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U.S. authorities capture 'dirty bomb' suspect

His associate captured in Pakistan, U.S. officials say

Al Mujahir
Al Mujahir  

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Federal officials have captured a U.S. citizen with suspected ties to al Qaeda who allegedly planned to build and explode a radioactive "dirty bomb" in the United States, the Justice Department said Monday.

U.S. officials said Washington was the probable target of the plot. FBI Director Robert Mueller said the plot was in the "discussion stage" when the suspect, Abdullah Al Muhajir, was arrested. Mueller said the plot had not gone any further, to the knowledge of U.S. authorities.

Attorney General John Ashcroft said Al Muhajir -- who was born Jose Padilla -- was captured May 8 as he flew from Pakistan into O'Hare International Airport in Chicago, Illinois. Officials described the flight as a reconnaissance mission.

Officials said that when Al Muhajir arrived in Chicago, he declared having $8,000 but was found to have more than $10,000 in his possession.

In the weeks before he flew to Chicago, Al Muhajir was tracked flying between Pakistan, Egypt and Switzerland, officials said.

U.S. officials later said an "associate" of Al Muhajir had been arrested in Pakistan before May 8. It was not clear whether this was the "associate" Ashcroft referred to when he said Al Muhajir was working with someone in Pakistan on plans to build a dirty bomb. (Full story)

A dirty bomb is a conventional bomb equipped with radioactive material designed to spread over a wide area.

 Click here for dirty bomb key points

Depending on the circumstances of the explosion, the number of deaths and injuries from a dirty bomb might not be substantially greater than from a conventional bomb explosion. But panic over radioactivity and evacuation measures could snarl a city, and the area struck would be off-limits for at least several months during cleanup efforts. (More on dirty bombs)

Ashcroft said Al Muhajir, 31, would be treated as an "enemy combatant" of the United States, a move that means he has fewer legal rights than an ordinary defendant in a criminal case.

President Bush signed off Sunday night on the decision to treat Al Muhajir as an enemy combatant, senior U.S. officials said, adding the government faced a Tuesday deadline to decide whether to charge Al Muhajir in the federal court system or turn him over to the Defense Department.

Bush accepted the recommendations of Ashcroft and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, the officials said, and the transfer from Justice Department to Defense Department custody was made Monday morning.

Ashcroft: Suspect 'trained with the enemy'

The Justice Department said Al Muhajir served time in prison in the United States in the early 1990s, when he took on his new name. After his release, he traveled to Afghanistan and Pakistan and met with senior al Qaeda officials, Ashcroft said.

"While in Afghanistan and Pakistan, Al Muhajir trained with the enemy, including studying how to wire explosive devices and researching radiological dispersion devices," Ashcroft said.

"Al Qaeda officials knew that as a citizen of the United States, as a citizen of the United States holding a valid U.S. passport, Al Muhajir would be able to travel freely in the United States without drawing attention to himself."

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U.S. officials said the primary information about Al Muhajir came from Abu Zubaydah, the most senior al Qaeda figure captured by U.S. authorities.

Al Muhajir is being held at the Consolidated Naval Brig in Charleston, South Carolina, according to Pentagon officials. They said the suspect was being held separate from the regular brig population.

"We have acted under the laws of war and under the clear Supreme Court precedent which established that the military may detain a United States citizen who has joined the enemy and has entered our country to carry out hostile acts," Ashcroft said.

Ashcroft made the announcement in Moscow, Russia, where he is meeting with Russian officials to discuss the war on terrorism. (Read transcript)

"To our enemies, I say we will continue to be vigilant against all threats, whether they come from overseas or at home in America," he said.

Officials said Al Muhajir was born in New York on October 18, 1970, and moved to Chicago when he was 5 years old.

Sources said he served three years in a juvenile detention center in suburban Chicago for aggravated battery, armed robbery and attempted armed robbery. He was released in May 1988, shortly before his 18th birthday, and put on parole until he turned 21.

He was arrested in 1991 on a gun and assault charges stemming from a road rage incident in Sunrise, Florida.

The officers who made the arrest on October 8, 1991 -- Lt. Charles Vitale and Detective Neil Lawrence -- told CNN that Al Muhajir fired a .38-caliber handgun after getting into an argument with two men in another car at a gas station. No one was injured.

He was charged with two counts of aggravated assault, one count of using a firearm in the commission of a felony and one count of carrying a concealed firearm.

While Al Muhajir was in jail, he physically attacked a deputy, resulting in additional charges.

Al Muhajir spent 303 days in the county jail and was sentenced to a year's probation.

After his release in 1992, Al Muhajir was cited for several traffic violations in south Florida, Broward County officials said. His most recent violation was in November 1997.

Al Muhajir did not appear in court and an arrest warrant was issued in December 1997.

He had been out of the United States, primarily in the Middle East, since 1998.

-- CNN correspondents David Ensor, Kelli Arena and John King and terrorism consultant Peter Bergen contributed to this report.




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