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US Holding Man Suspected of Planning Atomic Attack - 2002-06-10

U.S. officials have announced the arrest of an alleged al-Qaida terrorist who they believed was planning to detonate a radioactive dirty bomb in the United States.

Attorney General John Ashcroft says authorities arrested Abdullah al Muhajir as he arrived at Chicago's O'Hare Airport on May 8 on a flight from Pakistan.

Mr. al Muhajir was formerly known as Jose Padilla, an American citizen who served jail time in the early 1990s. Authorities say the suspect is a former Chicago street gang member who converted to Islam while in prison.

Attorney General Ashcroft says the government's suspicions about his alleged plans to explode a so-called dirty bomb came from "multiple, independent, corroborating sources."

Mr. Ashcroft announced the arrest and provided details about the suspect in a television hookup from Moscow where he is visiting on official business.

"Subsequent to his release from prison, he traveled to Afghanistan and Pakistan," said Mr. Ashcroft. "On several occasions in 2001, he met with senior al-Qaida officials. While in Afghanistan and Pakistan, al Muhajir trained with the enemy, including studying how to wire explosive devices and researching radiological dispersion devices.

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

American officials say it is possible that Abdullah al Muhajir intended to detonate a so-called dirty bomb in Washington. But FBI Director Robert Mueller says authorities foiled the plot at an early stage and that makes it difficult to say what the intended target may have been.

"There were discussions about this possible plan and it was in the discussion stage and it had not gone, as far as we know, much past the discussion stage but there were substantial discussions undertaken," said Mr. Mueller.

A so-called dirty bomb consists of conventional explosives laced with radioactive material. Detonation of such a device would initially kill victims in the immediate vicinity but could also cause mass death and injuries by spreading toxic radioactive material over a wider area.

Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz says that even though Mr. al Muhajir is an American citizen, U.S. officials now consider him "an unlawful enemy combatant"

"Under the laws of war, Padilla's activities and his association with al-Qaida make him an enemy combatant. For this reason, Jose Padilla has been turned over to the Department of Defense," Mr. Wolfowitz told reporters.

The arrest was welcome news at the White House. "We have a man detained who is a threat to the country and that," said President George W. Bush, thanks to the vigilance of our intelligence gathering and law enforcement, he is now off the streets where he should be."

President Bush signed papers on Sunday that allowed the transfer of Mr. al Muhajir from Justice Department custody in New York to a high security U.S. Navy lockup in Charleston, South Carolina.