US Citizen Guilty of Aiding Al-Qaida Cells
Ewen MacAskill in Washington
Thursday August 16, 2007
Jose Padilla, a former Chicago gang member who converted to Islam, was today found guilty of helping terrorists orchestrate attacks on American targets in a range of countries over the past decade.
He and two co-defendants, Adham Hassoun, a Lebanese-born Palestinian, and Kifah Jayyousi, a naturalised US citizen from Jordan, were charged with providing material support for Islamist terrorist groups and conspiring to "murder, kidnap and maim" people in Afghanistan, Chechnya, Bosnia and other countries from 1993 to 2001.
The jury at the federal court in Miami returned its verdict after only a day and a half of deliberation at the end of the three-month long trial. Justice Marcia Cooke could sentence the defendants to life in prison.
Padilla, 36, a Puerto Rican-born in Brooklyn, who later changed his name to Abdullah al-Muhajir, was a member of the Chicago-based Maniac Latin Disciples street gang before converting to Islam. He left the US in 1998 for the Middle East and was arrested in 2002 at Chicago's O'Hare airport on his return to the States.
The prosecution claimed that Hassoun, 45, a computer programmer, and Jayyousi, also 45, an engineer and schools administrator, had set up a cell. They were alleged to have recruited Padilla at a Florida mosque and sent him to an al-Qaida camp in Afghanistan.
The case relied on 300,000 FBI wiretap intercepts collected from 1993 - 2001, mainly involving Hassoun and Jayyousi, with Padilla recorded on only seven. Speaking in Arabic, they purportedly used codewords such as "tourism" and "football" for jihad or "zucchini" and "eggplant" for military weapons or ammunition. Padilla took no part in conversations using the alleged codewords.
In the feverish atmosphere in the aftermath of 9/11, the US authorities claimed Padilla had been planning to detonate a dirty bomb and, in a separate operation, filling flats in Washington with gas and igniting it.
After a month in a civilian jail, he was designated an enemy combatant and handed to the military who held him for three years on a military brig in South Carolina. He was transferred to the Miami court in 2005. But, because he had been interrogated on the brig with no lawyer present by the military, all the alleged evidence was deemed to be inadmissable. The serious allegations were dropped and he was tried on lesser charges.
As well as the problems with evidence obtained while in military custody, there were also question marks over the fact that the allegations were being made by another alleged terrorist, Khalid Sheik Mohammed, who has allegedly claimed responsibility for an extremely lengthy list of terrorist incidents.
The key piece of physical evidence was a five-page form Padilla supposedly filled out in July 2000, to attend an al-Qaida training camp in Afghanistan, which would link the other two defendants as well to Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida.
The form, apparently recovered by the CIA in 2001 in Afghanistan, contains seven of Padilla's fingerprints and several other personal identifiers, such as his birth date and abilities in Spanish, English and Arabic.
"He provided himself to al-Qaida for training to learn to murder, kidnap and maim," said Brian Frazier, the assistant state prosecutor, said in closing arguments.
Padilla's lawyers insisted the form was far from conclusive and denied that he was a "star recruit," as prosecutors claimed, of a North American support cell intending to become a terrorist. They said he traveled to Egypt in September 1998 to learn Islam more deeply and become fluent in Arabic.
"His intent was to study, not to murder," said his lawyer, Michael Caruso, adding that the prosecution had not produced any hard evidence that Padilla had filled out an application to attend the al-Qaeda training camp in Afghanistan.
Mr Caruso said the government had buckled under pressure to hunt down terrorists after 9/11 and unjustly pursued Padilla.
Most of the FBI intercepts deal with conversations involving Hassoun and Jayyousi discussing helping Muslims in Chechnya, Bosnia, Somalia, Afghanistan and Lebanon. Jayyousio ran an organisation called American Worldwide Relief and published a newsletter called the Islam Report.
"It wasn't a terrorist operation. It was a relief operation," said Jayyousi's lawyer, William Swor.
Prosecutors said they were providing supplies, money and recruits for violent extremists; defence lawyers claimed they were trying to help persecuted Muslims with relief and humanitarian aid.