FORT LEWIS, Wash. — A National Guardsman accused of attempting to aid al-Qaida is described by law enforcement sources as a bumbling “wannabe” spy who was attempting to pass information to the enemy that was the sort of thing “you could learn on the History Channel,” it was reported Friday.
Spc. Ryan G. Anderson, 26, was arrested Thursday at Fort Lewis, near Tacoma, Wash., and accused of trying to provide information to the al-Qaida terrorist network, the Army said. The arrest came as Anderson’s unit, the 4,200-member 81st Armor Brigade, was preparing for deployment to Iraq.
Army Lt. Col. Stephen Barger said that Anderson was being held at Fort Lewis “pending criminal charges of aiding the enemy by wrongfully attempting to communicate and give intelligence to the al-Qaida terrorist network.” If convicted of those charges, he could face the death penalty.
Defense officials who spoke with the Associated Press on condition of anonymity shortly after Anderson’s arrest was announced, said the suspect had signed onto extremist Internet chat rooms and tried to get in touch with al-Qaida operatives, offering the organization information on U.S. military capabilities and weaponry.
It does not appear that Anderson transmitted any information to al-Qaida, the officials said.
Cast as incompetent would-be turncoat
But law enforcement sources quoted in local newspaper reports indicated that Anderson was an incompetent would-be turncoat.
A law enforcement source quoted by the Seattle Times said that Anderson, a tank crew member, did not have any security clearance and offered an undercover FBI agent who posed as an al-Qaida go-between “common-knowledge stuff,” the type of information “you could learn on the History Channel.”
Federal law enforcement sources also told the Seattle Post-Intelligencer that Anderson was not discreet in making known his desire to aid the terrorist network. “His initial overtures were not that clandestine,” the newspaper quoted one source as saying.
After converting to Islam — either in 1995 or 1996 — Anderson joined a Seattle-area e-mail group used by local Muslims to exchange ideas and discuss the faith's tenets.
“He immediately e-mailed the group telling people he was an expert marksman, and he wanted to teach people how to shoot,” Aziz Junejo, a community member and host of a local cable television show devoted to Islam, told the Post Intelligencer. “That was completely out of the norm. Right away that was a red flag.”
Junejo and the administrator of the e-mail group “did battles, telling him this was not appropriate, not part of our religion, not part of our community,” Junejo was quoted as saying.
Comments draw attention of authorities
Anderson's public comments quickly drew the attention of anti-terrorism authoriites, though it was not immediately clear whether they became aware of him through his chatroom activities or as the result of a tip.
The newspaper also found numerous Internet news group postings sent from Anderson’s e-mail address while attending Washington State University detailing his conversion to Islam, his interest in joining a local militia and an incident in December 1995 in which he allegedly was questioned by FBI agents after a run-in with campus authorities who stopped him from keeping a firearm on campus.
He also had an encounter with law enforcement in May 1998, when he was 20, the Herald of Everett reported Friday. The then 20-year-old Anderson was pounced on by Snohomish County sheriff’s deputies as he carried a couple of rifles past a grade school near his home, but was quickly freed after authorities determined he had not broken any laws.
That incident happened when officials were particularly nervous about school safety, because it was just after 15-year-old Kip Kinkel killed two students and wounded more than 20 other people at his high school in Springfield, Ore. Kinkel also had killed his parents.
Anderson's conversion to Islam apparently occurred in either late 1995 or early 1996, according to Internet postings in his name. The Seattle Post Intelligencer quoted one such posting within a year of his enrollment at Washington State Univeristy in which he wrote in a news group devoted to Islam that he had abandoned the Lutheran faith.
‘Islam has most literally called to me’
“Islam has most literally called to me,” wrote Anderson in one such post, according to the Post-Intelligencer. He described himself as an Army officer cadet of “German/Irish decent who was raised in a ‘zombie Lutheran’ home.”
Anderson, who grew up in Everett, about 20 miles north of Seattle, was taken into custody on Thursday without incident as part of a joint investigation by the Army, Justice Department and FBI, according to Barger, the Fort Lewis spokesman.
Barger declined to give any details on the arrest, and it was not immediately clear if Anderson had a lawyer.
Jack Roberts, a neighbor, said he talked to Anderson’s wife, Erin, after federal agents left the couple’s apartment Thursday.
“She was pretty damned shocked, as I was,” Roberts said.
Phone messages left by The Associated Press at the couple’s apartment were not immediately returned Thursday.
2002 college graduate
Washington State University spokeswoman Charleen Taylor said Anderson was a 2002 graduate with a degree in history. Anderson graduated from high school in Everett in 1995, the Herald of Everett reported, and at WSU studied military history with an emphasis on the Middle East.
The 81st Brigade has been training at Fort Lewis since November in preparation for deployment to Iraq, which is expected within days. Eighty percent of the soldiers — 3,200 — are from Washington state, and 1,000 are from guard units in California and Minnesota. It includes two tank battalions, a mechanized infantry battalion, engineers, support troops, artillery and an intelligence company.
Anderson is the second Muslim soldier with Fort Lewis connections to be accused of wrongdoing related to the war on terrorism.
Capt. James Yee, 35, a former Fort Lewis chaplain, is accused of mishandling classified information from the U.S. prison for suspected terrorists at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Yee ministered to Muslim prisoners there.
There were initial reports that Yee was being investigated as part of an espionage probe, but he was never charged with spying.
MSNBC.com's Mike Brunker and the Associated Press contributed to this report.
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