By Peter Whoriskey
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 28, 2007
MIAMI, June 27 -- After Jose Padilla was arrested as an accused "dirty bomb" plotter in May 2002, he became an icon of the domestic al-Qaeda threat.
For those who knew him just a few years before, it must have seemed like a startling evolution.
Because from the summer of 1998, when he moved from Florida to Egypt, through the spring of 2000, the former Taco Bell worker appears in his own and in his associates' wiretapped conversations to have been something far less threatening: a somewhat isolated, financially strapped young American in Egypt who was trying to disentangle himself from a marriage back in the United States and seemingly weary at times of trying to find his footing in a foreign country.
When he needed an Army jacket and sleeping bag, he turned to his mother in South Florida to send them. He struggled to learn Arabic, with one of his friends describing him with some exasperation as a "slow learner" -- so lazy that Padilla would learn only if they put a dictionary in bed. Romantically, he was at odds with his American wife, and his friends seem to have been trying to arrange a 14-year-old Egyptian bride for him.
Then, when the South Florida man prosecutors call Padilla's "recruiter" to terrorism began to press him to get active, Padilla complained that his efforts to find "good brothers" in the Middle East were complicated by discrimination against people from the United States.
"It's very difficult [to get a recommendation] 'cause . . . you know, and especially that I'm American, you know? So it's very . . . you know I am an American, so it's very hard," he tells Adham Hassoun, the Florida man whom prosecutors describe as his recruiter. "Listen, I have to let you go, because the phone card is blowing up."
Padilla and two other men, Hassoun and Kifah Jayyousi, are on trial here, accused of a conspiracy to commit violence overseas and providing material support for terrorism.
The alleged "dirty bomb" plot has nothing to do with it, however.
Prosecutors say the men formed a U.S.-based support cell for al-Qaeda, and some of the tapes and intercepted faxes being presented to the jury suggest that his co-defendants helped arrange equipment or other support for people in the conflicts in Chechnya and Kosovo.
The evidence unveiled against Padilla so far, however, has proved far less tangible.
The key piece of physical evidence against him is the "mujaheddin identification form," allegedly recovered from an al-Qaeda training camp in Afghanistan, that bears Padilla's fingerprints and one of his aliases.
His attorneys, who told jurors that Padilla traveled to Egypt to study to become an imam, have suggested that his fingerprints appeared on the form because it was handed to him by interrogators during his detention after federal authorities labeled him an enemy combatant.
The other evidence against the alleged cell consists of thousands of intercepted phone calls. Padilla's voice is heard on eight of them, and so far prosecutors have presented seven; the eighth is described as inconsequential.
In those calls, and in those in which his associates refer to him -- often as "Ibrahim" and "Abu Abdallah" -- Padilla comes across as a frustratingly evasive project for his associates.
"Is he speaking Arabic, or he hasn't learned anything yet?" Hassoun asks another man, Mohamed Youssef, who is in Egypt with Padilla.
At this point, Padilla has been in Egypt for five months, supposedly studying Islam and Arabic.
"No. He basically, uh basically, he is a slow learner. I mean he is a slow learner," Youssef responds.
"So during the time he spent there, did he learn anything?" Hassoun asks again.
"Basically, he doesn't speak, sheikh. Basically, he doesn't want to speak. I mean, the man doesn't -- doesn't move."
Elsewhere in the tapes, Hassoun seems frustrated by how little he hears from Padilla. "You guys were not supposed to interrupt your communication at all," he says at one point, and "I was, like, why Ibrahim is not calling?" His mother, too, wants to hear from him, Hassoun indicates in the calls.
For his part, Padilla, who finds work teaching English and working at a "weight-lifting place," asks Hassoun somewhat sheepishly for money. He also discusses the difficulty of living in Egypt, even more than a year after he arrives.
After Hassoun tells him "Egypt is wonderful" in one call, Padilla responds: "But sometimes it's very, you know, it's difficult to get used to the culture. The Egyptian people are very tough, you know. I get frustrated sometimes."
Youssef tells Hassoun in an earlier call that Padilla "started, of course, to get psychologically tired, because he was living alone."
After April 2000, however, there are no more calls presented on which Padilla's voice appears.
According to the date on the mujaheddin data form, it was in July 2000 that Padilla reached the al-Qaeda training camp.
What Padilla does after the last call he is heard on in the spring of 2000 has been outlined only partially through the wiretapped conversations of others.
In the fall of 2000, for example, Hassoun was again looking for Padilla, because, among other things, he was supposed to sign divorce papers, according to one of the tapes played so far. He gets a somewhat vague answer, one that prosecutors say suggest he is in Afghanistan.
"Ibrahim is a little farther south. . . . He is supposed to be at Osama's," Youssef said.