conversion to Islam who, after being released back into society, then carried out acts of terror against the United States of America.
There is little doubt that Jose Padilla, the Chicago street gang member of the Latin Kings who was nicknamed “Pudgy,” became a dedicated student of radical Islam. Padilla had great difficulty learning the classical Arabic script, the language of the Qur'an and classical literature, but he persisted.
Between his release from prison in 1988 and 1991, Padilla became a serious, if not able convert. Following his release from prison, he demonstrated his commitment to Islam, visiting and studying at the Masjid A Imam mosque in Ft. Lauderdale. He filed for an official name change to Ibrahim and later began to refer to himself as Abdullah Al Muhair. At that Ft. Lauderdale mosque, he was befriended by an outspoken supporter of Palestinian causes and charities, Adham Hassoun, later to be called his mentor. Now there was a “conspiracy” of two.
There are two other main sources for Padilla's alleged terrorist training. The first came from an unsworn "Mobbs declaration" (written by then under secretary of defense Douglas J. Feith's lackey advisor Michael H. Mobbs) offered to Judge Michael Mukasey in 2002 as a reason for denying Padilla his own attorney. The second declaration was said to have been authored by Mobbs, but was released May 28, 2004 under the signature of Paul Wolfowitz, Deputy Secretary of Defense. This was a far more detailed statement of Padilla's terrorist activities, “leaked” to the public in 2004, shortly after Deputy Attorney General James Comey brought the new exploding-stoves-in-high-rises charges against Padilla. The leak helped to sustain Comey’s new allegations. There was more detail in the second document -- where Padilla went during his years abroad, who he met, the weapons he trained on, etc.
But this tool remained only a government document that we were supposed to trust. By 2004, after it was found that there were no WMD in Iraq, “trust us” was no longer enough.
What appears to true, but still somewhat unproved in an American courtroom, is that Padilla was likely, if you will, up to no good when he was in the Middle East. But even here the evidence is tangled and contradictory. The FBI had been taping the phone conversations of Adham Hassoun, Padilla’s Islamic mentor, since the early 1990s. Out of 300,000 calls, the FBI managed to capture only seven conversations with Padilla’s voice talking in clear language , which included a discussion about the death of his grandmother and how his new 18-year-old Egyptian bride was willing to wear a veil.
Incidentally, these were calls overheard five years before he was arrested in Chicago for the alleged “dirty bomb” plot.
According to government claims, calls with other defendants used coded language. As Deborah Sontag of The New York Times put it, “...other defendants refer to their jihad‑related plans as ‘getting some fresh air,’ ‘participating in tourism,’ ‘opening up a market,’ ‘playing football,’ and so on. This leads to silly‑sounding exchanges where ‘the brothers’ discuss going on ‘picnics’ in order ‘to smell fresh air and to eat cheese’ or using $3,500 to buy ‘zucchini.’”
In other words, it was the kind of coded language employed by adolescents who hang out in secret tree houses, or dialogue Woody Allen might use if he were to pen a comedy about a gang of bungling jihaddists.
Yet, even more importantly, testimony showed that Padilla himself was never heard using any of this alleged coded language.
According to official U.S. documents, “In 1998, he [Padilla] moved to Egypt and was subsequently known as Abdullah Al Muhajir. In 1999 or 2000 Padilla traveled to Pakistan. He also traveled to Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan….While in Afghanistan in 2001, Padilla met with senior Usama Bin Laden lieutenant Abu Zubaydah.” The document then alleges that in 2002 “at Zubaydah's direction, Padilla traveled to Karachi, Pakistan to meet with senior Al Qaeda operative to discuss Padilla's involvement and participation in terrorist operations targeting the United States. These discussions included the noted ‘dirty bomb’ plan and other operations including the detonation of explosives in hotel rooms and gas stations.”
Much is made of the CIA-acknowledged “confession by torture” of Abu Zubaydah in May, 2002, a “prize” that sent George Tenet scurrying to the Oval Office to receive a gold star from George Bush – four years after the FBI had Padilla on tape planning to travel to the Middle East.
According to Ron Suskind’s book, The One Percent Solution, Padilla’s name first surfaces while Abu Zubaydah is being tortured by the CIA in Guantanamo Bay, in May 2002. Zubaydah, in the same set of confessions, also coughs up al Qaeda plans for blowing up banks and supermarkets and water systems, nuclear plants and apartment buildings and just about anything else he can think of to make the pain stop.
Zubaydah also, according to Suskind, fingers Padilla as a terrorist-in-training. Padilla is then found in Pakistan (where he’s en route to Chicago via Zurich). But by whom --
agents of the CIA? FBI? -- Suskind doesn’t say. On May 8, 2002, Padilla was arrested at
Chicago’s O’Hare airport with $10,000 in cash.
A month later, the arrest of Jose Padilla -- a terrorist mastermind on the cusp of setting off a lethal radioactive device that would result in “mass death and injury” -- was announced to the world.
So did the FBI, as far back as the mid 1990s, know Jose Padilla dreamed about getting his beginner’s permit in the terrorist business? Or, as Suskind writes, did Padilla first appear on the Government’s radar in 2002, when a tortured Abu Zubaydah offered up Padilla’s name for CIA chief George Tenet to give to President Bush? Or was this just another case of bureaucratic one-upmanship, of the FBI keeping secrets from the CIA? These questions remain unanswered.
Finally, did Padilla wish to inflict pain and suffering on the United States? The key word is wish. If one can believe the first and second Mobbs declarations, the answer is yes, since he received terrorist training. But was Padilla capable of pulling it off? Could he have actually built a “dirty bomb”? The resounding answer from nuclear experts is no. In fact, he was not only technically incapable of building such a complex device, but the Government failed to provide evidence that he posed any serious ability to undermine the security of the United States.
Did he talk about it? Did he dream about it? Sure. But in a way more akin to an extremist version of the hapless dreamers in Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh.
According David Johnston of The New York Times:
“... Mr. Zubaydah dismissed Mr. Padilla as a maladroit extremist whose hope to construct a dirty bomb, using conventional explosives to disperse radioactive materials, was far‑fetched. He [Zubaydah] told his questioners that Mr. Padilla was ignorant on the subject of nuclear physics and believed he could separate plutonium from nuclear material by rapidly swinging over his head a bucket filled with fissionable material.”
Maybe no better image captures the leap of imagination necessary to believe the Government’s case against Jose Padilla.
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