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Osama’s Thug

Jose Padilla
NEWSCOM

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.

On October 8, 1991, Victor Lento and Brian Moril, who worked at a video store in Sunrise, were driving west on Oakland Park Boulevard toward Lento's house. The car belonged to Moril's girlfriend, and Moril had allowed Lento to take it for a quick spin.

As they pulled up to the intersection of Oakland and University Drive, a black Toyota Tercel cut in front of them and slammed on the brakes. "I cut the wheel back to the right," the 22-year-old Lento recalled in a deposition. "I started sliding. I let go of the brake. I got out of the accident, like, and we started arguing with the guy next to us."

That guy was Padilla. Wearing a New York Yankees cap pulled down low over his face, Padilla was driving his girlfriend's vehicle.

"What are you, crazy?!" Lento shouted.

Padilla stared at the men, blank-faced.

"What are you, crazy?!" Lento repeated.

Padilla lifted his hand and flashed a silver pistol.

"He's got a gun," Lento said.

"It's a .357," Moril replied from the passenger seat. "It's a .357."

The light changed. Lento stomped on the accelerator. Padilla quickly caught up to the men and passed. Wanting to get the Tercel's license plate number to report the incident, Lento and Moril followed the future terrorist. The two men watched as the Tercel traveled in a circle around a hotel parking lot and then entered an Exxon gas station. When Padilla was about to exit back onto Oakland Park Boulevard, Lento pressed down on the gas pedal and tried to cut him off. But Padilla turned the wheel and whipped around them. From about 25 feet away, Padilla lifted his weapon and pointed it toward the open passenger-side window at the pair.

"That's when he did it," Lento said. Bang! "I just went down."

Padilla sped away.

Lento and Moril looked at each other. They were okay. They looked around the car. No damage.

The pair called police. After they separately picked out Padilla's photo at the Sunrise Police Department, cops headed for the gunman's house. They arrived at 11:00 p.m. The five-foot ten-inch, 170-pound Padilla, dressed in a dark silk shirt and gray pants, was standing outside. He reached toward his waistband. The police officers rushed him and pushed him to the ground. Hidden beneath his shirt was a silver .38-caliber revolver with a cracked ivory handle. It was almost certainly the one he had fired at Lento and Moril.

A few days later, Judge Robert Tyson set Padilla's bond at $17,000. Tyson decided on the high amount because he discovered Padilla had not disclosed his juvenile criminal record — including the stabbing in Chicago.

Unable to pay the steep bond, Padilla spent the rest of the winter at the Broward Sheriff's Office main jail in downtown Fort Lauderdale.

He proved to be a high-maintenance prisoner. Around 7:00 p.m. on January 4, 1992, BSO Corrections Dep. Marc Albolino responded to Padilla's fourth-floor cell. The prisoner was screaming and kicking, so Albolino opened the door and entered. Padilla rushed the guard and pushed him in the chest.

"You don't know what I'll do to you," Padilla said.

After calling for backup, Albolino grabbed his assailant by the shirt and tried to sit him on the bed. Padilla began to push and wrestle with the deputy.

Corrections Dep. W. Keggler heard the radio alert and sprinted up the metal stairs. As he turned the corner toward the cell, he saw Padilla and Albolino struggling. He tried to help Albolino subdue the young man.

"Don't resist," Keggler kept saying. "Don't resist."

"I didn't do nothing!" Padilla yelled. "I didn't do nothing!"

The two men had trouble restraining Padilla, who was kicking and punching them. Then Dep. Thomas Trawinski responded to the emergency call. He later recalled in a deposition that, when he arrived, he was sure someone would die. The fight had moved outside the cell to the platform, near a railing. From there it was a four-story drop to the concrete floor.

 

"I was afraid we were going to go over the rail, because we were real close on the rail," Trawinski said. "And the second when he started kicking, it was very possible for one of us to go over."

Finally a fourth deputy arrived, and together the guards overpowered Padilla, placing him face down on the floor of his cell.

Four days later, on January 8, 1992, Padilla turned his aggression toward his court-appointed lawyer, Brian G. Reidy. He informed Judge Tyson during a hearing that he'd filed a bar complaint against Reidy and wanted a new attorney.

The transcripts of the case make Padilla seem dim and irrational.

"What's the problem, sir?" Tyson asked Padilla.

"He don't want to listen to nothing I have to say," Padilla answered. "He makes decisions without me. He don't tell me what he's going to do. He don't explain to me what he's doing. He makes decisions without me. He don't ask my family."

Reidy told the judge that Padilla was angry because he couldn't post bond. The amount was too high. "Against my advice, Mr. Padilla was reluctant to discuss his prior record with the court," Reidy told the judge. "Consequently the court raised his bond to $17,000. I think that's the real reason that he's filed this complaint against me."

Padilla disagreed, telling the judge he was upset with Reidy because the attorney attended court hearings without him.

"There are many times in which he does come to court without you, which is not [unusual]...." Tyson answered. "Now, is there another objection you have?"

"I don't want him to defend me no more," Padilla replied.

Tyson agreed to give Padilla a new attorney in light of the bar complaint. Later, prosecutors consolidated the charge of battery on a law enforcement officer with the earlier gun charge. He pleaded guilty and received 364 days in jail plus one year of probation.

After serving his time, Padilla took a job at a Taco Bell in Davie, where his girlfriend, Stultz, worked. Three years later the two wed at the Broward County Courthouse, just down the street from where guards had once feared for their lives in a scuffle along a metal railing.


Not long after his marriage to Stultz in 1996, Padilla began to study the Koran. It's unclear how he was introduced to Islam. Some government documents and media reports claim it was during his time in jail in Broward County, while others say he was set on that path by a Taco Bell co-worker, a Pakistani-American named Muhammed Javed who was active in the local Muslim community. But by 1998, Padilla was regularly attending Masjid Al-Iman, a mosque near Sunrise Boulevard, just west of Interstate 95, in Fort Lauderdale. He went by the name "Ibrahim."

Among the other attendees of the mosque was Hassoun, a 36-year-old Lebanese man who came to the United States on a student visa in 1989. He lived in Sunrise with his Saudi Arabian wife, Nahed Mohammed Wannous. Together they had a little boy, Abed, who was born at Broward General Medical Center on April 14, 1992.

By the time Hassoun met Padilla, federal agents were listening to their phone calls on wiretaps. According to a recently unsealed report by Andrew G. Arena, the FBI's section chief for counterterrorism, Hassoun was a member of Al-Gama Al-Islamiyya (AGAI), an international terrorist group affiliated with al-Qaeda. AGAI's leader is Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman, known as "The Blind Sheikh."

Federal officials targeted Hassoun when, in the early Nineties, Rahman called the Sunrise man several times from his wiretapped home telephone in New Jersey. Rahman is currently serving 65 years in prison for his role in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. The wiretap on Hassoun's phone was authorized through the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which allows for warrantless wiretaps in cases of national security.

In 1996 Hassoun was the registered Florida agent for the Benevolence International Foundation, a nonprofit organization that the U.S. Treasury Department now claims raised money for al-Qaeda. He was also the North American distributor for Australia-based magazine Nida'ul Islam, or The Call to Islam, which the Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council described in March 1999 as "the voice of a range of international extremists and terrorists intent on the propagation of a war of terror and destruction against Israel and the West."

"The FBI has identified Hassoun as a focal point for communications among persons associated with AGAI and with the international radical fundamentalist community," Arena wrote in his report. "He has been a major fundraiser for extremist Muslim causes in Chechnya and Bosnia and, since as early as 1994, is believed to have recruited 'freedom fighters,' or 'mujahideen,' for those conflicts."

 

One of those alleged freedom fighters was Youssef, an Egyptian-born U.S. citizen who worked as a flight attendant for American Airlines for an unspecified amount of time. When he left the airline, he took a universal cockpit key, according to Arena's report.

Another mujahideen was a medium-built Puerto Rican-American named Ibrahim. Padilla moved to Egypt in 1998, leaving his wife in South Florida, according to a Department of Defense report. Soon he married a Muslim woman and became known as "Muhajir," an Arabic word meaning "immigrant."

In a separate government report about Padilla dated August 27, 2002, Michael H. Mobbs, a senior Department of Defense official, claimed Padilla had traveled in Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and Afghanistan from 1999 to 2001. "While in Afghanistan in 2001," Mobbs wrote, "Padilla met with senior Osama bin Laden lieutenant Abu Zubaydah. Padilla and an associate approached Zubaydah with their proposal to conduct terrorist operations within the United States. Zubaydah directed Padilla and his associate to travel to Pakistan for training from al-Qaeda operatives in wiring explosives.... Padilla's discussion with Zubaydah specifically included the plan of Padilla and his associate to detonate a 'radiological dispersal device' (also known as a 'dirty bomb') within the United States, possibly Washington, D.C."

(In court documents filed in December 2005, the Department of Defense identified Padilla's accomplice as Ethiopian Binyam Ahmed Muhammad, who is now being detained at Guantánamo Bay. An American lawyer representing Muhammad claims the purported link to Padilla came only after his client was tortured in Morocco, where he was allegedly taken by U.S. authorities. Muhammad reported being beaten, shackled in painful positions, and cut with a blade on his chest and penis.)

The report detailing Padilla's travels throughout the Middle East attributed information to two detained al-Qaeda members. Although Mobbs claimed the information was independently verified, he also admitted that one of the unnamed sources "was being treated with various types of drugs," according to the report.

In May 2002, Swiss officials notified the U.S. government that Padilla, whose name had been flagged in international databases, was traveling through Zurich on his way from Pakistan to Chicago.

U.S. marshals obtained a warrant to detain Padilla as a witness for a grand-jury investigation.

Until recently, few details were known about Padilla's 2002 encounter with federal agents at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport. This past September 5, however, U.S. Magistrate Judge Stephen T. Brown offered a partial view of sealed reports and public testimony from U.S. Customs and the FBI. The details of those documents are being reported here for the first time.

After Padilla stepped off the plane from Zurich, he was escorted by a U.S. Customs agent to a 20-by-40-foot interrogation room. There he met with Customs Agent Andy Ferreri. The federal official questioned Padilla about why he declared having $8000 in cash when, in fact, he carried a little more than $10,000. Padilla, who had not been arrested and was not restrained, replied that he didn't think it was a "big deal."

FBI officials from New York soon arrived. There were eight agents altogether. After Ferreri left, four of them spoke with Padilla. The other four stood guard outside. Padilla was remarkably forthcoming with the FBI, according to Judge Brown's summary of the sealed reports: "[Padilla] stated that he had been living in Egypt and then voluntarily discussed his early life and relationships and his incarceration, during which time he began his Islamic studies. He then discussed traveling to Pakistan and Egypt to continue his studies. Agent [Russell] Fincher asked the defendant how he was able to afford to do that, and the defendant replied that he was funded by a mosque in Florida and also mentioned several other individuals who helped him make arrangements to go to Egypt. Defendant also discussed his tutor in Islam studies, his pilgrimage to Mecca, and persons who assisted him."

Padilla told FBI officials he wanted to call his mother in Florida, because "he had been 'clean' for many years and did not want his mother to perceive that he was in any kind of trouble." FBI agents pressed Padilla for details: Why do you need to call her? Padilla then dropped the request.

Agent Fincher then became — to use the FBI man's word from his report — "confrontational." He told Padilla what he believed had occurred in the Middle East: "that [Padilla] had been in Afghanistan, where he had engaged in training and met high-ranking al-Qaeda officials; that those officials sent [Padilla] back to Pakistan, where he was with other associates; that he had left Pakistan en route for somewhere for an act of terrorism; that [Padilla] had been delayed and traveled with another individual who was a foreign national with a false passport and was detained with that person in Karachi; and that [Padilla] then traveled from Zurich to Egypt and back and then to Chicago, where he intended to commit or conduct surveillance for a terrorist act."

 

The money, Fincher told Padilla, was intended to fund terrorism in the United States.

Padilla stood up. "The interview is over," he said. "It's time for me to go."

Fincher, who described Padilla's demeanor as "a bit confident" and "haughty," said he hoped Padilla would testify voluntarily before a grand jury in New York. The Puerto Rican-American then "asked questions about representation."

At that point, Fincher read Miranda rights and arrested Padilla on the warrant. Officials brought Padilla to New York.

One month later, on June 9, 2002, President George W. Bush declared Padilla an enemy combatant. "Padilla represents a continuing, present, and grave danger to the national security of the United States," Bush wrote.

The president used Mobbs's report as the basis for this conclusion. But, as is indicated in court filings, Mobbs left out a striking detail in his report to the president: The government's two al-Qaeda sources told officials that Padilla was not interested in martyrdom. He had said he refused to die for his faith.

Padilla spent the next three and a half years incarcerated, without access to an attorney, at a military brig in Charleston, South Carolina.


On November 22, 2005, Padilla was finally charged with a crime. Federal prosecutors in Miami alleged he and the other four men plotted to raise money to kill innocent civilians as part of a global terrorism campaign.

Despite his stature as the big-name defendant, Padilla is, in fact, a bit player in the government's case. He was transferred from South Carolina to South Florida on a military plane, with TV news fanfare awaiting him in the Magic City. The reason for his notoriety was obvious: Padilla's mug shot had been all over cable news for years; the tan man with short-cropped black hair was the new image of terror.

But documents filed in Miami don't even mention the most alarming allegation — that Padilla was intent on setting off a crude nuclear device. Although the FBI's Arena had alleged Padilla was in contact with top leaders of al-Qaeda and was planning an attack on the United States, those charges were never levied in federal court.

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.

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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