It must have been one of Jose Padilla's proudest moments. He had spent his life chasing respect but rarely earning it--marking a dreary passage from a Chicago gang to juvenile detention to grownup prison to a Florida fast-food job and, finally, to a new life as a Muslim in the Middle East. And there he was, somewhere in Pakistan just six months after the Sept. 11 attacks, allegedly presenting an ominous proposal to Abu Zubaydah, Osama bin Laden's operations chief.
Padilla, 31, had prepped hard for his meeting, but his ambition outstripped his guile. Senior U.S. officials tell TIME that Padilla, conducting research on the Internet, had come across instructions for building a nuclear bomb--"an H-bomb," as a top official described it. The instructions were laughably inaccurate--more a parody than a plan--but not recognizing that, Padilla took them to Abu Zubaydah and other al-Qaeda planners and said he wanted to detonate such a weapon in the U.S. "He was trying to build something that would attain a nuclear yield," says a senior Bush Administration official monitoring Padilla's case. In response, Abu Zubaydah apparently cautioned his eager job applicant to think smaller--to get some training and attack America with a so-called "dirty bomb," a conventional explosive packed with radioactive waste that would spew when the bomb blew up. "They sent him to the U.S. to see what he could do--plan and execute," the official says. What he did was get arrested as soon as he stepped off the plane on May 8, having come full circle, back to Chicago, the site of his first encounters with the law.
It is tempting to feel reassured by Padilla's story. Clearly, he is not the deadly, skilled operative Attorney General John Ashcroft seemed to be describing when he announced Padilla's arrest in a fear-inducing video hookup from Moscow last Monday. In fact, history may judge the Administration's legal treatment of Padilla--locking him up indefinitely with no plan to try him--as more alarming than Padilla himself. But since unsophisticated men can still do great harm, it was also comforting to know that U.S. intelligence agents had carefully tracked him down and picked him up.
Still, Padilla's lasting value may be as a warning bell--a reminder to keep exercising our imagination. "The main plotters and financiers for the Sept. 11 attack are still out there," says a top FBI official. "Padilla is one symptom of the fact that the core group is still around. They're able to communicate and move money around." The foot soldiers will not necessarily be Arab, nor will there always be a disciplined mastermind like Mohamed Atta leading them. The next attacker could be a man with a Midwestern accent, or a man who makes up for his lack of aplomb with sheer rage. He could be someone like Padilla, whose metamorphosis--from a pudgy Catholic boy to a radical Muslim accused of conspiring to kill his fellow citizens--started out all too commonly.