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Monday, 10 June, 2002, 22:51 GMT 23:51 UK
'Dirty bomb' arrest saves US blushes
Suspect Abdullah al-Muhajir
Suspected dirty bomber case could lift pressure

For a government under pressure to show it is getting results in its war on terrorism, the apparent foiling of an attempt to make a dirty bomb will certainly not be unwelcome to the Bush administration.

In recent weeks, America's key intelligence agencies, the FBI and CIA, have had to face a series of accusations that they failed to act properly on warning signals they received prior to 11 September.

Crucially, they have been accused of failing to connect the dots - to link significant pieces of intelligence together.

The allegations have three main elements:

  • A warning from an agent in Arizona about Middle Eastern men taking flying lessons
  • The arrest of a flying student, Zacharias Moussaoui, the alleged 20th hijacker, whose suspicious activities were not connected to the Arizona warning
  • The publication of a damning letter from an agent in Minnesota about how their investigations into Mr Moussaoui's activities were obstructed by FBI headquarters

In this light, perhaps it is significant that Attorney General John Ashcroft singled out the FBI and the CIA for praise when announcing the arrest of Abdullah al-Muhajir on Monday.

Propaganda value

Although Mr Ashcroft was clear the agencies had thwarted a major terrorist plot, he was less forthcoming on the details of the plot itself.

FBI director Robert Mueller
The FBI is questioned daily about actions before 11 September
Later FBI director Robert Mueller conceded "there was not an actual plan".

Furthermore, even if successful, most experts agree that the key effect of the detonation of a radioactive "dirty" bomb would be public panic.

For those in the immediate vicinity the consequences would be fatal, but it is the public reaction to the news which would cause the most damage.

Simply the image that a radiological bomb conjures is sufficient to make people shudder.

Timing and status

The suspect was arrested on 8 May, so under US law the authorities could no longer detain him without a charge.

The attorney general went out of his way to explain that Mr al-Muhajir, an American citizen, had been categorised as an "enemy combatant" to justify his transfer to military custody.

President Bush comments on 'dirty bomb plot'
Bush: "Thanks to our vigilance, this man is now off the streets"
In effect this means the authorities will now be able to hold him indefinitely. It also means his rights to a lawyer will be severely restricted.

Another suspected al-Qaeda fighter in a state jail, Yasser Esam Hamdi, has been denied legal representation despite having been born in America.

Also, as a prisoner of the army, Mr al-Muhajir will not benefit from the due process protection given to defendants under civilian law.

But the authorities have indicated there are no plans at this stage to try him before a military tribunal, a measure which drew serious international criticism when at first it was proposed for the detainees from Afghanistan being held at Guantanamo Bay.

It seems those who might come before such tribunals will be exclusively non-US citizens.

Civil rights question

In the other high-profile case against an American, John Walker Lindh - the 21-year-old from California - the Justice Department has chosen a civilian court and brought a criminal charge.

His trial is due to come up within the next few months.

On the surface it would appear as if the authorities are not being entirely consistent in their prosecution of America's "enemies" in the war against terrorism.

Civil rights groups have become more and more vocal about the treatment of those imprisoned as terrorist suspects.

But the alleged plan to detonate a radioactive bomb in Washington is unlikely to earn Mr al-Muhajir many supporters among the American public.

Key stories

European probe


See also:

10 Jun 02 | South Asia
05 Dec 01 | Americas
23 Apr 02 | Americas
24 May 02 | Americas
26 Oct 01 | South Asia
07 Jun 02 | Americas
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