Born in Brooklyn on October 18, 1970, Jose Padilla is an American citizen and a Muslim convert who was arrested in May 2002 and was thereafter detained by the U.S. government for three-and-a-half years as an “enemy combatant” who aspired to contribute to the worldwide Islamic jihad by killing large numbers of Americans.
In his early teens, Padilla joined a mostly Puerto Rican gang called the Latin Disciples. He went on to compile a rap sheet of both juvenile and adult crimes — offenses ranging from aggravated assault to unlawful weapons possession to attempted theft. He was also involved in a violent assault and shooting where his victim later died from the injuries that Padilla helped inflict.
In the early 1990s, Padilla became a working member of the Benevolence International Foundation, a charity that had close financial ties to the al Qaeda terrorist network, the Abu Sayyaf Islamic rebels in the Philippines, and 9/11 mastermind Khalid Shaikh Mohammed.
In 1998 Padilla suddenly left his American wife and moved to Egypt and took the name Abdullah al-Muhajir. Unsatisfied by the secular, state-controlled brand of Islam taught in mainstream Egyptian schools, he soon moved to Pakistan where he studied a militant form of Islam and married the widow of a jihadist. His American wife learned of her husband’s most recent betrothal through an Egyptian-American friend.
Padilla thereafter traveled to Kandahar, Afghanistan to fill out a “Mujahideen Identification Form/New Applicant Form” which enrolled him in the al Qaeda-affiliated al Farouq training camp. Padilla’s application (which was later found by the FBI) is dated July 24, 2000 and bears his alias, Abu Abdullah al-Muhajir, as well as his birth date and seven of his fingerprints. While attending this camp for training in the use of weapons and explosives in the fall of 2000, Padilla was first introduced to al Qaeda military commander Mohammed Atef, with whom he would subsequently have several additional meetings. In July or August 2001, Atef sent Padilla and a designated accomplice to be trained in the art of blowing up buildings — a skill Atef hoped Padilla could eventually put to use in the United States. The mission was called off, however, when the two trainees found it impossible to work together amicably.
After 9/11, Padilla spent some time living with Atef in the house where the latter was eventually killed by a U.S. air strike in November 2001. Seeking to avoid further danger, Padilla went to Pakistan, where he became acquainted with Osama bin Laden’s deputy Abu Zubaydah. Padilla approached Zubaydah with an idea: He wanted to follow Internet instructions for creating a nuclear bomb, and then detonate it somewhere in the United States. Skeptical about Padilla’s ability to carry out such an attack, Zubaydah suggested that wrapping explosives in uranium (to create a radiological “dirty bomb”) might be more feasible.
Zubaydah sent Padilla to Pakistan to discuss the various possibilities with 9/11 mastermind Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, who deemed the original plan to blow up American apartment buildings the most feasible option of all. He instructed Padilla and an accomplice to locate twenty high-rise buildings (preferably in New York, Florida, or Washington, DC) which had natural gas supplied to the apartments, and to rent two units in each building. The men were then to seal all openings in their rented apartments, turn on the gas, and set timers to detonate the apartments simultaneously at a later time. Mohammed paid each of the two men $20,000 for this operation and sent them on their way.
Jose Padilla left Pakistan on April 5, 2002, spent a month in Egypt, and then traveled to the U.S. to carry out his mission. When he arrived at Chicago O’Hare Airport on May 8, 2002, he was immediately interviewed and arrested by FBI agents, who were first tipped to Padilla’s al Qaeda connection by Abu Zubaydah, who had been captured in Pakistan and delivered to American custody in March 2002.
In June 2004 the Justice Department released a declassified document showing Padilla’s plans and al Qaeda connections in detail. The information therein comes not only from Padilla’s own admissions, but also from a number of additional al Qaeda detainees who independently confirmed the details that Padilla gave, particularly about the plots to detonate a “dirty bomb” and to blow up apartment buildings.
Padilla was detained without being formally charged for 3½ years, and it was nearly two years before he was given access to a lawyer. Because Padilla was aligned with an organization, al Qaeda, that had formally declared war on the United States, the U.S. considered the Padilla case a military rather than a law-enforcement matter, which is why the government maintained that he could be held at length as an “enemy combatant” and interrogated without formal charges and without access to an attorney. Designated “enemy combatants” are entitled neither to the rights of soldiers under the laws of war, nor to the civil rights of defendants in the criminal-justice system.
Then in March 2005, a federal judge in South Carolina District Court ruled in the opposite direction, calling the Padilla case a “law enforcement matter, not a military matter,” and declaring that the U.S. government could not continue to hold him without formally charging him with a crime. The government then asked the Supreme Court to hear the case directly, but in June the Court announced that it was refusing the request. Three months thereafter, a three-judge panel of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the District Court decision and ruled that President Bush did in fact have the authority to detain Padilla without charges.
On October 25, 2005, Padilla’s attorneys asked the Supreme Court to limit the government’s power to hold their client and other U.S. terror suspects indefinitely and without charges. The Bush administration was given a November 28 deadline for filing arguments, and on November 22 the government formally indicted Padilla on the aforementioned “material support of terrorism charges.”
The charges that the Justice Department brought against Padilla included “conspiracy to murder, kidnap and maim persons in a foreign country … for the purpose of opposing existing governments and civilian factions and establishing Islamic states under Sharia (Islamic law), and material support for terrorism.” As Patrick Devenny of the Center for Security Policy has explained, the reason the indictment did not address Padilla’s plans to attack the United States is this:
“Were the Justice Department to seek criminal charges stemming from Padilla’s activities in Afghanistan and elsewhere, they would be required to call mass murderers such as Khalid Sheikh Mohammad and Abu Zubaydah, who are still valuable sources of information in the War on Terror, to the witness stand. This would undoubtedly lead to calls for those two men — along with other al-Qaeda leaders — to be afforded rights reserved for conventional criminal suspects, an unacceptable surrender of mandated war powers.”
After a three-month trial followed by a day and a half of deliberations, Padilla was convicted on August 16, 2007 (along with two co-defendants) of conspiracy to murder, kidnap and maim people; he was also found guilty on two counts of providing material support to terrorists. The key piece of physical evidence against him was the five-page application form that had enrolled him in the Afghanistan-based al Qaeda training camp in July 2000.
On January 22, 2008, U.S. District Judge Marcia Cooke sentenced Padilla to 17 years and four months in prison, as opposed to the life sentence the government was seeking. In explaining her decision, Judge Cooke underscored the serious nature of Mr. Padilla’s offenses, but added: “There is no evidence that these defendants personally maimed, kidnapped or killed anyone in the United States or elsewhere. There was never a plot to overthrow the United States government.”