WASHINGTON – An associate of Jose Padilla, the American citizen accused of plotting to detonate a radioactive 'dirty bomb' in the United States, has been taken into custody and is being questioned in a foreign country, a U.S. official said Wednesday.
The associate worked with Padilla, an American, on researching "dirty bombs" in Lahore, Pakistan, said the official, speaking on condition of anonymity. The official said the second person is not an American but declined to name the associate or the country where the questioning is being conducted.
In Islamabad, Pakistan, a senior Pakistani intelligence official confirmed a story, first reported by Fox News Monday night, that Benjamin Ahmed Mohammed is being held and questioned by FBI agents for his connection to Padilla. The official did not know Mohammed's nationality.
The U.S. official discussing the Padilla case said he was unaware of a "Benjamin Ahmed Mohammed" being interrogated.
Padilla, 31, was arrested in Chicago May 8 and has been held since without charge as an "enemy combatant."
Before his arrest, Padilla left Pakistan in early April and briefly went to Zurich, Switzerland, before heading to Cairo, the U.S. official said. He spent several weeks in Cairo, went to Zurich again, and then flew to Chicago, where he was arrested at the airport.
Padilla was carrying more than $10,000 cash, believed to have come from Al Qaeda, possibly while he was in Switzerland, a government official said Tuesday. Swiss authorities confirmed they were investigating Padilla's visit to their country.
"The apprehension of al Muhajir, who was born Jose Padilla ... was made possible by the cooperation and help of Swiss authorities," Attorney General John Ashcroft said Wednesday during a stop in Bern, Switzerland. "And America and the world are safer environments because of the cooperation of the Swiss government."
In Germany, authorities said they received intelligence of a possible Al Qaeda threat to shoot down civilian airliners, while officials in India claimed they had evidence of an imminent Al Qaeda attack on financial institutions in Bombay.
The German warning was triggered after a civilian intercepted radio traffic in the Middle East, in which a private person was overheard talking about the possibility of attacks on airliners in Germany, said Udo Buehler, spokesman for the Hesse state criminal investigation agency.
On Wednesday, French police arrested five people connected to the investigation into Richard Reid, a British citizen accused of trying to detonate homemade bombs hidden inside his sneakers aboard an international flight that was diverted to Boston. Authorities believe the suspects, two Pakistanis and three North Africans, assisted Reid in Paris shortly before he boarded the flight.
Ashcroft announced Padilla's arrest in Moscow Monday, saying the former Chicago gang member traveled to Pakistan and Afghanistan and met with senior Al Qaeda leaders after the Sept. 11 terror attacks.
U.S. officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Padilla used the Internet at a home in Lahore, Pakistan, to learn how to build a "dirty bomb" that could spread radioactive material over dozens of city blocks. Authorities say they think he was traveling to the United States to scout locations for bombings.
In a related development, U.S. and German officials said they have identified a German citizen of Syrian origin who recruited Mohammed Atta and other Sept. 11 hijackers into Al Qaeda, The Washington Post reported in its Wednesday editions.
The suspect, Mohammed Haydar Zammar, has been missing since October, but an official told the Post the Germans suspect he is in U.S. custody or being detained in another country at the United States' request.
CIA officials would not comment on the report.
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said the government is more interested in questioning Padilla than in pursuing charges against him.
"We're not interested in trying him at the moment," said Rumsfeld, traveling in Qatar. "We're not interested in punishing him at the moment. We're interested in finding out what in the world he knows."
Over the weekend, President Bush approved the unorthodox transfer of Padilla, also known as Abdullah al Muhajir, from custody of the Justice Department to the Defense Department.
Ashcroft, meeting in Budapest on Tuesday with justice officials, said Padilla's detention was "the right course of action."
Padilla's capture was disclosed Monday, before a federal court hearing in New York to determine whether the Justice Department could continue holding him. At that Tuesday hearing, the judge hinted that questions over the propriety of Justice officials' holding Padilla were moot, since Padilla already had been turned over to the Defense Department.
Padilla's lawyer, Donna R. Newman, said outside court that he denied the government's allegations. She also indicated she will appeal the decision to place Padilla in military custody.
Government lawyers said Tuesday that under a 1942 Supreme Court ruling, even Americans who fight against the United States are subject to military courts -- but only if they enter the country. The court's decision, from six decades ago, focused on "armed prowlers" who blow up bridges or cut telegraph wires.
Dirty bombs, such as Padilla is accused of plotting to set off in the United States, combine traditional explosives with radioactive material. Such a weapon would not create a nuclear explosion, but could release small amounts of radiation over parts of a city.
Bush described Padilla as one of many "would-be killers" in U.S. custody.
"There's just a full-scale manhunt on," Bush said in a Cabinet Room meeting on his proposed overhaul of homeland security agencies. "We will run down every lead, every hint. This guy Padilla's a bad guy and he is where he needs to be, detained."
Rumsfeld said filing charges against suspected terrorists might not help protect Americans from terror attacks.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.