Yesterday, the federal government unsealed a series of indictments charging five men – among them the infamous “enemy combatant” Jose Padilla – with 11 counts of criminal acts including terrorist conspiracy, conspiracy to commit murder, and material support to terrorists. Padilla, who was being held in a Naval brig in South Carolina, is expected to be transferred this week to a federal facility in Miami, the location of his upcoming trial.
Tuesday’s indictment comes as a welcome development in the long saga of Padilla, (a.k.a. Abdullah al-Muhajir, a.k.a. Abdullah the Puerto Rican). While the threat posed by Padilla has frequently been downplayed by observers anxious to depict his arrest as extra-judicial and an overreaction on the part of the Bush administration, there now appears to be a wealth of evidence indicating that Padilla’s role in al-Qaeda’s war against the West was far from inconsequential. Instead of the embittered lone wolf that Padilla is often portrayed to be, it is now clear that the gang member-turned-jihadist was part of a larger conspiracy that funneled thousands of dollars to a worldwide network of Islamofascist terrorist groups, including al-Qaeda.
What we already knew about the Padilla case is as follows: Padilla, a violent criminal and ex-convict, converted to Islam while living in Florida in 1994. After coming under the influence of Muslim community leaders allied with Hamas, Padilla became steadily more militant. Then in 1998, armed with a recently issued passport, Padilla traveled to Saudi Arabia and Egypt. During the hajj of 2000, he met with a Yemeni man – described in recently declassified documents only as the “recruiter”– who facilitated Padilla’s next trip to Yemen. There he was vetted by other al-Qaeda spotters, who deemed him fit to be sent to Pakistan and eventually to training camps in Afghanistan. Before beginning his training, Padilla filled out a membership form – later discovered by the FBI – which indicated his interest in fighting in Chechnya and was signed with Padilla’s new nom de guerre, Abu Abdullah al-Muhajir.
During his three-month stay at the al-Farouq camp, Padilla was tutored in the fundamentals of terror, including basic marksmanship and explosive skills. Sent at first to the frontlines of the Afghan civil war, Padilla was then approached by Mohammed Atef, al-Qaeda’s military commander. With his American passport and English skills, Padilla was obviously a prized asset for Atef and bin Laden. He was then ordered to take part in a plot that would involve the destruction of high-rise apartment buildings throughout the United States.
However, before he could be sent to the United States, the American war against al-Qaeda and the Taliban commenced. Fleeing to Pakistan with other al-Qaeda members, Padilla soon became acquainted with veteran terrorist Abu Zubaydah and 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Muhammad. Seeking a new avenue for his jihadist energies, Padilla proposed the use of a radioactive “dirty bomb” against targets in the United States, a plot that was dismissed as amateurish by the leadership. Instead, Padilla was charged with carrying out the original plot targeting apartment buildings and assigned targets in New York City. With $10,000 and further instructions, Padilla was sent to the U.S. in May 2002, where he was intercepted and arrested by FBI agents. He was later deemed an “enemy combatant” by President Bush, a designation which abrogated the rights usually afforded to American citizens in the event of their arrest and incarceration.
The latest indictment, however, makes little mention of Padilla’s plans to attack the United States – for good reason. Were the Justice Department to seek criminal charges stemming from Padilla’s activities in Afghanistan and elsewhere, they would be required to call mass murderers such as Khalid Sheikh Mohammad and Abu Zubaydah, who are still valuable sources of information in the War on Terror, to the witness stand. This would undoubtedly lead to calls for those two men – along with other al-Qaeda leaders – to be afforded rights reserved for conventional criminal suspects, an unacceptable surrender of mandated war powers.
While many of the preceding facts have been public knowledge for months, specific questions remained unanswered concerning Padilla’s relationship with al-Qaeda. Chief among them: What was the initial impetus for Padilla’s initial trips overseas; and did he have a support network in place sustaining his various travels within the 1998-2000 timeframe? The indictment answers many of these questions, indicating that Padilla was actually only one component of a much wider U.S.-based jihadist conspiracy.
At the heart of this conspiracy was defendant Kifah Wael Jayyousi, who founded the American Islamic Group in 1993. Jayyousi and others were devoted supporters of Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman, convicted of involvement in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. AIG, while masquerading as a charity organization, was merely a cover for jihadist and terrorist fundraising operations. Based in Broward County, Florida, Jayyousi and his indicted conspirators published a jihadist newsletter, while simultaneously providing contacts and travel plans for Americans looking to fight overseas in Africa, Afghanistan, and Bosnia. One such American was fellow Broward resident, Jose Padilla, who was recruited by Jayyousi and his associates in 1996. In coded telephone conversations, the group outlined their plans for Padilla, while offering monetary support to him once he had successfully left the country. The group also kept close tabs on Padilla during his religious studies in Egypt.
Between 1998 and 2000, thousands of dollars were transferred through AIG bank accounts to Padilla, who used the money for living expenses and training-related supplies. At the same time, AIG was helping to fund violent jihadist groups in Chechnya, Kosovo, and Bosnia with money from American donors. Then in 2000, Padilla met with an al-Qaeda recruiter who would eventually send him on to Yemen - a meeting previously thought to be coincidental or engineered by Padilla himself. The indictment suggests, however, that the AIG network used a connection in the al-Qaeda network to facilitate Padilla’s eventual travel to Afghanistan and Pakistan. Furthermore, as Padilla met with al-Qaeda leaders such as Mohammad Atef, the AIG continued to send him thousands of dollars, a sponsorship that only ceased in November 2001.
Extensive terrorist credentials notwithstanding, Padilla has been converted into a cause celebre by the Legal Left, which has battled common sense anti-terrorism laws at every possible juncture. Turning his designation as an “enemy combatant” into a quasi-fascist and anti-Constitutional travesty of justice, this coterie of politically-motivated jurists has led the way in defending Padilla, an admitted terrorist. Their efforts have included filing lawsuits on behalf of Padilla against Donald Rumsfeld and George W. Bush, while attacking anti-terrorism measures like the Patriot Act. The legal maneuvers were slowly bearing fruit, as the question of Padilla’s legal status was scheduled for discussion before the Supreme Court next year. The administration’s decision to seek an indictment yesterday undercuts the central argument of Padilla defenders, possibly making their efforts at the High Court all but meaningless.
The position of the administration is also strengthened by the fact that the indictment lends support to advocates of the Patriot Act. As terrorism expert Andrew Cochran recently pointed out, much of the evidence provided in the government’s documents comes in the form of declassified telephone intercepts, which meticulously record the AIG’s efforts on behalf of international terrorism. Before the Patriot Act, such intercepts would not have been allowed by law.
Padilla’s tireless defenders have always maintained that they simply wanted their client to have his day in court. Considering the wealth of evidence presented by the government as part of yesterday’s indictment, as well as the severity of the alleged crimes, they should be careful what they wish for.