Osama’s Thug

Jose Padilla is (a) a punk; (b) a terrorist in training; (c) an unwitting pawn for Uncle Sam and al-Qaeda; or (d) all of the above

The federal government sold the public one version of Padilla, and now prosecutors will try to peddle a different one to a judge and jury in Miami.

Of course, none of this means Padilla isn't a terrorist. The wiretaps appear to prove that Padilla and Youssef traveled extensively throughout the Middle East, potentially meeting and training with al-Qaeda. Hassoun allegedly funded the operation.

The cryptic conversations between the defendants — including those discussing soccer in Somalia — portray Hassoun as a terrorist mastermind who moved his pawns around a global battlefield.

Jose Padilla
Jose Padilla
Padilla: The cuffs will be off at trial
Padilla: The cuffs will be off at trial

In one conversation on February 8, 1999, Hassoun refers to Padilla by his Muslim name and tells Youssef to keep cash on hand so that Padilla "is always comfortable" and that "some brothers who would like ... to follow Ibrahim's example" are given financial assistance for training.

During another conversation, on October 15, 2000, Youssef talks to Hassoun from Baku, Azerbaijan, southeast of Chechnya. Since the late Nineties, Muslim fighters have been traveling to Chechnya, a largely Sunni Muslim Russian province, to aid in its bloody separatist movement. Hassoun tells Youssef not to go to Chechnya and instead to meet up with Padilla in Afghanistan.

"I have already reached the front line," Youssef answers, seeming to refer to the war in Chechnya. "Why should I return?"

Although these types of conversations, generally excerpted without context, make up the bulk of the government's unsealed evidence against the five alleged terrorists, they aren't very convincing.

So far Hassoun has denied that his wiretapped conversations addressed anything other than promoting the fine sport of soccer. In a deposition, while being grilled by an unidentified federal official, Hassoun never wavers.

Federal Official: Did you ever speak with [Youssef] in code language?
Adham Hassoun: Never.
FO: Do you have any code languages with any —
AH: No, I don't....
FO: And, in 1998, it's alleged that you have a conversation, [that] you talk about [how] you have soccer equipment. Do you recall any conversation like that?
AH: No. I know he wanted — he wanted to open a business, you know, and he wants to get something from here, buy equipment and stuff like that....
FO: And your assertion is that he was directly speaking just of soccer equipment?
AH: Yes ...
FO: In your conversation in 1998 with Mr. Youssef, in which he discussed soccer equipment, did you or did you not talk to him about having enough equipment to engage an enemy?
AH: No.
FO: You did not? Did you discuss anti-armor tools?
AH: I don't recall.
FO: But you might have?
AH: What is that again?
FO: Anti-armor tools. Did you discuss tools with him?
AH: I don't recall what we spoke [about]. I know that we spoke, that he wants to trade, and that he wants to have a soccer team and stuff like that. Other than that, I don't recall.

Padilla's trial is scheduled to begin in January. Among those eagerly awaiting it is Stephen Vladeck. He has followed the alleged Dirty Bomber's case since federal officials detained Padilla at O'Hare International Airport in 2002. As a law student at Yale University, Vladeck worked on an amicus brief that questioned the legality of Padilla's detention at a navy brig. Now Vladeck is watching from the sideline as a law professor at the University of Miami.

"The best way to describe this case is to say, öWe've come a long way, baby, and yet we've come nowhere at all,'" Vladeck says from his office in Coral Gables. "It's now been four and a half years since he was picked up, and he's still waiting for something to happen. Whether Padilla is who the government says he is this time, whether he did what he's charged with doing or not, there are scary ramifications for the American justice system."

Most troubling, according to Vladeck, is that a U.S. court has not, and likely will not, rule on whether Padilla's detention as an enemy combatant in a navy brig was legal. "It should at least shock the conscience that you can hold a citizen this long before he has his day in court," Vladeck says.

But equally troubling is the federal government's lack of credibility, he says. The charges against Padilla began as claims to the public in May 2002 that Padilla had communicated with top al-Qaeda deputies and posed an immediate and grave threat with a nuclear device. But by November 2005, prosecutors purported merely that Padilla traveled throughout the Middle East and communicated with alleged terrorist fundraisers.

And now the government's only terrorism count, which carried with it a potential life sentence, has been thrown out.

Is the government's case against the oh-so-scary Dirty Bomber falling apart?

"When the story changes so many times, it's difficult to continue to accept everything you hear at face value," Vladeck says. "There's no smoking gun here. That's immediately obvious."

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