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Dirty Bomb Suspect Captured

Aired June 10, 2002 - 13:01   ET


LEON HARRIS, CNN ANCHOR: We begin with this morning's dramatic announcement by the Bush administration that authorities foiled a so- called dirty bomb attack planned by a U.S. citizen. Our justice correspondent Kelli Arena, she joins us now with the very latest -- Kelli.

KELLI ARENA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Leon, here is the headline. Officials say the U.S. has in custody what they call a known terrorist with al Qaeda connections who -- in custody, was supposedly planning to build and explode a radioactive dirty bomb here in the United States.

Now, here are the specifics behind the headlines. His name is Abdullah al Muhajir. He is a U.S. citizen. He was born Jose Padilla. He has been declared an enemy combatant by the U.S. government. He was first picked up and held in civil custody. He has just been transferred over. Some legal experts suggest that's because that gives the government some time to come up with a charge against him. When he is being held as an enemy combatant, he can be held indefinitely.

He's being held in a Naval brig in Charleston, South Carolina. He received training, according to U.S. officials, in Pakistan, in the making of and wiring explosives. He is said to have met with senior al Qaeda officials in Pakistan while under surveillance.

Some of this information is coming from a senior al Qaeda official Abu Zubaydah. We have heard his name before. Affiliated with many of the -- much of the information that's been coming out in terms of threats to the United States. He's apparently cooperating much more than initially thought.

We also heard from the attorney general earlier about the fact that this was a plan, Leon. This was not something that -- we did not have a radioactive dirty bomb. The government did not find one. Supposedly, there was no purchase of any materials yet. This was in the discussion and planning stages, although the government says the evidence is still very specific and overwhelming.

Let's hear what the attorney general had to say a bit earlier today.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) JOHN ASHCROFT, ATTORNEY GENERAL OF THE UNITED STATES: The United States government was tracking Abdullah al Muhajir, when on May 8, 2002, this year, he flew from Pakistan into Chicago O'Hare International Airport, where he was placed in the custody of federal law enforcement authorities.

In apprehending al Muhajir as he sought entry into the United States, we have disrupted an unfolding terrorist plot to attack the United States by exploding a radioactive dirty bomb.


ARENA: Al Muhajir, we do have some personal items about him. He was born on October 18, 1970 in New York City. He -- we are told moved to Chicago at the age of 5. He has an unspecified juvenile criminal record, definitely in the system, although we are told those records are sealed right now.

In 1991, he was convicted in Florida on gun charges, we are told served a year probation. He's been living outside of the United States since 1998, mainly in the Middle East. And we are told mainly in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

And as I said before, he remains in military custody as an enemy combatant, which means, Leon, that he can be held indefinitely, as long as this war on terrorism continues. Back to you.

HARRIS: That's exactly what Jamie McIntyre said moments when we talked last hour. Perhaps with this war having an indefinite time period assigned it to, he could be held in custody for a long, long time.

ARENA: This is true.

HARRIS: All right, thanks, Kelli, Kelli Arena checking the story for that in Washington -- We do appreciate that.

Now let's look at what a dirty bomb is and isn't.

Experts say the biggest difference between a dirty bomb and a regular bomb is not the damage it does, but the panic it would cause. Miles O'Brien has been researching this subject for us. Let's check in with him now -- Miles?

MILES O'BRIEN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Leon, let's first of all talk about, once again, something that may seem repetitive for those who have been watching for some period of time. But it's worth restating again and again, because we want to make sure you understand what we're talking about.

Immediately, a lot of people assume when you talk about nuclear and bomb in the same sentence or same paragraph even that we are talking about mushroom clouds. Well, this is by no means anything that would create that mushroom cloud that you're familiar with, from seeing all these pictures of the nuclear tests over the years. Let's take a look at exactly what we're talking about here. As we look at atomic explosion -- and we should have some video of that atomic explosion, which we can put up for you in just a moment here and give you a sense of that. There's the mushroom cloud we've been talking about.

What does it take to do a mushroom cloud? Well first of all, hopefully, we can get the telestrator to go through the graphic there and give you a sense. You need weapons grade plutonium or enriched uranium. You need a trigger device. A triggering device is no small matter, something that has to be timed precisely. It's something that requires a fair amount of expertise.

And you have to obtain what is called "critical mass." That means how you pack the plutonium or the enriched uranium in order to split the atom and cause that explosion that we're talking about in a nuclear blast.

Now, if, for example, a dirty bomb were used, the amount of the blast would not be enhanced in any way. The amount of the blast would be only relative to whatever the explosive device was. If it was dynamite, it would be a dynamite explosion, which would disperse radioactive material.

As an example, let's take a look at a terrorist attack that occurred in 1995. You will all remember in Oklahoma City. In the case of Oklahoma City, what if this had been a dirty bomb? Well, there were 168 people killed in this attack. And that is a serious death toll, obviously. But if this had been a dirty bomb, it might have impacted the ability of rescue workers to do their job.

There were more than 80 people who were pulled from the rubble. Eighty-seven people were rescued. If the rescuers had come in and detected the possibility of some radioactive material there with Geiger counters, it might have delayed that rescued effort, might have increased the death toll in that respect.

It also could have, depending on how the wind blows and a lot of other factors which are difficult to discern right now, might have caused radiation poisoning among some people. Perhaps long-term, some cancer. Very difficult to determine all of that. But once again, we're not talking about a nuclear explosion which could have leveled a much wider area.

Once again, let's recap and go through exactly what a dirty bomb is, if we could, showing that graphic one more time that we gave you a special preview of. Conventional explosives, dynamite or perhaps that type of bomb, that fertilizer and diesel fuel bomb that was used in Oklahoma City. It doesn't matter what the explosive device is; the idea is to disperse the radioactive material.

Now going down the list. How would you get a hold of that kind of material? Well, fuel rods from nuclear reactors, that's a possible source. As a matter of fact, fuel rods from nuclear reactors in and of themselves are very difficult to handle. They're fairly tightly regulated, not very easy to get a hold of. The nuclear industry says they have very tight security regulations.

And that is -- over the course of the nuclear industry, in the history of that industry, they've had a very good track record in that device. But However, there are many, many sources of other nuclear waste as we look down the list here, and just reiterate that point that this is not a nuclear explosion.

The other sources are really more numerous than you probably care to think about. There's some two million licensed sources of nuclear waste in this country by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. You can go down the list. Those spent nuclear fuel that we were just talking about. You can go to an issue of nuclear waste, which is a problem that occurred at many of these places that built nuclear bombs during the Manhattan Project and onward.

And then, of course, one of the big ones, which is medical waste. Medical waste from cobalt 60 devices used for X-rays, devices used in cancer treatments. That kind of thing, not as well regulated as those spent fuel rods that you see right there, and clearly could be a potential source for that kind of dirty bomb that we're talking about.

So bottom line is, it's not necessarily this huge tremendous blast that you might think of. What could happen in this case is it could cause the spread of radioactivity. Number one, that would cause potentially a lot of panic. And that, of course, is what terrorists are after.

In addition, it could cause the contamination of a large area. Let's say for example, midtown Manhattan, if a dirty bomb went off, numerous buildings could be contaminated by some sort of radioactive material. It's quite possible that those buildings -- the only way to alleviate that problem would be to demolish those buildings. So this, more than anything, is an economic and a psychological weapon, as opposed to, if you will, increasing the body count -- Leon.

HARRIS: Interesting. And since you mention that, I have had time to think of question for you, Miles. Do you know how many hospitals in the country are actually equipped to handle such an outbreak or explosion?

O'BRIEN: I don't have the answer to that. I will try to get that for you. I don't know that there's a lot of expertise in this kind of thing. Certainly the kind of thing that if there was a huge, huge area that was affected, it could easily overwhelm one locality and their capabilities in one area.

HARRIS: Well, as I understand it, I do have the answer to that question. As I understand it, there's only one hospital, and that is in Oakridge, Tennessee.

O'BRIEN: All right. Well, that would make sense, because Oakridge, Tennessee was the place where highly enriched uranium was processed during the Manhattan Project, which made it possible for the first bombs to be built. HARRIS: Exactly, so they've had time to prepare for it and they actually thought that process through. So that's probably something we can talk about some another time -- Miles O'Brien, thank you very much. He's a great explainer on all that.

Now let's talk more about the suspect in this alleged dirty bomb plot. How he was found, and how the case against him may move forward. We're joined by Juliette Kayyem. She heads up the executive session on domestic preparedness at Harvard University. Thank you very much for taking time to talk with us today.


HARRIS: Well, what do we know about how this man may have been tracked down?

KAYYEM: Well, we clearly got information from Abu Zubaydah, the highest-ranking al Qaeda member we have in custody. He gave us information. A lot of the information he has gave us before has proven to be not so reliable. But clearly in this instance, we were able to corroborate it, likely with foreign intelligence services, so that when the suspect, Mohamed (sic), arrived in Chicago O'Hare, we had enough to arrest him.

A lot of information sharing and a lot of foreign intelligence help on this one.

HARRIS: You know what strikes me as very interesting is Abu Zubaydah, the man you've mentioned there. He's, perhaps, the highest- ranking member who's now in U.S. custody. And his arrest in this capture is considered a huge loss to al Qaeda.

KAYYEM: Absolutely, and he's talking...

HARRIS: ... that's what I find very interesting. What do you think is happening? And how can they be getting him to talk now?

KAYYEM: It may be now, that all sorts of deals are being offered to him so that he avoids the most severe penalty. He knows that he is never going to probably see the light of day, anywhere, in any part of the world. But maybe, and this is just a guess now, maybe the death penalty is off the table, so long as he's helping.

I think what's also interesting is he's giving us the names of American citizens, you know, the bad news in this story is clearly that we know we're still under some kind of threat. And in this instance, it's a U.S. citizen.

What I think is most interesting is his original name is Jose Padilla. That's a Hispanic name. I haven't seen pictures of him. But you can guess that the -- we've known al Qaeda has all sorts of ethnicities, from white to Arab to Hispanic as members, and it sounds like at least in this instance, that his original name makes him sound like he's Hispanic.

So it shows that the pool of people that al Qaeda is drawing from is quite large.

HARRIS: Well, you combine that with the fact he was traveling with an American or U.S. passport, as well. That has got to make those in the law enforcement community quite concerned about all of this.

KAYYEM: Absolutely. I mean, here's the good news of this story. At least what we can tell from Ashcroft and others today that this plan to use a dirty bomb was not very far along. So that's the good news. I mean, he's had, Jose Padilla has had a lot of training to try to do a dirty bomb. But as your segment right before said, it's not so easy. You need a conventional bomb, but of course you need the materials. The good news is that.

Now, what happens to him is he's going over to the Department of Defense, where they will interrogate him, find out if there's anyone else here part of same conspiracy.

HARRIS: Do you think there's going to be any complication with his status of being held as enemy combatant, and the possibility that he could be held there for years without any charges being filed against him?

KAYYEM: I mean, I think you've got a very interesting -- I'm a lawyer -- you've got a interesting legal issue here. The designation of an unlawful combatant means that he can go within the Department of Defense custody. That is not, I guess I would say, unchallengable. In other words, there are probably going to be lawyers out there who argue, because he's a U.S. citizen, he should be in our normal criminal justice system.

When the Bush administration came out with their military tribunal order, remember the first thing it said was, no U.S. citizen will be tried in the military tribunal. So they're kind of using the DOD custody as a wait station during this war on terrorism. And then will send him back, I think, to your sort of normal criminal justice system.

And then I think there's going to be a lot of legal issues arising about whether he should have ever been in DOD custody, and whether any confessions he makes while in custody will hold in court.

HARRIS: Of course, that's all down the road. And finally, I have to ask you this, because I'm thinking here, if there's a way to make Abu Zubaydah talk, there's got to be a way to make this Abdullah al Muhajir talk.

KAYYEM: Right.

HARRIS: And can they interrogate him like that? Can they offer him some sort -- any kind of deal to turn other people in here? And do you think that's likely to happen?

KAYYEM: I think so. It sounds like -- I mean, it doesn't sound like he was very high up in al Qaeda. He was probably a foot soldier who had a lot of training, and they liked him because had access to America.

You know, this happens every day in criminal justice system. You offer all sorts of goodies to the lower down guys, so that he will offer up names and information to get the big huncho, especially if there's people here in the United States. That's clearly the first plan to see what he knows.

It may be though -- you know, because al Qaeda is so dispersed that he doesn't know much. It may be that he is sort of working within a cell, that he doesn't know who's part of that cell, let alone who is still masterminding al Qaeda attacks.

HARRIS: That's pretty much -- that's been their modus operandi.


HARRIS: That's very interesting -- Juliette Kayyem, thank you very much. I sure do appreciate your insight. It's going to be interesting to see how this all plays out.

KAYYEM: Yes, thank you, Leon.

HARRIS: Thank you very much. We'll see you later on.

Now, let's get the latest reaction from the Bush administration on today's breaking news and some other major events as well. Our CNN senior White House correspondent John King joins us now live -- John.


The president saying very little about this, the issue of course came up during an oval office question and answer session with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. The two leaders meeting to discuss the impasse between Israel and the Palestinians right now.

But under questioning, Mr. Bush was asked about the arrest of this suspect, the disclosure today of the arrest of this suspect a month ago, and his transfer today to the Defense Department. Mr. Bush choosing his words quite sparingly, because we are told by senior administration officials, this investigation quite sensitive and still ongoing.


GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I can tell you that -- that we have a man detained who is a threat to the country. And that, thanks to the vigilance of our intelligence gathering and law enforcement, he is now off the streets, where he should be. And I'll let the Defense Department and Justice Department comment on the specifics.


KING: But we are told by senior administration officials that it was last night that President Bush signed off on having the suspect transferred from Justice Department custody, federal law enforcement, to Defense Department custody, military custody.

He will be held indefinitely. He is not charged right now. And as your guest was just pointing out, there are no plans to charge this suspect under the military tribunal. Those are only for non-U.S. citizens. But this does allow the United States government to hold the suspect indefinitely. U.S. officials telling us the investigation ongoing here in the United States and overseas.

And some officials here at the White House privately raising this question: They say this gentlemen now in custody, was meeting with senior al Qaeda officials in Pakistan, evidence to this White House that perhaps Pakistan could be doing more internally to crackdown on al Qaeda cells, which continue to operate in that country, especially now that many have been routed out of Afghanistan.

HARRIS: John -- in the soundbite, we saw president Bush was there with Ariel Sharon. What can you tell us about the talks they had today?

KING: Well, the president talking about his commitment to try to bring together the very divergent Israeli and Arab views right now, and try to broker some political dialogue in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But no apparent progress at all. Prime Minister Sharon saying that he wants a full cessation of violence and a partner for peace before he is going to enter into any dialogue about a Palestinian state.

That, of course, another reference from the Israel prime minister to his mistrust of Yasser Arafat. President Bush making clear once again that he has no trust for Yasser Arafat. So no apparent progress at all toward the president's goal of creating a political dialogue between the Israelis and the Palestinians, aimed eventually at peace in the Palestinian state.

HARRIS: Interesting, John. I was wondering if there will be any difference in there in their talks about Yasser Arafat, considering the cabinet shuffling he did over the weekend. Did that inspire any more confidence there?

KING: Well, Mr. Bush says those things are progress. But he wants to see more. He wants to see the evidence of it on the ground. And what he's hinting at is the United States increasingly would deal with the new people in the Palestinian Authority. But you have a bit of divergence in the views, if you will.

On the one hand, Mr. Bush makes clear every time he is asked, that he would like to see new leadership in the Palestinian Authority. On the other hand, he has to for tactical reasons, strategic reasons, in the short term, reject the Israeli position that you don't deal with Yasser Arafat at all. Because there can be no negotiations in the short term between the Israelis and the Palestinians, unless the Israelis talk to Yasser Arafat.

Prime Minister Sharon making abundantly clear yet again he is not going to do that.

HARRIS: John King at the White House. Thank you very much. Take care. We will see you soon.

We'll hear more about the president's talks with Prime Minister Sharon, and all the other White House news of the day in the presses briefing which comes up later on this hour. We'll have that for you live, so keep it right here.




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