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Dirty bomb’ latest Chicago link to terror

CHICAGO, June 16 (JTA) — The arrest of former Chicago gang member Jose Padilla on charges of plotting to detonate a radioactive “dirty bomb” in the United States is just the latest terrorist connection to the city. Long before the Sept. 11 attacks, the Jewish Community Relations Council of the Jewish United Fund/Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago was combating the efforts of Chicago organizations allegedly linked to funding terrorist activity overseas. In December 2001, federal agents raided three Chicago-area Islamic charities — the Holy Land Foundation for Relief and Development, the Benevolence International Foundation and the Global Relief Foundation — freezing their financial assets as part of an ongoing international terrorism investigation. There has also been an ongoing investigation of the head of the Benevolence International Foundation, a group in the Chicago area. The charity head, Enaam Arnaout, and the organization were charged April 30 with perjury for allegedly lying in court declarations when they denied links to terrorist groups. The case of Padilla is distinct from these other terrorist cases investigated in Chicago, according to Jay Tcath, director of Chicago’s Jewish community relations council. International terrorism is a “phenomenon that we’ve been following since the early 1990s when individuals financing the terrorist group Hamas first became public,” Tcath said. “The other Chicago connections are all linked to significant organizational efforts. As serious as the charges are in this new case, this individual is apparently unlinked to a major organization in Chicago.” Padilla, a suspected Al-Qaida operative, is being held in custody as an “enemy combatant,” the Justice Department announced June 10. Padilla’s alleged plot involved the detonation of a dirty bomb, which combines traditional explosives with radioactive material and has the capability to release small amounts of the material over dozens of city blocks. Padilla, who changed his name to Abdullah Al-Muhajir after his conversion from Catholicism to Islam, was apprehended as a material witness on May 8 at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport after arriving from a plane originating in Pakistan and bound for Chicago via Zurich. The 31-year-old suspect traveled to the United States in search of potential targets for terrorist attacks, officials said. Abu Zubaydah, a top Al-Qaida official arrested in Afghanistan in March, reportedly tipped off U.S. authorities of Padilla’s possible involvement in the bomb plot. Born to Puerto Rican parents in Brooklyn, Padilla moved to Chicago when he was about 4 years old. He spent time in and out of youth detention centers while growing up. At 18, Padilla moved to Florida, where he worked as a busboy in various restaurants. He wound up in a Florida jail where he converted to Islam and changed his name. After leaving prison in the early 1990s, he traveled to Pakistan and Afghanistan, where he researched radiological dispersion devices and learned how to wire explosives, according to U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft. During numerous occasions in 2001, Ashcroft said, Padilla met with senior Al-Qaida officials. Al-Qaida reportedly valued Padilla because he holds U.S. citizenship, which enables him to travel freely in the United States; he never changed Padilla to his acquired Arab name on his passport.