The arrest of a Massachusetts man that the FBI alleges wanted to fly remote-controlled airplanes filled with C-4 explosives into the Pentagon and U.S. Capitol, gives a rare glimpse into how the government has been focusing on the threat of lone wolves and homegrown terrorists in the United States.
According to the affidavit of FBI Special Agent Gary Cacace, the bureau on Wednesday arrested U.S. citizen Rezwan Ferdaus, 26, because he planned to fly remote-piloted model airplanes filled with C-4 explosives into the Pentagon and the Capitol as part of a hoped-for spectacular attack against what he considered to be “evil America.”
The plot would have involved six other operatives who would form a kind of commando team that would fire on crowds of people streaming out of Congress and the Pentagon after the initial attack. The bureau knew this because agents posed as al Qaeda operatives over the course of several meetings with Ferdaus, the affidavit alleges.
The Obama administration’s latest counterterrorism strategy focuses on the threat of Americans such as Ferdaus, as opposed to formally trained operatives overseas who infiltrate the U.S. the way the 9/11 hijackers did. The affidavit does not say Ferdaus had any actual contact with members of al Qaeda.
In some ways, Ferdaus posed the worst nightmare for the U.S. He told authorities he aspired to kill, and he appeared to have highly specialized skills, according to the affidavit.
Ferdaus holds an undergraduate degree in physics from Northeastern University, and became radicalized through jihadist websites, according to the affidavit. He delivered a trigger for improvised explosives that he designed from cellphones and provided them to undercover agents posing as al Qaeda members who said they would be shipped to Iraq.
In conversations with the undercover agents, he bragged that his plan for rigging the sophisticated remotely piloted aircraft was “quite simple” and said, “I’ve doing this type of stuff since I was a kid.”
Homegrown terrorists who have no contact with members of al Qaeda abroad and lone wolves inspired by al Qaeda English-language sermons on the Internet by clerics like Anwar al-Awlaki are particularly hard to catch. U.S. citizens cannot be monitored without a search warrant. What’s more, oftentimes the contact between a homegrown terrorist and al Qaeda is nebulous at best.
The U.S. Army, for example, failed to identify Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan, an Army-trained psychiatrist, who on Nov. 5, 2009, massacred 13 people at Fort Hood, the Texas Army base. Hasan was in some contact with al-Awlaki through email, though he was never formally trained by al Qaeda.
Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, the author of Bin Laden’s Legacy: Why We’re Still Losing the War on Terror and a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, said, “It is very hard to stop a lone-wolf attack once it is in progress. That’s the reason that the FBI has been making use of sting operations such as this in order to try to disrupt attacks before they begin.”
John Brennan, President Obama’s top adviser on counterterrorism and homeland security, unveiled in June what he said would be the new focus of U.S. counterterrorism—al Qaeda adherents, or “individuals who have formed collaborative relationships with, act on behalf of, or are otherwise inspired to take action in furtherance of the goals of al Qaeda—the organization and the ideology—including by engaging in violence, regardless of whether such violence is targeted at the United States, its citizens, or its interests.”
Ferdaus fit that description, authorities allege. He told the agents, according to the affidavit, that he came up with his plan “a real long time ago” when “I was walking through the woods one day and I thought I want to do some type of aerial plan. It came to me that I should do some type of aerial assault on particular targets, and after a while it all came to me that I should do the P-building as a target and afterwards the C-building as a target and I should continue with this aerial assault.”
The FBI became aware of Ferdaus in 2010, after a confidential informant tipped off the bureau and agreed to record conversations, according to the affidavit. But sometimes the bureau is not always so lucky to have an informant.
One U.S. counterterrorism official who asked not to be named said the bureau tracks Internet users who have a pattern of downloading al Qaeda propaganda. “It is very similar to what you do with pedophiles,” this official said. “You track down people who have a pattern of downloading stuff that you know is from al Qaeda, like Inspire (the al Qaeda Web magazine) or Awlaki videos. The FBI is going to notice that. The idea is to get to these people before a recruiter does.”