From Taco Bell to Al Qaeda: How Accused 'Dirty Bomb' Plotter Jose Padilla Traveled from Gangland Chicago to Osama Bin Laden's Backyard

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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. …