WASHINGTON, June 10 (UPI) -- An American citizen accused of plotting with al Qaida terrorists to set off a "dirty radioactive bomb" in the United States was behind bars Monday at a U.S. military prison in South Carolina following his transfer from civilian detention, officials said.
Abdullah al Muhajir, also known as Jose Padilla, was taken to the Consolidated Naval Brig in Charleston as an enemy combatant, which means he can be held indefinitely.
Al Muhajir, believed to be 32, was arrested by federal authorities at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport on May 8 while returning from Pakistan and was jailed by federal authorities in New York.
U.S. officials said information leading to his detection and arrest came from a variety of sources, including Abu Zubaydah, a senior al Qaida official in U.S. custody.
"He traveled to Afghanistan and Pakistan and on several occasions in 2001, he met with senior al Qaida officials," Attorney General John Ashcroft said from Russia, where he was holding talks with counterparts on combating terrorism.
"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, the terror network of Osama bin Laden, is accused of the Sept. 11 attacks on New York and Washington that killed about 3,000 people, and of earlier terror strikes, including the bombing of the USS Cole in Yemen and the bombing of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.
Federal Bureau of Investigation Director Robert Mueller and Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, speaking in a joint Washington news conference, said the bomb plot was still in the discussion stage when al Muhajir was arrested.
"It certainly wasn't at the point of having an initial target," Wolfowitz said, although al Muhajir did "have some knowledge of Washington."
Little has been disclosed about al Muhajir. He is, however, said to have been born in New York and later moved to Chicago, where he was reputedly a member of a street gang.
Ashcroft said al Muhajir served time in prison in the early 1990s, during which time he changed his name.
Al Muhajir, or Padilla, joins John Walker Lindh and Yasser Esam Hamdi in the roll call of U.S. citizens detained for alleged collaboration with al Qaida or the extremist Taliban regime in Afghanistan, which gave it safe haven.
Walker Lindh, 20 at the time of his capture in Afghanistan by anti-Taliban forces last December, faces trial in Alexandria, Va., on charges ranging from providing support to a terrorist organization to conspiracy to kill U.S. citizens abroad.
Hamdi, 22, is being held at a U.S. Navy brig in Norfolk, Va., but has not yet been charged with any offense. Hamdi, born in Louisiana but raised in Saudi Arabia, was also captured fighting with the Taliban.
A senior administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Monday that no formal charges had yet been lodged against al Muhajir.
The holding of a U.S. citizen as an enemy combatant is allowed under law and Supreme Court precedent, made in 1942 in regard to two U.S. citizens engaging in sabotage for Nazi Germany.
A dirty bomb is not a nuclear weapon in the ordinary sense. It is a conventional explosive, which spreads radioactive contamination when exploded. The radioactive material, which would make people ill, could come from isotopes or something as simple as radioactive waste from hospital laboratories.
Coincidentally, the day after al Muhajir's arrest in Chicago, Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham and Russian Atomic Energy Minister Alexander Rumyanstev announced a joint task force to study the threat posed by radioactive isotopes in industry and medicine and hoped to safeguard the materials to keep them from terrorists.
Rep. Curt Weldon, R.-Pa., one of the congressional experts on nuclear dangers, met with Rumyanstev and Abraham on May 10, but said he did not discuss whether there was a specific case involved.
Weldon, who returned on May 29 from a trip to the Russian nuclear facility outside of Moscow, said the Russians are trying to harden up their security on nuclear devices and material utilizing U.S. funds. But he said in "1997, 1998, 1999 ... technology was flowing out of there like water" including nuclear waste, chemical and biological agents, and missile technology. Weldon said his information is that bin Laden already had materials for a bomb.
Ashcroft and Mueller both hailed the arrest of al Muhajir as an example of cooperation between the FBI and Central Intelligence Agency, both of which have been under a cloud of criticism over failure to access information in hand that may have helped thwart the Sept. 11 attacks.