MIAMI — It took the government a while, about three-and-a-half years, but the much the much-hyped trial of alleged terrorist wannabe Jose Padilla is finally under way in Miami’s district court.
Padilla, who prosecutors assert was an aspiring al-Qaida fighter looking to wage global jihad against the U.S. and its allies, looked sharp in his suit and tie Monday as federal lawyers volleyed numerous accusations in their opening remarks that the suspect supported and colluded with terror groups like al-Qaida.
His duds, though far from designer, were in sharp contrast to the prison-issue orange jumpsuit, handcuffs and leg irons Padilla sported for his competency hearing last month, during which he appeared lethargic, almost drugged.
On Monday, with the national media and handful of foreign outlets on hand, Padilla cracked the occasional smirk when his defense lawyer Anthony Natale denounced the prosecution’s case as “fear perpetuated by politics.”
And when Natale asked him to stand so the jury across the courtroom could get a better look at the boyish 36-year-old “wrongfully accused” of supporting and aspiring to join the ranks of Islam’s jihadists he nearly beamed.
Padilla’s tranquility amid a storm of allegations that could land him in prison for the next few decades was impressive . . . and a little bit creepy.
While it’s certain his lawyers coached him on how to present the most innocent visage possible to the jury, his almost sublime calm was a bit over the top by my estimation. If Jose wants to come out the other side of this trial a free man, perhaps he should show those who will determine his fate that he’s a wee bit concerned about its outcome.
Monday’s opening was bittersweet for a Bush administration keen to get a conviction of Padilla, though the charges against him are less severe than those that were originally leveled.
Shortly after his 2002 arrest at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport, then-Attorney General John Ashcroft said federal law enforcement officials had thwarted an al-Qaida plot involving Padilla to detonate a “dirty bomb” on U.S. soil and blow up several apartment buildings in major American cities.
During initial interrogations in a military prison, Padilla was said to have admitted to federal officials his involvement in a “dirty bomb” scheme and training with al-Qaida.
However, much to the dismay of the Bush administration — which during its first four years displayed a self-professed penchant for thwarting terror attacks on what seemed like a weekly basis — those confessions were ruled inadmissible since Padilla had not been read his Miranda rights and did not have legal counsel present.
Adding insult to the already injured judicial process, charges were never officially filed against Padilla during his incarceration in a Navy brig in South Carolina. Then, in November 2005, the White House linked Padilla to the ongoing case in Miami accusing him and other defendants of aiding terror groups worldwide, prompting his transfer to his current residence at the detention center across the street from the downtown Miami courthouse.
The conspiracy charges, which are based on allegations he aided foreign terror groups and traveled to Afghanistan to learn terror tactics at an al-Qaida training camp, are the only remaining charges against Padilla, prompting some to refer the much-hyped trial as “Padilla-lite.”
Judging by the prosecution’s laundry list of evidence that will supposedly seal the deal on Padilla’s guilt, the Justice Department’s faux pas in 2002 could be overlooked in the event the jury agrees with their argument.
If not, then the Justice Department — already shaken by U.S. Attorney Alberto Gonzalez’s mishandling of the federal prosecutors firings — could be in for a world of headaches and quite possibly a major shake-up.
A South Florida Support Cell?
Federal prosecutors characterized Padilla and the others in their opening statement as ardent believers in “violent jihad,” having spent nearly a decade raising money and providing military equipment and recruits to terror groups in Somalia and Lebanon, as well as in the breakaway Russian province of Chechnya.
Defense attorneys for the trio denounced the allegations and accused federal authorities of manipulating the evidence to ensure a conviction against the men, who they claimed had no violent intent while aiding Muslims caught in various 1990s conflicts like the Bosnian-Serb war, during which tens of thousands of Islamic faithful were killed.
Referring to evidence set to be presented to the jury in the weeks and months ahead, prosecutors alleged that Padilla, along with Adham Amin Hassoun and Kifah Wael Jayyousi had belonged to the so-called “South Florida Support Cell” that facilitated the transfer of money and aid to terrorists abroad.
“The defendants were members of a secret organization, a terrorism support cell, based right here in South Florida,” said Assistant U.S. Attorney Brian Frazier in Monday’s opening remarks.
Defense attorneys decried the notion of a secret South Florida-based terror cell as ludicrous. Three Muslims chatting on the phone about wars involving Muslims does not a terror cell make, noted one defense attorney.
That might be the case, but here in Miami it’s gonna take a whole lot more effort by the defense to convince those 12 jurors these guys didn’t have terror on their minds while they were chatting.
After all, this is the home of the Liberty City terror suspects, who last June were arrested in a rundown warehouse in the city’s most notorious slum for allegedly seeking to hook up with al-Qaida.
Though the would-be al-Qaida members were really talking global terror with an undercover FBI agent posing as an al-Qaida operative, Miamians were convinced that serious evil-doers were in their midst.
That these three men could do the same and actually have the means to aid and abet terrorism aboard won’t be much of a stretch for this jury.
Carmen Gentile is a freelance journalist based in Miami.