Jose Padilla, the former Chicago gang member held as a terrorism suspect for two years, sought to blow up hotels and apartment buildings in the United States in addition to planning an attack with a “dirty bomb” radiological device, the government alleged Tuesday.
The Justice Department, under pressure to explain its indefinite detention of Padilla, a U.S. citizen, as an “enemy combatant,” detailed Padilla’s alleged al-Qaida training in Afghanistan and contacts with the most senior members of the terrorist network, his travel back into the United States and preparations to rent apartments and set off explosives.
Deputy Attorney General James Comey called the chronicle of Padilla’s plotting “remarkable for its scope, its clarity and its candor.”
The department released documents, based in part on interviews with Padilla, saying he and an unidentified al-Qaida accomplice planned to find as many as three apartment buildings supplied with natural gas.
“Padilla and the accomplice were to locate as many as three high-rise apartment buildings which had natural gas supplied to the floors,” the government summary of interrogations said. The alleged accomplice is in custody.
“They would rent two apartments in each building, seal all the openings, turn on the gas, and set timers to detonate the buildings simultaneously at a later time,” the papers alleged.
Comey said Padilla suggested to his handlers that he detonate a nuclear bomb, which he thought he could make from instructions on the Internet, or that he set off a dirty bomb that would release deadly radiation in a small area. His handlers did not think either idea was feasible, Comey said, and wanted him to focus instead on the apartment building plot.
Top al-Qaida officials “wanted Padilla to hit targets in New York City, although Florida and Washington, D.C., were discussed as well,” the summary said.
Lawyer cries foul
One of Padilla’s attorneys, Andrew Patel, characterized Comey’s information as “an opening statement without a trial. We are in the same position we’ve been in for two years, where the government says bad things about Mr. Padilla and there’s no forum for him to defend himself.”
The Supreme Court is deciding whether the war on terrorism gives the government power to seize Americans like Padilla and hold them without charges for as long as it takes to ensure that they are not a danger to the nation. Comey denied that the timing of the disclosure was an attempt to influence the court.
Comey said Padilla’s partner in the attacks was to have been Adnan El Shukrijumah, one of seven suspected al-Qaida operatives who the Justice Department cited last week as planning attacks on the United States. Shukrijumah, a Saudi native nicknamed “Jafar the pilot,” once lived in Florida and has been sought by federal authorities for more than a year.
While Comey said the two broke up the partnership because they could not get along, he said the information that had been learned from Padilla and others about Shukrijumah’s role made his capture imperative.
“We need to find that guy,” Comey said.
Congressional prodding discounted
Comey said release of the information had no connection to criticism from some members of Congress and some administration officials that Attorney General John Ashcroft had overstated the threat from al-Qaida.
Rather, Comey said, he acted “because every place I went to speak, people would say, ‘We agree with you with the war on terror, but we’ve got a problem with this Padilla thing. I wish I knew more about it.’ And I very much wanted people to know what I knew about Jose Padilla to address those questions.”
Comey said at a news conference that when Padilla stepped off an airplane in Chicago in May 2002, he was a highly trained and fully equipped “soldier of our enemy” who had accepted his al-Qaida assignment to kill hundreds of innocent people in apartment buildings.
“We have decided to release this information to help people understand why we are doing what we are doing in the war on terror and to help people understand the nature of the threat we face,” he said.
He asserted that if Padilla had been handled by the usual criminal justice system, he could have stayed silent and “would likely have ended up a free man.”
Details of alleged plan
The information was provided in response to a query from Senate Justice Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch, R-Utah. Comey said it took significant time to compile the information and denied that the timing had anything to do with the court case.
“If it was done sooner, it would have been released sooner,” he said.
Comey said there were no plans to file the information as an addendum to the arguments the administration made in the case. And he said there were no plans to use the material to try to seek a criminal indictment against Padilla.
Comey traced Padilla’s alleged transition into a terrorist as beginning in earnest in March 2000, when he joined a pilgrimage in Saudi Arabia and met an al-Qaida recruiter. Two months later, he met someone in Yemen who arranged training for him in the Afghan terrorist camps, Comey said.
He said Padilla signed an application joining al-Qaida in July 2000. During his training, Comey said, Padilla met senior al-Qaida officials including Abu Zubaydah, the network’s operations chief in Afghanistan, and Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, architect of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
Padilla’s assignment was to conduct an Internet search on buildings that had natural gas heating, open a bank account and obtain documents needed to rent an apartment, the government said. The plot called for blowing up 20 buildings simultaneously, but Padilla allegedly said he could not rent multiple apartments under one identity without drawing attention.