updated 4/16/2007 5:49:19 PM ET 2007-04-16T21:49:19

Jury selection began Monday for the trial of alleged al-Qaida operative Jose Padilla and two co-defendants, with potential jurors questioned about their knowledge of Padilla’s link to a purported “dirty bomb” plot.

The allegations that Padilla, a U.S. citizen held as an enemy combatant for 3½ years, sought to detonate a radioactive “dirty bomb” inside the United States are not part of the criminal case. But the Bush administration initially accused Padilla of such a plot shortly after he was arrested in May 2002 at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport.

“If I said to you the phrase ‘dirty bomber,’ what does that mean?” U.S. District Judge Marcia Cooke asked one prospective juror.

“Jose Padilla,” the man answered.

Others in the jury pool of more than 300 people had definite opinions about a supposed connection between Islam and terrorism around the world.

“I think the religion espouses intolerance of other religions and looks to a situation where they are either going to kill non-Muslims or subjugate them,” one potential male juror said.

But another juror said the opposite: “I don’t think because somebody’s Muslim, it makes them violent.”

The exchanges illustrated the challenges of seating a jury to hear the charges against Padilla and co-defendants Adham Amin Hassoun, 45, and 44-year-old Kifah Wael Jayyousi. They face life in prison if convicted on charges of participating in a North American cell that supported Islamic extremist causes around the world.

Phone conversations used as evidence
Padilla, a 36-year-old former Chicago gang member and Muslim convert, allegedly was recruited to attend an al-Qaida training camp in Afghanistan. Critical pieces of evidence include thousands of intercepted phone conversations and an application Padilla purportedly completed in 2000 to become a “mujahedeen” trainee at the Afghan camp.

Federal officials claim Padilla admitted involvement and training with al-Qaida during his interrogations in military custody. However, none of that can be used as evidence because Padilla had no lawyer present and was not read his Miranda rights.

In the courtroom Monday, Padilla smiled and waved at relatives.

Jury selection is expected to take about two weeks, and the trial is expected to last about four months.

Cooke ruled that prosecutors can refer to the Sept. 11 terror attacks in a limited way but cannot suggest that Padilla and the others were involved.

Prosecutor John Shipley said there was never any intent to link Padilla and the other defendants to the conspiracy or the attacks that killed about 3,000 people. But he said there will be testimony connecting the defendants to the terror group led by Osama bin Laden.

“They certainly supported al-Qaida, there’s no question about that,” Shipley said. “We’re not going to try them for their specific involvement in 9/11.”

Courtroom security was especially tight, including an extra metal detector set up outside the room and a temporary wall erected in the lobby to shield potential jurors and witnesses from the public.

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