Ever since the 11 September terror attacks in the United States, government officials have been warning that more strikes are likely. Yesterday they announced that one such attack had been successfully thwarted: a plan to detonate a radioactive "dirty bomb." A suspect is now in the custody of the U.S. military. The suspect's status as an American citizen is raising questions about whether he should face trial before a civilian court or a military commission.
Washington, 11 June 2002 (RFE/RL) -- U.S. military officials are holding an American citizen who is accused of plotting with the Al-Qaeda terrorist network to build and deploy what is known as a radioactive "dirty bomb" in the United States.
Abdullah al-Muhajir was arrested on 8 May as he tried to enter the United States on a flight from Zurich. He was returning to the United States after being in Pakistan, where, according to U.S. officials, he was trained by Al-Qaeda to wire explosives and to study ways of dispersing radioactive material.
The 31-year-old suspect was born Jose Padilla in New York and moved to Chicago when he was 4 years old. Padilla became a member of a Chicago street gang and served some time in prison. At one point he converted to Islam and changed his name to Muhajir.
Eventually he traveled to Asia, where he became associated with Al- Qaeda, the terror network run by Osama bin Laden. The U.S. government blames bin Laden for the September attacks in New York, Washington, and Pennsylvania.
Ever since that day, American officials have been warning that more terrorist attacks are likely and they have raised the possibility of the use of weapons of mass destruction. Yesterday, Attorney General John Ashcroft, during a visit to Moscow, said the arrest of Muhajir has thwarted just such an attack: "In apprehending al-Muhajir as he sought entry into the United States, we have disrupted an unfolding terrorist plot to attack the United States by exploding a radioactive 'dirty bomb.'"
A "dirty bomb" is a conventional explosive attached to a small container of plutonium or uranium. When it explodes, the radioactive material is dispersed over a relatively small area. But in a densely populated city, hundreds of thousands of people could be directly exposed. It also would likely cause a wide panic.
As far as American officials know, a "dirty bomb" attack was not imminent. Speaking with reporters yesterday in Washington, Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) Director Robert Mueller said Muhajir and Al-Qaeda were only in what he called "the planning stages" and had not yet assembled such a device.
And Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz said at the same briefing that the terrorist organization had not yet even selected a target: "This was still in the initial planning stages; it certainly wasn't at the point of having a specific target. He had indicated some knowledge of the Washington D.C. area, but I want to emphasize again that it was not an actual plan. We stopped this man in the initial planning stages."
Muhajir was originally in the custody of civilian American authorities, but yesterday was transferred to the U.S. Navy detention center in Charleston, South Carolina. Wolfowitz explained the transfer this way, referring to Muhajir by his birth name, Padilla: "Under the laws of war, Padilla's activities and his association with Al-Qaeda make him an enemy combatant. For this reason, Jose Padilla has been turned over to the [U.S.] Department of Defense."
Muhajir has not been formally charged, and his detention at a military facility might indicate that he may eventually be tried before the military commissions that President George W. Bush set up shortly after the September attacks.
But Bush's order is explicit in stating that only noncitizens may be tried before these commissions. And some news reports in Washington quote anonymous government officials as saying Washington has no intention of bringing Muhajir before one of these courts.
That would be a good decision, according to Robert Levy, an analyst of the U.S. Constitution at the Cato Institute, a policy research center in Washington. Levy told RFE/RL that all U.S. citizens accused of crimes must receive fair trials in civilian courts, regardless of the crimes they are accused of having committed. He cited the Bill of Rights, the Constitution's first 10 amendments that assure American's basic rights: "There's nothing in the text of the Constitution that suggests that there's some separate category of offenses to which the Bill of Rights does not apply in the case of a U.S. citizen."
Levy notes that two other people accused of conspiring with Al-Qaeda to mount terrorist attacks against the United States -- Zacarias Moussaoui, a French citizen, and Richard Reid, a Briton -- will be tried before American civilian courts. He says there is no reason why Muhajir should not be treated the same way. "There's no reason in the world why the civilian courts ought not be used for this guy."
However, Levy concedes that the U.S. government could probably succeed in bringing Muhajir before a military commission, for two reasons. First, he says, Bush could easily revise the order that set up these courts to include U.S. citizens as potential defendants.
Second, he said, there is legal precedent, including a ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court that permits trying American citizens before military commissions.
"The New York Times" cites Muhajir's lawyer, Donna Newman, as saying she was disturbed by the decision to suddenly move her client to the military jail. Officials suggested the move may have reflected the fact there is insufficient evidence to bring a traditional criminal prosecution against Mujahir. Suspects in military custody can be held indefinitely.