On June 10, 2002, Attorney General John Ashcroft
called a press conference in Moscow to announce that Abdullah al-Muhajir
AKA Jose Padilla had been arrested more than a month earlier at O'Hare
International Airport by the FBI on a "material witness" warrant.
"I am pleased to announce today a significant step forward in the
war on terrorism. We have captured a known terrorist who was exploring a plan
to build and explode a radiological dispersion device, or 'dirty bomb,' in the
"Let me be clear: We know from multiple independent and corroborating
sources that Abdullah al-Muhajir was closely associated with al-Qaeda and that
as an al-Qaeda operative he was involved in planning future terrorist attacks
on innocent American civilians in the United States.
"The safety of all Americans and the national security interests of
the United States require that Abdullah al-Muhajir be detained by the Defense
Department as an enemy combatant."
Finally, last week, the Justice Department got around to charging Padilla
and four others apparently subject to FBI surveillance since at least
1996 with operating and/or participating in a North American "support
cell" that sent money and mujahideen recruits to overseas conflicts in
Bosnia, Kosovo, Chechnya, Somalia, and elsewhere.
In particular, the indictment alleges that in July 2000, Padilla (who had
been in Egypt since 1998) filled out a "Mujahideen Data Form"
under the name Abdullah al-Espani "in preparation for violent jihad
training in Afghanistan."
What about the "dirty bomb"?
According to the Department of Justice, Padilla, while in Afghanistan, had
suggested to his al-Qaeda "handler," Abu Zubaydah, that he construct
a real nuke, using "plans" Padilla had found on the Internet.
Zubaydah allegedly didn't think Padilla or anyone else in al-Qaeda
was capable of doing that. However, Zubaydah allegedly did think Padilla might
be able to construct a radiological dispersal device (i.e., "dirty bomb")
consisting of "uranium wrapped with explosives."
How did Ashcroft know what Padilla allegedly suggested to Zubaydah? And how
did Ashcroft know what Zubaydah allegedly thought?
Well, Abu Zubaydah was captured in Pakistan in April 2002 a month before
Padilla showed up in Chicago with $10,000 in cash and has been held for
interrogation ever since in one of those secret prisons run by the Central Intelligence
So maybe the CIA has extracted the truth from Zubaydah, and maybe they haven't.
In particular, if uranium is actually the "radiological agent" that
Zubaydah suggested Padilla use, then Zubaydah doesn't know diddly-squat about
nukes "dirty" or otherwise.
You see, uranium is only weakly radioactive, emitting principally alpha particles,
which won't even penetrate rubber gloves. True, uranium is a heavy metal, but
unlike lead, is not a "bone seeker." In fact, if ingested in any form
other than a fine aerosol, uranium passes right through the body.
Shortly after 9/11, the dirty bomb "experts" at the Federation of
American Scientists told the world how to make one that would work.
The FAS "dirty bomb" was a "coffee jar" containing about
a thousand curies of a true radiological material such as cobalt-60.
(That's about the radiological source-strength of a medical radiotherapy unit
used to irradiate cancer patients.)
A successful bomb would have to be designed with great sophistication, first
to break open the "coffee jar," then to gradually heat the radioactive
source so that it vaporized, and finally to scatter it to the winds.
No explosion? Gradually heat the radioactive source? Scatter vapor to the winds?
What's terrifying about that?
The only person who would die right away would be the dolt who transported
a thousand-curie gamma-ray source into the mall in a coffee jar.
There are estimated to be more than 10,000 medical radiotherapy units and 12,000
industrial radiographic units in operation worldwide. Many are "orphans."
That is, no one knows where many of them still potentially dangerous
Thieves have stolen several medical radiotherapy units not knowing what
they had stolen and sold them as scrap metal. The lead shielding weighs
about a ton.
In the worst incident in 1987 in Brazil the thieves removed the
highly radioactive source from the shielded unit. Result? Five persons died
within days and others got life-threatening doses of radiation.
How many might Padilla's "dirty bomb" have killed? Well, that would
depend upon how much explosive he used.
So, if Padilla is convicted, it certainly will be "a significant step
forward in the war on terrorism." Ashcroft will probably get the Medal