Jose Padilla was convicted of federal terrorism support charges Thursday after being held for 3½ years as an enemy combatant in a case that came to symbolize the Bush administration's zeal to stop homegrown terror.
Padilla, a U.S. citizen from Chicago, was once accused of being part of an al Qaeda plot to detonate a radioactive "dirty bomb" in the U.S., but those allegations were not part of his trial.
Padilla was portrayed as an al Qaeda terrorist planning to attack an American city with radiation-laced explosives. He was locked up in a military prison and labeled an "enemy combatant" for 3 1/2 years.
To avoid a showdown in the Supreme Court, the government eventually moved Padilla into the criminal system, and now he's been convicted of conspiring to support terrorists - charges far less serious than the "dirty bomb" allegations first leveled by the Bush administration, reports CBS New correspondent Bob Orr.
Padilla, 36, and his foreign-born co-defendants, Adham Amin Hassoun and Kifah Wael Jayyousi, were convicted of conspiracy to murder, kidnap and maim people overseas, which carries a penalty of life in prison. All three were also convicted of two terrorism material support counts, which carry potential 15-year sentences each.
Jurors deliberated for a day and a half after a three-month trial. U.S. District Judge Marcia Cooke set a Dec. 5 sentencing date.
The three were accused of being part of a North American support cell that provided supplies, money and recruits to groups of Islamic extremists. The defense contended they were trying to help persecuted Muslims in war zones with relief and humanitarian aid.
The White House thanked the jury for a "just" verdict.
"We commend the jury for its work in this trial and thank it for upholding a core American principle of impartial justice for all," said Gordon Johndroe, a spokesman for the National Security Council at the White House. "Jose Padilla received a fair trial and a just verdict."
Estela Lebron, Padilla's mother, said she felt "a little bit sad" at the verdict but expected her son's lawyers would appeal.
"I don't know how they found Jose guilty. There was no evidence he was speaking in code," she said, referring to FBI wiretap intercepts in which Padilla was overheard talking to Hassoun.
In 2002, the Bush administration portrayed Padilla, a U.S. citizen and Muslim convert, as a committed terrorist who was part of an al Qaeda plot to detonate a radioactive "dirty bomb" in the U.S. The administration called his detention an important victory in the war against terrorism, not long after the Sept. 11 attacks.
The charges brought in civilian court in Miami, however, were a pale shadow of those initial claims — in part because Padilla was interrogated about the plot when he was held as an enemy combatant in military custody with no lawyer present and was not read his Miranda rights.
Padilla's attorneys fought for years to get his case into federal court, and he was finally added to the Miami terrorism support indictment in late 2005 just as the U.S. Supreme Court was poised to consider President Bush's authority to continue detaining him. Padilla had lived in South Florida in the 1990s and was supposedly recruited by Hassoun at a mosque to become a mujahedeen fighter.
"The defense's theme — don't let prosecutors force you to look at pre-9/11 conduct through the lense of the post-9/11 present — was an abysmal failure in the eyes of these jurors," says CBS News legal analyst Andrew Cohen.
The key piece of physical evidence was a five-page form Padilla supposedly filled out in July 2000 to attend an al Qaeda training camp in Afghanistan, which would link the other two defendants as well to Osama bin Laden's terrorist organization.
The form, recovered by the CIA in 2001 in Afghanistan, contains seven of Padilla's fingerprints and several other personal identifiers, such as his birth date and his ability to speak Spanish, English and Arabic.
"He provided himself to al Qaeda for training to learn to murder, kidnap and maim," said Assistant U.S. Attorney Brian Frazier in closing arguments.
Padilla's lawyers insisted the form was far from conclusive and denied that he was a "star recruit," as prosecutors claimed, of the North American support cell intending to become a terrorist. Padilla's attorneys said he traveled to Egypt in September 1998 to learn Islam more deeply and become fluent in Arabic.
The defense contended Padilla and the others were merely interested in helping fellow Muslims suffering in war zones, reports Orr.
"His intent was to study, not to murder," said Padilla attorney Michael Caruso.
Central to the investigation were some 300,000 FBI wiretap intercepts collected from 1993 to 2001, mainly involving Padilla's co-defendants Hassoun and Jayyousi and others. Most of the conversations were in Arabic and purportedly used code such as "tourism" and "football" for violent jihad or "zucchini" and "eggplant" instead of military weapons or ammunition.
The jury heard dozens of the wiretapped calls — some in Arabic, some in English — recorded over a six-year period. Padilla was heard in both languages in only seven calls, reports CBS News producer Phil Hirschkorn.
The bulk of these conversations and other evidence concerned efforts in the 1990s by Hassoun and Jayyousi, both 45, to assist Muslims in conflict zones such as Chechnya, Bosnia, Somalia, Afghanistan and Lebanon.
Hassoun is a computer programmer of Palestinian descent who was born in Lebanon. Jayyousi is a civil engineer and public schools administrator who is a naturalized U.S. citizen originally from Jordan. Jayyousi also ran an organization called American Worldwide Relief and published a newsletter called the Islam Report that provided details of battles and political issues in the Muslim world.
"It wasn't a terrorist operation. It was a relief operation," said Jayyousi attorney William Swor.
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