MIAMI – Five years and three months after he was arrested and accused of involvement in an Al Qaeda "dirty bomb" plot, Jose Padilla's fate will soon rest in the hands of jurors.
Prosecutors were scheduled Monday to begin closing arguments in the trial of Padilla and co-defendants Adham Amin Hassoun and Kifah Wael Jayyousi on terrorism support charges that do not include the "dirty bomb" allegations.
Prosecutors want jurors to convict Padilla largely on a five-page "mujahedeen data form" he supposedly filled out in 2000 to attend an Al Qaeda terrorist training camp in Afghanistan. The 36-year-old U.S. citizen was held as an enemy combatant for 3 1/2 years.
The closing arguments mark the final phase of an unprecedented legal journey for Padilla, who has been in custody since his May 8, 2002 arrest at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport.
His lawyers fought for years against President Bush's decision to designate him an enemy combatant, taking the case to the U.S. Supreme Court. With that case drawing closer, the Bush administration decided in late 2005 to add Padilla to an existing Miami terror support indictment and drop the enemy combatant designation.
The CIA recovered the Al Qaeda "mujahedeen data form" that is central in the case in Afghanistan after the U.S. invasion in late 2001. It contains seven of Padilla's fingerprints, one of his alleged Muslim alias names, his true birthday, notes the applicant's ability to speak English, Spanish and Arabic and has other identifying details.
But there is little other hard evidence linking Padilla, a Muslim convert, to Al Qaeda or to the alleged North American terror support cell prosecutors say was operated by Hassoun, Jayyousi and others. Thousands of hours of FBI wiretap intercepts from 1993 to 2001 include numerous conversations of Hassoun and Jayyousi, but Padilla's voice is heard on only seven.
Padilla's defense called no witnesses on his behalf and introduced no evidence. His lawyers adopted the risky strategy of suggesting to the jurors that prosecutors failed to prove he conspired with the others or provided material support to terrorists.
Prosecutors contend that Hassoun and Jayyousi, both 45, were U.S.-based operatives for Al Qaeda and other Islamic extremist groups, providing recruits such as Padilla as well as money and supplies for violent organizations around the world. Another alleged recruit, Mohamed Hesham Youssef, was also indicted in Miami but has remained in custody in Egypt.
Evidence in the case includes numerous checks written by Hassoun and Jayyousi to various organizations that prosecutors say were involved in terrorism. Defense lawyers contend the assistance was intended to help persecuted Muslims in conflict zones such as Chechnya, Bosnia, Somalia, Lebanon and elsewhere.
"Our defense is, we were only giving aid for relief," said Hassoun attorney Kenneth Swartz.
FBI agents testified that the telephone conversations were often in code, with "football" or "tourism" meaning "jihad" and words such as "zucchini" and "eggplant" meaning weapons or ammunition. Yet Padilla was never heard using such code, testimony showed.
The three defendants could be sentenced to life in prison if convicted of the most serious murder conspiracy charge.