Is South Florida a Terrorist Hot Spot?
F O R T L A U D E R D A L E , Fla., June 24 — Jose Padilla, accused of conspiring to explode a "dirty bomb" in the United States, worked at a suburban Taco Bell and discovered Islam here.
Two young Pakistani immigrants from nearby Hollywood allegedly hatched a plan to attack South Florida power plants and a National Guard Armory.
And several of the Sept. 11 hijackers roamed the area's libraries, gyms and beachfront motels.
They all made their home — at least temporarily — in South Florida's Broward County, leading some to wonder if this growing suburban and tourist area north of Miami has become a common destination for would-be terrorists.
"If you want to have access to all kinds of things that might appeal to someone who is here for the wrong purposes and want to be able to have a certain level of anonymity, this is certainly the place to be," said Edward Mandt, dean of the Institute of Public Safety at Broward Community College.
With miles of strip malls, about 7.5 million tourists visiting every year and a growing degree of diversity, many say Broward County, and all of South Florida, is an ideal place to keep a low profile.
"It's a melting pot. It's not like in Montana where you would stick out like a sore thumb," said Ben Graber, a Broward County commissioner. "Here you just blend in with the population."
Consider the past nine months:
At least seven of the 19 men who crashed hijacked planes on Sept. 11 had spent time in the county. Mohamed Atta and Marwan al-Shehhi went to a Hollywood bar the week before the attacks and played video golf. Seven others lived nearby in Palm Beach County's Delray Beach.
Pakistani immigrants Imran Mandhai, 19, and Shueyb Mossa Jokhan, 24, of Hollywood were accused this spring of conspiring to bomb electrical transformers and the Israeli Consulate in Miami.
Safraz Jehaludi, a 21-year old computer technician from Miramar, is being held on charges he sent the FBI anonymous e-mail messages threatening to blow up the White House and a Florida power plant. Broward County's latest connection to alleged terrorism has surfaced mostly strongly with Padilla, who spent about a year in the county jail and lived in the county for much of the 1990s.
While federal law enforcement officials have questioned whether Padilla became an extremist during his stay in Florida, investigators have sought out those who worshipped at mosques with the young man known then as "Ibrahim."
Adham Hassoun, 40, was arrested on an immigration violation earlier this month by members of the South Florida Joint Terrorism Task Force. Two newspapers reported that Hassoun and Padilla were acquaintances at Masjid Al-Iman, a Fort Lauderdale mosque.
The cases have cast additional scrutiny on South Florida's burgeoning Muslim community. Recent census figures do not list Muslims, but the number of Broward County residents listing their ethnicity as Arab increased 70 percent during the decade to nearly 11,000.
Following a meeting Wednesday, Muslim leaders condemned the wave of detainments of Muslim and Arab men nationwide as part of the terrorism investigation and said Muslims are being unfairly targeted in South Florida.
"The community is getting the feeling that there is free speech and the First Amendment in this county, but it doesn't apply if you're Muslim or Arab," said Khurrum Wahid, civil rights director for the Florida chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations.