By Chuck Strouse
By Scott Fishman
By Terrence McCoy
By Ryan Yousefi
By Ciara LaVelle, Kat Bein, Carolina Del Busto, and Liz Tracy
By Pepe Billete
By Ryan Yousefi
By Kyle Swenson
On June 25, 1995, Adham Amin Hassoun, a computer programmer, talked on the phone from his home in Sunrise to Kassem Daher, head of the Canadian Islamic Association: "Our friend in the first region ... has opened up a soccer field over there because there are matches.... He wants only to give training for the game."
Two years later, on January 26, 1997, Hassoun told Daher, who was at home in Leduc, Alberta: "They are playing soccer in Somalia.... It's heating up a lot, so we're sending, uh, uniforms and, uh, sneakers for soccer over there."
Five days after the second call, the government alleges, Hassoun sent a $2000 check to Daher. The memo line read: "Somalia."
That is the heart of the most important terrorism case in United States courts. So-called Dirty Bomber Jose Padilla wasn't, as the government first contended, the brains and brawn behind a plot to blow up and radiate Americans. He was simply a foot soldier connected to a small terror cell based in South Florida, the government now claims. More than 1000 federal court documents, including recently unsealed FBI reports, reveal that this terror cell used the world's most widely played sport as a code system to coordinate and fund terrorist activities in Bosnia, Chechnya, Afghanistan, and Somalia.
The defendants are South Florida's Padilla and a quartet of alleged Muslim fundamentalist ne'er-do-wells: Hassoun, Daher, Mohamed Hesham Youssef, and Kifah Wael Jayyousi. Federal prosecutors allege the Brooklyn-born Padilla and his cohorts, including ringleader and Broward County resident Hassoun, raised tens of thousands of dollars to train and arm Islamic terrorists overseas.
On June 9, 2002, Padilla became the first U.S. citizen to be declared an enemy combatant a controversial distinction that removed his protections under the U.S. Constitution and Geneva Conventions. He was locked up for three and a half years in a navy brig without access to an attorney. Now, though, Padilla has been transferred to Miami as one of five defendants who allegedly made up a terror cell rooted in suburban South Florida. (Daher is now in hiding in Lebanon. All others are in custody.)
Although much of the federal government's evidence against the alleged terrorists remains under seal owing to claims of national security, the public has been offered small glimpses in government reports available at the federal courthouse in Miami and in previously unseen records from the Broward State Attorney's Office in Fort Lauderdale.
Before he entered the world of big-time terrorism, Padilla flashed his piece, ran his mouth, and beat up on a few prison guards. Later, according to wiretaps, he was trained in terrorism camps overseas. He traveled throughout the Middle East and to Afghanistan, where he allegedly met with one of Osama bin Laden's lieutenants. Wiretaps suggest Padilla was well funded as he trained and met with various organizations and people affiliated with al-Qaeda.
Yet the federal government seems to be having a difficult time proving Padilla was as dangerous as once believed or even a terrorist at all. Of the more than 1000 pages of court documents that have been unsealed, most highlight the case's ambiguities. The prosecutors' weak case was diminished further last month when U.S. District Judge Marcia G. Cooke threw out the government's sole terrorism count: that the five men conspired to murder, kidnap, and maim persons in a foreign country. The decision, which is now under appeal and could delay the trial, hamstrings federal prosecutors. Without the charge, Padilla and his alleged allies-in-terror face a maximum of only fifteen years in the federal pen.
Imagine the absurdity if the man once said to have the means to detonate a nuclear device in one of America's most densely populated urban areas the first U.S. citizen to have his Constitutional rights stripped away by presidential decree got no more than ten years in the clink.
In portraying Padilla as an evil mastermind behind a plot to kill thousands, the federal government forgot one thing: He's just a punk. Federal and state court records prove that much.
They called him "Pucho." As a little boy, Jose Padilla was chunky. Born in Brooklyn to Estela Ortega Lebron, a widowed mother of Puerto Rican descent, he grew up in New York and then moved to Chicago's West Side when he was in his early teens.
There the young Pucho began to run with members of the Latin Kings. Because he was a juvenile at the time, details of his early criminal life in Chicago are difficult to obtain. The Chicago Sun-Times reported he was arrested five times in the Windy City from 1985 to 1991. At age fourteen he was incarcerated in a juvenile detention center for his role in the stabbing death of a Mexican immigrant in Chicago. He was released in May 1998, six months before his eighteenth birthday.
In 1991 the 21-year-old Padilla followed his mother to South Florida. She lived in Plantation, he in Sunrise. Padilla held various jobs at local hotels. It was in Broward County that he met Cherie Stultz, who had emigrated from Jamaica. They began dating.
But the relationship didn't help Padilla shake his old ways.
Although the future terrorist's crimes in South Florida during this period have been well documented in previous news reports, the details and the words of those who crossed Padilla's path before the man's alleged recruitment to terror have been left out.