June 10, 2002 -- A U.S. citizen has been arrested in connection with an "unfolding terrorist plot" to explode a radioactive dirty bomb in the United States, Attorney General John Ashcroft announced today.
Ashcroft said Abdullah al Muhajir, also known as Jose Padilla, of Chicago, trained with al Qaeda and was planning an attack in the United States.
"We have disrupted an unfolding terrorist plot to attack the United States by exploding a radioactive dirty bomb," Ashcroftsaid, adding that al Muhajir was being treated as an enemy combatant.
Learn About "Dirty Bombs" Here
The probable target of al Muhajir's alleged plans to detonate the bomb was Washington, D.C., sources told ABCNEWS. Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, appearing at a news conference with Deputy Attorney General Larry Thompson and FBI Director Robert Mueller, said officials could not say with certainty that the nation's capital was the likely target, although he said that al Muhajir "did indicate knowledge of the Washington, D.C., area."
Officials told ABCNEWS the United States was alerted to al Muhajir by Abu Zubaydah, a top al Qaeda operative who was captured this spring and is being interrogated at an undisclosed location.
Ashcroft said al Muhajir is a former Chicago street gang member who converted to Islam while in prison in the early 1990s. After serving his time, he traveled to Afghanistan and Pakistan for training in al Qaeda camps, where he was taught how to wire explosive devices and researched radiological dispersion devices, Ashcroft said.
Asked at a news conference here whether authorities had identified any co-conspirators in the United States, Thompson said, "We're not going to comment on that."
The alleged plot was not believed to have passed the early planning stages.
Pentagon officials said al Muhajir has been moved to the Consolidated Naval Brig in Charleston, S.C. He had been in custody in New York since his arrest in May.
Arrested in May
This year, U.S. officials trailed him from Pakistan, to Egypt and then to Switzerland. On May 8th, FBI agents were onboard al Muhajir's flight from Switzerland to Chicago. Carrying $10,526 in cash, he was arrested at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport.
Ashcroft said al Qaeda apparently believed that al Muhajir would be permitted to travel freely within the United States because of his U.S. citizenship and because he carried a U.S. passport. Al Muhajir, a 31-year-old native of Brooklyn, N.Y., moved to Chicago at age 4.
Al Muhajir met in early 2001 with senior al Qaeda officials, Ashcroft said.
The Associated Press reported that al Muhajir discussed several terrorist plans with Zubaydah. An official told the AP that he first met with Abu Zubaydah in Afghanistan in 2001, and traveled to Pakistan at Abu Zubaydah's request, the official said, adding that he was one of a group that traveled with Abu Zubaydahto several locations in Pakistan.
Learn About al Muhajir Here
A Weapon of Mass Hysteria
"Dirty bombs" are not traditional nuclear weapons, but a conventional explosive laced with radioactive material.
In testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee earlier this year, the nation's top nuclear officials said dirty bombs could become terrorists' weapon of choice.
The likely radioactive ingredients for these devices — cesium, cobalt and iridium isotopes — are widely used for industrial purposes and are easy to come by. Radioactive material is stored in thousands of hospitals, labs and factories across the country — often with few safeguards, because private businesses are responsible for ensuring their security.
Experts say a dirty bomb would cause significant damage, and possible loss of life from the conventional explosion. But generally the impact of the radiation release would be isolated.
However, the experts warned that most cities are not prepared to deal with the psychological impact. Cities could expect to see hospitals overrun with thousands of fearful patients; businesses shut down for months, with billions in lost revenue; and increased levels of domestic and substance abuse as residents cope with stress.
ABCNEWS' Pierre Thomas and Brian Hartman contributed to this report.