WASHINGTON—Jose Padilla has become known as the "dirty bomber" who was stopped and imprisoned before he could launch a deadly attack on U.S. soil.
But after spending more than three years in a military brig without being charged with a crime, Padilla is now accused of being part of a terrorist conspiracy to murder people overseas.
Padilla was one of only two U.S. citizens who've been held as enemy combatants, a controversial tool in the Bush administration's post-Sept. 11 war against terrorism, which essentially puts suspects in a legal no-man's land behind bars.
The criminal charges against Padilla, announced on Tuesday, are likely to help the government avoid a showdown over the issue before the Supreme Court. Padilla's lawyers have been demanding that the government either charge their client or release him.
Conspicuously absent from the indictment were the government's most dramatic allegations against Padilla. Over the three years, the government has said that the 35-year-old, while in military custody, confessed to wanting to detonate a radioactive "dirty bomb" and to planning to blow up apartment buildings.
Attorney General Alberto Gonzales wouldn't comment on why those charges weren't included. But he said that the government's case against the former Chicago gang member was strong and could bring a sentence of life in prison.
"The indictment alleges that Padilla traveled overseas to train as a terrorist with the intention of fighting a violent jihad," Gonzales said at a news conference. "In a nutshell, a conspiracy to murder, to maim, to kidnap; a conspiracy to provide material support to terrorists."
Padilla's lawyer, Donna Newman, said she was pleased that her client would finally have the opportunity to fight criminal charges in court.
"We are very happy about this indictment. This is what we've been asking for," Newman said.
Legal experts said prosecutors were hamstrung on several fronts from bringing a case against Padilla for allegedly plotting an attack on U.S. soil.
Padilla's statements to his interrogators while in military custody would likely be inadmissible in court because they were made without a defense lawyer present. Then-Deputy Attorney General James Comey acknowledged as much in a June news conference with reporters.
The government also could be forced to disclose sensitive intelligence, and any such case would bring unwanted attention on U.S. detention and interrogation techniques, which already are under fire.
According to a Justice Department summary of the case, some information implicating Padilla came from Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, the alleged mastermind of the Sept. 11 attacks. Mohammed is being held at a secret location outside the United States, and it's not know what techniques have been used to induce him to talk.
Another source of information about Padilla was Mohamed al-Kahtani, a Saudi Arabian detainee at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, who has claimed to be the missing 20th hijacker. But an FBI agent complained that some of the interrogation techniques used on al-Kahtani were abusive. A military investigator found two instances in which his treatment had been excessive. On one occasion he was shackled to the floor, and in another he was smeared in red ink, which he was told was menstrual blood.
Senior Justice Department officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity, acknowledged that cases such as Padilla's are difficult to bring in open court. The government's terrorism case against Zacarias Moussaoui, the only person charged in the United States in connection with the Sept. 11 attacks, has been mired in appeals over the defense's demand for access to Mohammed and other al-Qaida operatives.
One Justice Department official likened the Padilla case to nabbing mobster Al Capone on tax evasion charges, rather than for murder.
Assistant Attorney General Alice Fisher, head of the Justice Department's criminal division, said Padilla's statements while in military custody "are not necessary to the proof of the charge of this indictment."
Padilla was one of four people charged in an 11-count indictment handed up by a federal grand jury in Miami on Nov. 17.
The others charged are Adham Hassoun, Mohammed Youssef and Kifah Jayyousi. All three had been charged previously with terrorism-related crimes.
Youssef is being held in Egypt. Jayyousi and Hassoun are in custody in Florida.
The indictment also charges, for the first time, Kassem Daher, a Canadian national who's believed to be in Lebanon.
The indictment alleges that the men comprised a North American terrorist support cell that began in 1993 to raise money and recruit support to fight for radical Islamic causes in Bosnia, Kosovo, Chechnya and elsewhere. The indictment doesn't mention a specific attack, nor does it link the men directly to al-Qaida.
Padilla, a Brooklyn-born convert to Islam, traveled overseas in 1993 to receive training for violent jihad, which would include "acts of murder, kidnapping and maiming," according to the indictment. On July 24, 2000, Padilla filled out a "Mujahadeen Data Form" in preparation for additional training in Afghanistan.
Padilla was arrested when he arrived at Chicago's O'Hare Airport in May 2002. He was held as a material witness in New York City before President Bush declared him an enemy combatant the following month.
In the indictment, Padilla is charged with conspiracy to murder U.S. nationals, conspiracy to provide material support to terrorists and providing material support to terrorists. He's in the process of being transferred from Defense Department custody to Justice Department custody in southern Florida.
(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): PADILLA
GRAPHIC (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20051122 PADILLA chrono
Need to map