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Padilla trial to begin Monday

MIAMI -- To the Bush administration, Jose Padilla's path to terrorism was clear-cut: He was a convicted gang member in Chicago who later found Islam in South Florida before sojourning to the Middle East to become a soldier in "violent jihad."...

MIAMI -- To the Bush administration, Jose Padilla's path to terrorism was clear-cut: He was a convicted gang member in Chicago who later found Islam in South Florida before sojourning to the Middle East to become a soldier in "violent jihad."

Padilla's defense team paints a far different portrait: He was a troubled youth who straightened out his life after becoming a Muslim, then headed to the Middle East to immerse himself in Islamic culture.

Now, nearly five years after FBI agents arrested Padilla at Chicago's O'Hare Airport after he returned from Pakistan, America's most notorious terrorist defendant -- also dubbed the "dirty bomber" -- will stand trial Monday in a Miami federal courtroom.

Two other Muslim men -- Sunrise computer programmer Adham Amin Hassoun and Detroit school administrator Kifah Wael Jayyousi -- will stand alongside the 36-year-old Padilla. Each is accused of conspiring to assist Islamic extremists overseas. If convicted, they face life in prison.

The trial begins with selection of a 12-person jury. It's a challenge for both sides because of widespread publicity and the complex trial's expected length -- as many as three months. There's also the specter of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks hanging over the proceeding.

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The jury questionnaire has nearly 100 questions -- including one about the ability to keep an "open mind" about Arabs or Muslims charged with acts of violence.

"My biggest concern is publicity and the effect of that publicity," said one of Padilla's lawyers, Anthony Natale, last week. "If you say 'dirty bomber,' it rings the bong."

Padilla was first accused in 2002 of plotting with al-Qaeda to carry out a radiological "dirty bomb" attack on U.S. soil and to blow up apartment buildings in major U.S. cities.

But Padilla, a U.S. citizen, was never charged with those crimes as a designated "enemy combatant" from 2002 to 2005. That designation was dropped in November 2005, when he was charged in a broadly framed terrorist indictment in Miami. Missing from the charges: the dirty bomb allegations. He and the other defendants are instead charged with conspiring to "murder, kidnap and maim" people overseas and to provide "material support" for terrorist activity.

Even U.S. District Judge Marcia Cooke, who will preside over the trial, has been less than impressed. Last summer, she dismissed one charge, citing a violation of Padilla's constitutional rights. Cooke even went so far as to say the prosecution's case was "light on facts."

But the decision by the judge, who was nominated to the federal bench by President Bush in 2003, was overturned on appeal.

In the indictment, Hassoun, the suspected ringleader, and Jayyousi are accused of recruiting Mujahadeen fighters such as Padilla and raising money for radical Islamic causes in Bosnia, Kosovo, Chechnya, Somalia, Afghanistan and Egypt.

But the charges make no mention of any specific attacks, suggesting that the government's case might come down to one of guilt by association.

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