Bomb plot shows terrorist resolve
Former Chicago street-gang member with links to Al Qaeda held for allegedly planning to set off 'dirty bomb.'
WASHINGTON — It really isn't over and it's really deadly serious.
If nothing else, the administration's announcement that it has in custody a terror suspect who plotted to explode a radiological "dirty" bomb in the US may show how Al Qaeda has adapted after having its primary organization crushed and that the terror group continues to look for creative ways to land a blow that would likely stun the nation.
Knowledge of suspect Abdullah al-Mujahir's incarceration may have been one reason US officials have been stressing the inevitability of new terror attempts.
On the other hand, the timing of the revelations about the alleged dirty-bomb plot may raise questions of possible political motivation, coming as they do so closely after the White House's proposal to establish a new Department of Homeland Security and intelligence lapses leading up to Sept. 11.
Still, the bottom line is that the arrest of a former Chicago street gang member who has allegedly been turned into an Al Qaeda operative could reveal the lengths to which Osama bin Laden's group will go to strike at US targets, as well as the group's operational creativity.
"[Al Qaeda] has patience," says Ed Lyman, scientific director of the Nuclear Control Institute.
Mr. Mujahir, also known as Jose Padilla, was arrested on May 8 as he flew from Pakistan into Chicago O'Hare International Airport. US officials say that they have multiple independent sources that corroborate Mujahir's connection with Al Qaeda.
After serving prison time in the United States in the early 1990s, Mujahir traveled widely in Afghanistan and Pakistan during 2001, and received training in the wiring and construction of explosive devices, and in radiological dispersion techniques.
While the plot may have been aimed at the nation's capital, it had not progressed much past the planning stage, officials said yesterday. "He had indicated some knowledge of the Washington D.C. area, but I want to emphasize again ... we stopped this in the initial planning stages," said Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz.
This is not the only preemption of an alleged attack since the war on terrorism began, say US officials. Since Sept. 11, terrorist plots have been thwarted both in the United States and overseas in Singapore, Spain, and France according to FBI Director Robert Mueller.
"I believe that there have been threats that we have thwarted within the United States," Mr. Mueller said in a televised interview earlier this month.
For example, in January plots to blow up the US Embassy and attack American military interests in Singapore were foiled by the arrests in Singapore, Malaysia, and the Philippines of alleged members of Al Qaeda terrorist cells. The embassies of Israel, Australia, and Britain in Singapore were also targets.
Intelligence discovered by the US military in abandoned Al Qaeda safehouses in Afghanistan such as tapes, computer hard drives, and phone directories - helped lead to the Singapore arrests. Other information on potential attacks has come from Al Qaeda detainees held in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, as well as from top Al Qaeda operative Abu Zubaydah, who was captured in Pakistan in March and is being held by US officials in an undisclosed location. Though officials didn't say so specifically, information from Abu Zubaydah may have played a role in the arrest of Mujahir in May.
For many Americans, the juxtaposition of the words "radiological" and "arrest" may be a startling reminder of the dangers of terrorist attacks. But many experts were unsurprised, saying such a weapon was a logical next step for a group that has already turned airliners into cruise missiles, with tragic results.
A dirty bomb, which would involve packaging radiological material such as is used in food irradiation or many medical procedures around a conventional explosive, is something far easier to construct than a real nuclear bomb. Yet it might have tremendous effect precisely because of its association with the far more powerful fission and fusion weapons.
A dirty bomb "would have far greater psychological impact than actual physical impact," says Philip Anderson, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Not that the physical impact would be insubstantial. A dirty bomb might cause hundreds of casualties and contaminate a quarter of the city if detonated in downtown Washington.
But compare that with the hundreds of thousands of casualties even a small backpack nuke might cause. A dirty weapon is "mid-level probability and mid-level impact," says Mr. Anderson of CSIS.
That Al Qaeda apparently planned a possible dirty-bomb attack may at least reveal that it has had difficulty in its announced aim of acquiring atomic weapons, say other experts. "Unless it's really technically sophisticated, a dirty bomb isn't going to generate the kind of mass casualties that Al Qaeda is seeking," says Mr. Lyman.
Contributing to this report were Abraham McLaughlin, Francine Kiefer, and Ann Scott Tyson.