Padilla the Maladroit

In May, 2002, Jose Padilla, upon reentering the United States for the first time in several years, was arrested by the FBI. A month later, while in Moscow, Attorney General John Ashcroft, announced the arrest at an impromptu news conference, charging Padilla with being a "known terrorist," who was "exploring a plan" to build and explode in the United States a radiological dispersal device – sometimes called a "dirty nuke" by those in authority who want to scare the pants off you soccer-moms.

A radiological dispersal device – delivered by your hypothetical terrorist – would consist of a few pounds of concentrated radioactive material packed around a few pounds of high-explosive. The terrorist would carry the RDD into your mall and detonate the explosive, dispersing into the air the radioactive material, which would soon “fallout” to the floor.

An RDD is not a fission weapon. It does not contain a critical mass of fissile material – such as uranium-235 or plutonium-239. Hence, no uncontrolled chain reaction – no nuclear explosion – is possible. The total amount of radiation emitted per unit time in the mall by the RDD is the same before and after the detonation. Before, however, the radiation-emitting material is concentrated. Afterward, the radiation-emitting material is spread all over the place.

So, where did the FBI ever get the idea that Padilla was "exploring" such a plan?

Well, according to our Commander Guy, a few months after Egyptian Mohammed Atta and his colleagues brought down the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center, and more than a few months before the FBI arrested American Padilla, the CIA captured Pakistani Abu Zubaydah in Afghanistan.

After "interrogation" by the FBI, CIA and other intelligence officials, Zubaydah disclosed that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed [KSM] was the "mastermind" of the 9/11 attacks.

We now know the CIA had long considered KSM to be a prime candidate for "apprehension" and "rendition."

In particular, according to the 9/11 Commission, in 1994, while in the Philippines,

“Using airline timetables, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and Ramzi Yousef devised a scheme whereby five men could, in a single day, board 12 flights — two each for three of the men, three each for the other two — assemble and deposit their bombs and exit the planes, leaving timers to ignite the bombs up to several days afterward.

The scheme – code-named Operation Bojinka – was apparently uncovered by Philippine intelligence in early 1995, and all of it duly reported to "the Americans."

Yousef was soon captured, but KSM had returned to Afghanistan-Pakistan, where he became associated with Osama bin Laden, outlining, inter alia, a plan that would eventually result in the al-Qaeda sponsored attack on the Twin Towers.

And, earlier this year it was "revealed" that at various times during the four years of his "interrogation," American-educated KSM had "confessed" to masterminding, inter alia, [a] the 1993 attempt, led by KSM’s nephew, Ramzi Yousef, to bring down the World Trade Center Twin Towers with a fairly sophisticated 1300-lb fertilizer-petroleum bomb and [b] the 2001 brilliantly successful attempt, led by Egyptian Mohamed Atta, to bring down the Twin Towers and [c] a planned assassination of President Bill Clinton.

(Stop for a moment and reflect upon what a different world we would live in today if KSM – rather than Saddam Hussein – was alleged to have planned an assassination of the Commander Guy’s father, George H.W. Bush, rather than Bill Clinton. We would still have gone into Afghanistan, but Osama bin Laden would not have escaped. Saddam Hussein would still be in power, but Commander Guy would have demonstrated his manhood to his father and anyone else who doubted it. Moreover, thousands of American soldiers – and many tens of thousands of innocent Iraqi civilians – now dead, would be alive, today.)

Now, KSM apparently personally provided financial assistance to Kuwaiti-born Ramzi Yousef. But as Steve Coll reveals, Yousef and his fellow terrorists relied for support not on al-Qaeda – which didn’t yet exist – but on the CIA. You see, in the 1980s, the CIA had produced a manual and provided training to the Mujihadeen in Afghanistan on how to make and employ explosives of the type used in the 1993 WTC bombing.

According to Coll, Kuwaiti Yousef mailed letters to various New York newspapers before the 1993 bombing in which he justified his act of terrorism on the grounds that Israel practices terrorism against the world of Islam and that the United States supports Israel.

And Pakistani KSM eventually joined al-Qaeda in Afghanistan because he became convinced that Osama bin Laden hated America for supporting Israel as much as he did and would try – as KSM had already done – to translate that hatred into action.

Egyptian Atta also joined al-Qaeda, at about the same time and for the same reasons. According to the 9/11 Commission report,

"In his interactions with other students [in Germany], Atta voiced virulently anti-Semitic and anti-American opinions, ranging from condemnations of what he described as a global Jewish movement, centered in New York City, that supposedly controlled the financial world and the media, to polemics against [stooge] governments of the Arab world."

But what about Jose Padilla?

Well, a red-white-blue jury has just convicted Padilla – aka Abdullah al-Muhajir – of conspiring to kill persons unknown in a jihad to be conducted somewhere unknown overseas.

Persons unknown? Somewhere overseas?

But where did all this dirty-nuke-in-Chicago stuff come from?

Well, at the time Ashcroft made that charge in 2002 – repeated by the Commander Guy just last year – the FBI, CIA et al already knew that Abu Zubaydah had dismissed Padilla as "a maladroit extremist." He told his interrogators that Padilla "was ignorant" and believed he could "separate plutonium" to make a real nuke from other nuclear materials by "rapidly swinging over his head a bucket filled with fissionable material."

Obviously, Zubaydah is not ignorant. He knows that you can only make real nukes with fissile material – such as almost pure Uranium-235 and man-made Plutonium-239 – and that tens of kilograms of fissile materials are virtually impossible to come by.

Of course, if you just want to make a mess in a mall in Chicago, all you have to do is somehow acquire a bucket of radioactive materials – spent reactor fuel, for example – and spread it around. Perhaps with a push-broom.

Padilla could probably handle the push-broom part. But where would he get a bucket of fissionable materials?

Well, not to worry. Someone in Egypt gave the former Maniac Latin Disciple a plane ticket to Chicago and $10,000 in cash. And the rest – as they say – is history.

Author: Gordon Prather

Physicist James Gordon Prather has served as a policy implementing official for national security-related technical matters in the Federal Energy Agency, the Energy Research and Development Administration, the Department of Energy, the Office of the Secretary of Defense and the Department of the Army. Dr. Prather also served as legislative assistant for national security affairs to U.S. Sen. Henry Bellmon, R-Okla. -- ranking member of the Senate Budget Committee and member of the Senate Energy Committee and Appropriations Committee. Dr. Prather had earlier worked as a nuclear weapons physicist at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California and Sandia National Laboratory in New Mexico.