Jose Padilla, a.k.a. Abdullah al-Muhajir, wasn't one of those quiet, sweet kids the neighbors just can't believe got into trouble with the law. Growing up on Chicago's tough West Side in the late '70s and early '80s, young Jose was a known street thug and Latin Disciples gangbanger with an expanding rap sheet. At 15, Padilla and a running buddy mugged a man in the street, taking his money and watch. When the guy tried to chase them down, Padilla's partner stabbed him in the stomach. As he lay bleeding, Padilla kicked him hard in the head, he later told police, because he "felt like it." The victim died. Padilla did a stint in juvenile hall.
It's a long way from "juvey" to the Navy brig in Charleston, S.C., where Padilla, now 31, is being held as an enemy combatant for his alleged role in a Qaeda dirty-bomb plot. Investigators are still trying to figure out why the Brooklyn-born Puerto Rican Roman Catholic wound up converting to radical Islam and joining ranks with Osama bin La-den in Afghanistan. Maybe Padilla was just a lonely loser who took a bizarre turn. Law-enforcement agents are more concerned about another ominous possibility: that he was part of a larger homegrown network of bin Laden recruits.
In 1991 Padilla and his family left Chicago for southern Florida, perhaps hoping to make a clean start. But it didn't take long before he was once again behind bars--this time for firing a gun at a fellow motorist's windshield after a fender bender.
Padilla may have first been exposed to Islam during his 10-month stint in Broward County's maximum-security jail, where Muslim missionaries sometimes came looking for potential converts.
He was released in 1992, found work at a Taco Bell and moved in with a fellow employee, a young Jamaican woman named Cherie Maria Stultz. It was then that Padilla appears to have taken his first serious steps toward Islam. Padilla became friendly with his boss, a Muslim named Mohammad Javed Qureshi, who moonlighted as the cofounder of the School of Islamic Studies.
A few months into the job, Qureshi told news-week, Padilla said he wanted to learn more about Islam. "We're here to make tacos and burritos," Qureshi told him, suggesting he seek out a mosque. Padilla and Stultz began attending Qureshi's. Within a few months they had declared themselves Muslims.
In the fall of 1993, Padilla quit Taco Bell, telling Qureshi he needed to make more money. He wound up doing maintenance at a nearby country club. In the years that followed, he became ever more engrossed in his new faith. He attended various Florida mosques, where he stood out in the crowd--as the only Hispanic, and the only worshiper who wore a kaffiyeh. He got to know Raed Awad, the imam at a Ft. Lauderdale mosque who was an officer in the Holy Land Foundation for Relief and Development, a Muslim charity now under scrutiny by the Feds for alleged ties to terrorism. Another worshiper at the mosque was Adham Amin Hassoun, who opened the Florida chapter of the Benevolence International Foundation, another Muslim charity now under investigation (both men and both groups deny any terrorist links). Last Wednesday, Hassoun was arrested on visa violations--though the Feds likely want to ask him about Padilla. In an interview with news-week shortly before he was taken in, Hassoun denied having met Padilla: "You know how many people pass by the mosque?" he said.
In the mid-'90s, Padilla at last seemed to be settling down. He held a steady job, and married Stultz. But the union didn't last long. In December 1998, he abruptly left his wife and flew to Egypt to continue his religous studies. He married an Egyptian woman and had two children. Then, on to Pakistan, and Afghanistan, where he began his journey deep into bin Laden's world. The next time he stepped off a plane in America nearly four years later, he was once again in Chicago--and, once again, in handcuffs.