Something Smells


When Jose Padilla was arrested by the FBI at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport on May 8, 2002, Attorney General John Ashcroft enthusiastically announced he had caught a man set to explode a radioactive dirty bomb in New York City or Washington. The White House subsequently suggested that Ashcroft had overstated the case. And others thought Padilla didn’t amount to much. “Jose Padilla is a throwaway,” says ex-CIA agent Vincent Cannistraro. “He was not involved in any core Al Qaeda operations.” Last week, Deputy Attorney General James Comey said that if he tried to bring criminal charges against Padilla in federal court, they wouldn’t stick, and Padilla “would likely have ended up a free man.”

Padilla went to the Middle East, was trained in explosives in Afghanistan, and met the Al Qaeda top command, according to the Justice Department. In June 2001, according to Comey’s account, Mohammed Atef, the Al Qaeda military chief (later killed by the Americans), “asked his American disciple if he was willing to undertake a mission to blow up apartment buildings in the United States using natural gas. Padilla told him he would do it.” Comey said Padilla and another man “learned about switches and circuits and timers. They learned how to seal an apartment, trap the natural gas, and to prepare an explosion using that gas that would have maximum yield and destroy an apartment building.”

Padilla, said the government, was then given $15,000, a cell phone, travel documents, and an e-mail address, and was sent on his way to O’Hare, where the FBI arrested him.

Blowing up a building with natural gas could turn out to be a pretty dubious proposition. Chris Olert, a spokesperson for Con Ed, when asked whether he had ever come across a case of natural gas being used to intentionally blow up an apartment building, replies, “No.” Asked whether this was something Con Ed feared might happen, Olert says, “No, I don’t believe so.”

Daphne Magnuson, a spokesperson for the American Gas Association, which represents natural gas utilities, says, “You would have to have the perfect mix of factors” to use natural gas for an explosion, and “it would have to be mixed with the right amount of oxygen.” And you must have a source of ignition. In addition, she notes, gas has the very strong odorant mercaptan added to it, which makes it difficult to have a leak without people noticing it.

The only such incident in recent history in New York was the Stuyvesant Town explosion in February 2003, says New York Fire Department spokesperson Michael Loughran. A judge was convicted of reckless endangerment for causing the blast. “The explosion did not cause a fire,” Loughran adds. “It was a flash explosion. The only damage was to an interior wall of the apartment, and there was no structural damage to the building.