Jose Padilla, a U.S. citizen held by the Bush administration for three years without charges as an enemy combatant plotting a "dirty bomb" attack in the United States, has been indicted on charges unrelated to any potential terrorist attack in this country.
Padilla, 35, a former Chicago gang member who converted to Islam, was indicted by a Miami federal grand jury Thursday on charges he and four others were part of a U.S.-based terrorism conspiracy to "murder, maim, and kidnap" people overseas, Justice Department officials announced at a press conference in Washington today.
"The indictment alleges that Padilla traveled overseas to train as a terrorist with the intention of fighting a violent jihad," Attorney General Alberto Gonzales said.
The charges did not include the government's earlier allegations, however, that Padilla was planning to carry out terrorist attacks in the United States. When asked about those allegations, for which Padilla was held, Gonzales said he could comment only on the present indictments.
Padilla was arrested at Chicago's O'Hare Airport in 2002 after returning from Pakistan and a month later was designated an "enemy combatant" by President Bush. He's been in Defense Department custody ever since. Now, Padilla will be transferred from a U.S. Navy brig in South Carolina to Justice Department custody at a federal detention facility in Miami, according to an order signed by Bush on Sunday.
Gonzales said Padilla's case will go to trial in September 2006. He said Padilla faces life in prison if convicted.
The indictments avoid a Supreme Court showdown over how long the government can hold a U. S. citizen without charge. Lawyers for Padilla had asked the nation's highest court to review his case last month, and the Bush administration was facing a deadline next Monday for filing its legal arguments.
Asked about the timing of the indictments, Gonzales said the timing "relates more to the fact that it is the appropriate thing to do under the circumstances of this case."
Padilla and four co-defendants were named in an 11-count indictment accusing them of being members of a U.S. terrorist support cell formed to send money, recruits and other assistance overseas, the Justice Department said.
Padilla's co-defendants are: Adham Amin Hassoun, Mohamed Hesham Youssef, Kifah Wael Jayyousi, and Kasseem Daher. Padilla was added to a pre-existing indictment, Gonzales said, and will be tried on the same schedule as the other co-defendants. Hassoun also was indicted on eight additional charges, including perjury, obstruction of justice and illegal firearm possession.
"The defendants, along with other individuals, operated and participated in a North American support cell that sent money, physical assets, and mujahideen recruits to overseas conflicts for the purpose of fighting violent jihad," the indictment said. "This North American cell supported and coordinated with other support networks and mujahideen groups waging violent jihad." Violent jihad was defined as acts of "physical violence, including murder, maiming, kidnapping and hostage-taking."
The indictment mentions Afghanistan, Algeria, Bosnia, Chechnya, Kosovo, Egypt, Lebanon, Libya, and Somalia, but makes no allegations of specific attacks in any of the areas or countries mentioned.
The indictment accuses Padilla of traveling overseas to receive "violent jihad" training from Oct. 1993 to Nov. 2001. The indictment says Padilla allegedly filled out a "Mujahideen Data Form" in July 2000 in preparation for training in Afghanistan.
Padilla went to Afghanistan for training at terrorist camps run by Osama bin Laden, the indictment says, quoting telephone conversations among the defendants.
He first traveled to Egypt on Sept. 5, 1998, from Miami, waiting there for permission to travel on to Afghanistan for training, the indictment says. In April of 2000, almost two years later, Padilla, still in Egypt, told Hassoun that he needed a recommendation to help him connect "with the good brothers, with the right faith," the indictment said.
After Padilla's arrest, he was initially accused of planning to explode a radiological bomb in the United States. In June of last year, the government then also said Padilla had plotted with some of al Qaeda's highest-ranking operatives to blow up U.S. apartment buildings using natural gas.
The Justice Department said at the time that information gleaned from interrogations of Padilla and others showed that he was intent on killing innocents in the United States.
When pressed by reporters, Gonzales said he would not comment on previous allegations or statements.
Asked if he regretted holding Padilla in military custody for so long, Gonzales replied: "The president was authorized to detain Mr. Padilla as an enemy combatant. I will leave it at that." He said the USA Patriot Act allowed prosecutors to "share information collected by court order." He said Padilla's indictment was a by-product of the Patriot Act, which the administration is urging Congress to renew.
Asked whether Padilla's statements while in military custody will be used against him at trial, the Justice Department said Padilla's statements during custody were not necessary to prove the charges against him.