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Terrorist Plot Uncovered to Explode Dirty Bomb in D.C. Area

Aired June 10, 2002 - 11:00   ET


DARYN KAGAN, CNN ANCHOR: And we begin this hour with continuing coverage of our breaking news. I'm Daryn Kagan. Thanks for joining us.

The news coming from Attorney General John Ashcroft, as he announces the arrest of a U.S. citizen also accused of being an operative of al Qaeda. A man going by the name of Abdullah al Mujahir. A man accused of trying to build a dirty bomb and explode it in the Washington D.C. area. A man who now is in the custody of the U.S. military.

Let's listen once again to the words of the attorney general, who today makes this announcement from Moscow.


JOHN ASHCROFT, ATTORNEY GENERAL: I am pleased to announce today a significant step forward in the war on terrorism. We have captured a known terrorist who was exploring a plan to build and explode a radiological dispersion device, or dirty bomb, in the United States. I commend the FBI, the CIA, the Defense Department and other federal agencies whose cooperation made this possible.


KAGAN: And we expect to learn a lot more in the next 15 minutes. That's when the Justice Department plans to hold a news conference. Of course, you will see that news conference live here on CNN.

Meanwhile, while we stand by for that news conference, let's bring back in our David Ensor, who has been gathering as much information about the man and about the alleged plot -- David.

DAVID ENSOR, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes. Well, Daryn, U.S. officials I've been speaking to on the telephone tell me that the primary information about this Jose Padilla, who calls himself Abdullah al Mujahir, comes from Abu Zubaydah, the senior al Qaeda figure who is in U.S. hands and who is being interrogated and apparently is talking in useful ways to the U.S.

He says, and there may be corroboratory information elsewhere -- officials suggest there is -- that this man came and talked to him offering his services in effect. He went to Pakistan and had training at a number of locations in Pakistan in the use of explosives and the wiring of explosives. He went to Karachi twice to meet with senior al Qaeda figures and discuss what sorts of terrorism he might be able to organize in the United States.

Officials tell me that in terms of the radiological bomb idea, which was only one of a number of ideas that Jose Padilla was apparently talking with al Qaeda about, that that radiological bomb, they understand, was probably intended to be blown up in this city here -- in Washington D.C., Daryn.

KAGAN: One of the interesting twists, too, is how this man is being handled. He was picked up, the attorney general said, at Chicago International Airport in May as he was making his way back from Pakistan. First, of course, in the custody of the Justice Department; now, though, has been transferred to the custody of the U.S. military.

ENSOR: Fascinating indeed that a U.S. citizen arriving on a flight at Chicago's O'Hare should be arrested and now find himself declared an enemy, an enemy combatant by President Bush last night. And that makes it possible for the U.S. to put him into Department of Defense custody.

He doesn't have all the same legal rights. He does have the rights of a prisoner of war, but not the rights of a legal defendant in the U.S. legal system. And he will now be interrogated, one would have thought, fairly aggressively, Daryn.

KAGAN: All right, David. We're going to cut you loose so you can go find out some more information in anticipation of that news conference that should start in about 12 minutes. While we let you do that, let's bring in our John King, who is standing by at the White House tracking the story for us as well -- John.

JOHN KING, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Daryn, we should hear later this hour directly from the president on this matter. Prime Minister Sharon of Israel just arrived here at the White House moments ago and reporters are being brought in during that session. You can be sure the president, if he does not raise it himself, will be asked about this arrest.

We are told that it was Mr. Bush who last night signed off on the designation so that the Justice Department could transfer into Defense Department custody this suspect. Mr. Bush, we are told, acting on the advice and agreement between the Attorney General John Ashcroft and the Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld that this suspect should be treated as a combatant against the United States and turned over to the Defense Department and not charged in the federal court system.

Why now? This suspect, of course, has been in custody for a month. U.S. officials say there was a Tuesday deadline. They had to decide by tomorrow how to handle this suspect. He had to be designated in the court system, if you will, so President Bush signed off on it last month.

As David Ensor just reported, senior administration officials here also telling us they believe the probable target of this dirty bomb plot was Washington D.C. Although they also say they believe this plot was in its early stages and there were other potential attacks on the United States being discussed in addition to the use of a crude radioactive device.

One U.S. official here also pointing to this fact: saying that the fact that this suspect was in Pakistan talking to al Qaeda leaders proves to this official, anyway, that Pakistan itself needs to do a better job, a more aggressive job of cracking down on al Qaeda cells still operating in that country even as the war in Afghanistan goes on -- Daryn.

KAGAN: And also, John, of course the significance of this man being a U.S. citizen and being allowed to travel freely, of course, since he has a U.S. passport.

KING: He has a U.S. passport, as the attorney general noted. That allowed him free access in and out of the United States. We were told by one senior official here a few moments ago that a number of associates of this suspect are being kept in close eye -- under close eye by U.S. sources. This official would not say whether that meant associates in this country or associates overseas.

The official saying much of the information about this investigation is highly classified, highly sensitive, even as we await that briefing, the joint briefing between justice and defense officials just moments away. We are told that they will keep much of the details of this secret because of the ongoing aspects of the investigation.

KAGAN: Understandable. And once again, you mentioned that briefing. That's coming up in 10 minutes.

What about concern -- you mentioned this a little bit, John -- concern that this man is just not operating alone? Whether it's within this country or elsewhere around the world.

KING: Well we have been asking, and I know other CNN correspondents have been asking, are there any others in this country? Was he part of a large al Qaeda cell in this country? Has anyone else been arrested? Are there other people being interrogated that we don't know about?

Remember this man was arrested a month ago. U.S. officials -- one told me he was not aware of any other arrests. One said simply did not have any information on that. Again, making clear that this is highly classified. Obviously this suspect was kept in custody first in New York City. We are told now transferred to the Defense Department today and in custody, at least temporarily, in Charleston, South Carolina, where the final custody -- final jailing will take place.

We are not sure just yet, but U.S. officials either saying they don't have much information or saying they would be reluctant to give us any additional information as to whether there are accomplices in this country or overseas who are either under arrest or under close scrutiny. Simply saying it is a highly sensitive classified investigation and that it continues.

KAGAN: Well and it sounds like they'll be able to keep it secret even longer just by classifying this man as an enemy combatant and putting him in the custody of the U.S. military instead of the Justice Department.

Any concern at the White House of backlash about civil rights activists?

KING: They believe that there will be backlash. That some people will say this is not the way the United States' justice system was configured. But this president has made clear since the days after September 11th that he was prepared to confront and deal with that criticism and that he believes the public is overwhelmingly on his side, despite pockets of criticism, when he says, as he has said repeatedly, that he will do whatever it takes to fight the war on terrorism.

Mr. Bush -- as the government has adopted new protections and new rights for the government, if you will, in cracking down on terrorism, Mr. Bush has said he will operate within the constitution, but he has also said that he will side with his advisers, the attorney general and the Defense Department if they believe some new power is important. The president has said he will do all he can to give it to them.

KAGAN: Understandable. John King, at the White House, thank you so much. You'll be standing by with us.

Let's bring in an expert on dirty bombs to tell us more about that. And let's go ahead and welcome Joseph Cirincione, an expert on dirty bombs, joining us from Washington D.C.

Thanks for joining us, sir.


KAGAN: Layman's explanation of a dirty bomb.

CIRINCIONE: Well what you just heard is about as good as it gets. It's a conventional explosive. For example, a truck bomb or a car bomb that has been laced with radioactive material. And when the conventional explosive goes off, the radioactive material is particularized and then spewed all over a large area.

So it is not a nuclear explosion. This is not an atomic bomb. It is a conventional bomb that radiates -- makes radioactive -- the area of the explosive impact.

KAGAN: Now what kind of danger does that radiation pose? I guess it depends on the bomb.

CIRINCIONE: Well it depends on how much radioactive material they have. And it doesn't have to be fissile material. It doesn't have to be plutonium or uranium. In fact, it's probably not that. That is the stuff of a nuclear bomb. More likely, it would be waste material that could be stolen from inside the United States. It could be cobalt from a medical machinery, such as you would use in hospitals for radiation therapy for cancer. The danger is that the explosive causes the damage. For example, imagine Oklahoma City, the federal building there. The explosive causes the damage, but then the entire area is radioactive.

So first responders, firemen, policemen, hospital workers, are prohibited from going in. So the casualties increase as you can't get to them. There's a panic that would ensue as this unseen, unfelt poison starts to radiate through the city. And it would cause exactly the kind of panic that a terrorist is after. The fear, the terror, will be much more profound than the actual physical damage itself.

KAGAN: And just even what would happen as people tried to flee a certain area and as roads would clog up, airports would load up. As you mentioned, that could cause even more damage.

CIRINCIONE: Well, in many ways this is a perfect terrorist bomb. And as I've discussed on CNN, for example, what we expect next, many of us have feared exactly this kind of device because it is exactly what terrorists know how to do. It deals with things they know about: conventional explosives, truck bombs, car bombs. They don't have to bring anything into the country. They can steal or buy what they need here and then turn it against us.

KAGAN: And it's all right here. Scary stuff. It sounds like this particular plot has been foiled, but you make it sound like the potential for other people to do it is still very much out there.

CIRINCIONE: Well I think it is, unfortunately. It's not easy to do; it's not easy to steal radioactive material from, (UNINTELLIGIBLE), for example, nuclear waste near a power reactor. But it is possible, and if they could get that particular kind of waste, which is highly radioactive, it could spread over tens, maybe hundreds of square kilometers of an urban area, making much of the area uninhabitable at least for months, perhaps years.

KAGAN: Incredible. Joseph Cirincione, thanks for your expertise on dirty bombs. Appreciate it, sir.


KAGAN: We are just moments away from a news conference that will begin at the Justice Department, where we expect to learn more about the arrest and detainment of a man who goes by the name of Abdullah al Mujahir. a man accused of trying to build a dirty bomb and explode it in the Washington D.C. area. He has now been transferred to the custody of the U.S. Defense Department.

While we wait for that to begin, let's bring our David Ensor in, who has been talking about this story and what he has been able to learn about the man and the alleged plot -- David.

ENSOR: Well, Daryn, he goes by the name, as you said, of Abdullah al Mujahir, but U.S. officials I've been talking to use his original name, which is Jose Padilla.

Who is he? He's a U.S. citizen, he has a U.S. passport, officials say. He was declared an enemy combatant by the U.S. government last night. That was signed, we are told, by President Bush. He received training in Pakistan, officials tell me, in the making and wiring of conventional explosives. And he held a number of meetings with senior al Qaeda officials; in particular, two meetings in Karachi, Pakistan, with senior al Qaeda officials.

Much of the information about him comes from the captive senior al Qaeda operative Abu Zubaydah, who has been in U.S. hands for quite some time now and is clearly providing some useful intelligence at this point. He was the key source in this information about Jose Padilla and the fact that there was a plot that this man was involved in to possibly try to detonate a radiological device probably in Washington D.C. -- Daryn.

KAGAN: Any more information, David, about the timing of when this was supposed to take place and how close he was to pulling this plot off allegedly?

ENSOR: Well, as we heard, of course, from the attorney general, he was arrested on May 8th at Chicago's O'Hare Airport. So that's a little ways away.

It appears that this thing has been brewing for some months now. I understand from U.S. officials that he was tracked during his time in Pakistan fairly closely. And it looks as if the trip he was making starting in Chicago was a trip to try and look around for potential targets and potential help. Not a trip -- in other words, the officials I'm talking to are not suggesting that he was about to drive to Washington and detonate a device. More that he was on a reconnaissance trip, so to speak.

KAGAN: Still in his research phase?

ENSOR: That's right.

KAGAN: Also -- and you made this point, David, I thought was interesting, the significance of the source, of being tipped off, being Abu Zubaydah.

ENSOR: Well, yes. This is a man we've heard a lot from. There have been all of those threat announcements that have gotten people riled up in this country; some of them coming from Abu Zubaydah.

And officials have always said they don't trust everything they hear from Abu Zubaydah. That they only act on what he tells them after they've got other intelligence corroborating what he has said. They do believe that some of the things he's said have not been truthful, at least in the first instance in the early period.

But now, clearly, they feel that he's giving them useful intelligence. And in this case, intelligence that may save American lives. KAGAN: All right. David Ensor, we'll have you stand by. Once again, we expect this news conference to begin any moment. We were actually expecting it to begin 15 after.

When it does begin, we expect to hear from Paul Wolfowitz, the deputy secretary of defense; Robert Mueller, head of the FBI; and Tommy Thompson, secretary of health and human services. Those gentlemen joining us just ahead.


KAGAN: We're still standing by waiting for the beginning of that Justice Department news conference to talk about the arrest and detainment of Abdullah al Mujahir, a U.S. citizen, accused now of being an al Qaeda operative and also of trying to build and (UNINTELLIGIBLE) a dirty bomb in the Washington D.C. area.

That news conference, by the way, will include -- I said Tommy Thompson, a different Thompson. It will be Larry Thompson, who is the deputy attorney general, standing in, no doubt, because John Ashcroft, the attorney general, is in Moscow. We heard from him earlier as he made the announcement of this arrest earlier today.

Our David Ensor has been tracking these events with us and we've been talking dirty bombs. David, this is a topic that is not new to you. You have been looking into this for some time.

ENSOR: Well that's right. This is something that we've feared for a long time. Fortunately, it hasn't come to pass. And here it looks as if a plot that might have ended up in such a detonation has been thwarted.

But it is the kind of terrorism, as you heard Joe Cirincione say to you not long ago, that is very much on the minds of American officials at this point, because a conventional explosion, terrorists have shown they're very good at those. And this man, according to U.S. officials, received training in conventional explosives and the wiring thereof in Pakistan in recent months. And then all you have to do is put some nuclear waste material, wrap it around the explosive, and you create panic among people because you've made an area dangerous for everybody, including the people who would be trying to help those injured.

So a very, very worrying sort of type of terrorism for someone to be trying to do. One thing that I thought it might be interesting for our viewers to know -- and I can't corroborate this -- but Associated Press is reporting that Mujahir or Padilla is a former Chicago street gang member who served time in prison in the 1990s and converted to Islam while he was in prison. So an interesting background for a man who, according to U.S. officials, has now volunteered to work for al Qaeda in the United States -- Daryn.

KAGAN: And David I understand you have a piece that you put together previously on dirty bombs. Why don't we go ahead and take a look at that.


ENSOR: At a meeting of senior lieutenants of Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan within the past year, U.S. intelligence officials say, one person held up a cylinder claiming it contained highly radio active material. He waved it around as proof of al Qaeda's program towards building a radiological device often referred to as a "dirty bomb."

A dirty bomb is a crude device made by wrapping highly radio active material, such as spent nuclear fuel rods, around a conventional explosive like TNT. The radioactive active material would probably not raise the death toll but it could sew panic.

RIGER HAGENGRUBER, SANDIA NATIONAL LABORATORY: This would be a major psychological problem in a public way. But as a threat, it's not going to kill a lot of people, by and large.

ENSOR: The radio active material would make cleaning up the aftermath of a terrorist incident even more dangerous and difficult, experts say. But handled correctly, it wouldn't dramatically increase longer term health risks to those exposed.

DAVID ALBRIGHT, INST. FOR SCIENCE & INTL. SECURITY: Even if it is a fairly significant radiological -- fairly significant radiological attack, it is not like, 20 years from now we are going to see this huge spike in deaths from cancer.

ENSOR: Al Qaeda's interest in learning how to make nuclear weapons is clear, from materials recently found by journalists and others in the group's safe houses in Kabul. There is also evidence the group has tried hard to obtain materials to make a nuclear bomb.

In the New York trial of al Qaeda members accused in the Africa embassy bombings, Jamaal Ahmend Al Alfadl (ph) testified that an attempt was made in 1993 to buy South African bomb grade uranium.

ALBRIGHT: My understanding is it was highly enriched uranium. And that they didn't get it and it was a scam.

ENSOR: That failure may not have stopped the efforts. In recent months, a senior Russian general said, terrorists -- he did not say which ones -- were seen snooping around some little known nuclear facilities in Russia.

PAVEL FELGENHAUER, RUSSIAN JOURNALIST: These are very secret places. And, of course, he didn't say any more, didn't go into other any detail, except that there were attempts of stalking and that they were foiled.

ENSOR: And in Pakistan, this man, Bashiruddin (ph) Mahmood (ph), and another former Pakistani atomic scientist have been detained. They are being questioned about their trips to Afghanistan and alleged meetings with Osama bin Laden. They insist they were only working for a Muslim charity.

(on camera): Still, it would be much easier for terrorists to get their hands on radioactive materials such as those used in medical research, not nuclear-weapons grade, but usable in a dirty bomb. And cleaning up after such an explosion, experts say, could take years.

David Ensor, CNN, Washington.


KAGAN: And our David Ensor putting that together.

David, as you mentioned in your piece, that al Qaeda, of course, has had plans for some time to try to build a nuclear bomb. I think what's going to really catch people's attention this time around is that it's a U.S. citizen that has been taken into custody.

ENSOR: Well that's right, because if there are U.S. citizens who are willing to serve al Qaeda's purposes on U.S. soil, that is a fifth column, so to speak. That is a group of people who could really hurt this country. It will be very interesting to hear at this news conference whether any of the officials who will speak will tell us that any other American citizens are or are not suspected of involvement in this plot. Whether they know of any other American citizens who might be plotting to help al Qaeda on U.S. soil. They would, of course, have great advantages for al Qaeda.

KAGAN: David, I want you to stay with us and want to bring in -- we have on the phone with us our Peter Bergen, terrorism expert, who I'm sure has been fascinated in the developments of today. Peter, what have you been able to learn either about this man or the alleged plot?

PETER BERGEN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Daryn, bin Laden's people have long sought nuclear materials. The interesting thing is, from what we know about this case, it fits with core testimony in the U.S. embassy bombing case in '98, which bin Laden's group had to pay $1.5 million for enriched uranium from South Africa, when the group was based in Sudan in 1993. So that kind of fits with the information that we're having about this recent arrest.

KAGAN: And, Peter, the other thing that's so interesting is that it's a U.S. citizen. We're not just talking about some bad person from a far away land, we're talking about someone from right within the U.S. community.

BERGEN: Well one of the most frightening -- let's say discomforting characteristics of al Qaeda is how many American citizens are part of the group. You know we're seeing more and more second generation al Qaeda members, second generation Americans who are members of al Qaeda or people who become naturalized. Obviously, they have a much easier ability to arrive in this country.

And so (UNINTELLIGIBLE) sending in somebody who's got an American passport is a lot easier, at least theoretically, to get past American security. But it's not surprising to me that this guy is American because of the dozens of either American citizens who are part of the group or people who are living in the United States. Obviously, all of the 19 hijackers were able to live in the United States.

KAGAN: But this is obviously on a far different scale and a far different situation than, let's just say, John Walker Lindh, the alleged Taliban-American, who is in custody for having fought in Afghanistan.

BERGEN: Yes. Well, I mean, John Walker Lindh seems to be -- I mean, just my personal opinion -- a rather sort of feckless and hapless individual who kind of stumbled into the Taliban. I mean, the real significance of his story is here's a 20-year-old Californian meeting bin Laden. We spend $30 billion a year on intelligence gathering and we weren't able to replicate that feat.

But again, as you say, it is a very different -- I mean, no one is accusing John Walker Lindh of being a member of al Qaeda. And, in fact, becoming a member of al Qaeda, I don't think someone like John Walker Lindh would have made the cut. Generally, they are people who seem a bit smarter than him.

KAGAN: All right. Peter Bergen on the phone with us, our terrorism expert. We'll bring you back in just a moment.





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