A college student from Saudi Arabia who studied chemical engineering in Texas bought explosive chemicals online as part of a plan to hide bomb materials inside dolls and baby carriages to blow up dams, nuclear plants or the Dallas home of former President George W. Bush, the Justice Department said Thursday.
"After mastering the English language, learning how to build explosives and continuous planning to target the infidel Americans, it is time for jihad," or holy war, Khalid Ali-M Aldawsari wrote in his private journal, according to court documents.
FBI agents arrested Aldawsari, who was admitted into the United States in 2008 on a student visa, in Texas on Wednesday. The Justice Department has charged him with attempted use of a weapon of mass destruction.
Aldawsari, a chemical engineering student at South Plains College near Lubbock, allegedly referred to Bush's Dallas home as a "tyrant's house," the Justice Department said.
Aldawsari entered the U.S. in October 2008 from Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, to study chemical engineering at Texas Tech University, then transferred earlier this year to nearby South Plains College.
The terrorism case against Aldawsari was significant because it demonstrated that radicalized foreigners can live quietly in the U.S. heartland without raising suspicions from neighbors, classmates, teachers or others. But it also showed how quickly U.S. law enforcement can move when tipped that a terrorist plot may be unfolding.
One of the chemical companies, Carolina Biological Supply of Burlington, N.C., reported $435 in suspicious order by Aldawsari to the FBI on Feb. 1.
Separately, Con-way Freight, the shipping company, notified Lubbock police and the FBI the same day with similar suspicions because it appeared the order wasn't intended for commercial use. Within weeks, federal agents had traced his other online purchases, discovered extremist posts he made on the Internet and secretly searched his off-campus apartment, computer and e-mail accounts and read his diary, according to court records.
The White House said President Barack Obama was notified about the alleged plot before Aldawsari's arrest Wednesday. "This arrest once again underscores the necessity of remaining vigilant against terrorism here and abroad," White House spokesman Nick Shapiro said in a statement Thursday.
Aldawsari allegedly sent himself a series of emails identifying possible targets, including the homes of three U.S. military troops who had served at the notorious Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq and 12 reservoir dams in Colorado and California. The documents did not state their locations.
An affidavit filed in support of the government's claims said Aldawsari appeared to be training himself how to create detonators and bombs using household items and commercially available scientific supplies.
Two searches of his apartment conducted by the FBI this month turned up "concentrated sulfuric and nitric acids; the beakers and flasks; wiring; Hazmat suit; and clocks," the DOJ statement said.
Agents also found a notebook believed to be Aldawsari's journal, in which he allegedly wrote that he'd been planning to commit an attack on U.S. soil for years and specifically sought out a certain scholarship because it would get him into the country and provide funds that would "help tremendously in providing me with the support I need for Jihad."
The affidavit claims Aldawsari also created a blog where he posted radical messages. One post allegedly written by the Saudi said, "You who created mankind ... grant me martyrdom for Your sake and make jihad easy for me only in Your path."
The FBI said the North Carolina company reported the attempts to purchase 1.3 gallons of phenol, a chemical that can be used to make the explosive trinitrophenol, also known as TNP, or picric acid. Aldawsari falsely told the supplier he was associated with a university and wanted the phenol for "off-campus, personal research," according to court records. But frustrated by questions, Aldawsari canceled his order and later e-mailed himself instructions for producing phenol.
Prosecutors said that in December, he did buy 30 liters of concentrated nitric acid for about $450 from QualiChem Technologies in Georgia, and three gallons of concentrated sulfuric acid that are combined to make TNP. The FBI later found the chemicals in Aldawsari's apartment as well as beakers, flasks, wiring, a Hazmat suit and clocks.
Aldawsari was using several e-mail accounts. One e-mail message traced to him described instructions to convert a cell phone into a remote detonator. A second listed the names and home addresses of three American citizens who had previously served in the U.S. military and had been stationed at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. A different e-mail contained an Internet link for real-time traffic cameras in New York City.
TNP has approximately the same destructive power as TNT. FBI bomb experts said the amounts in the Aldawsari case would have yielded almost 15 pounds of explosive. That's about the same amount used per bomb in the London subway attacks that killed scores of people in July 2005.
In his journal, Aldawsari allegedly described a plan that involved leaving car bombs in different places during rush hour in New York City and remotely detonating them.
"Obviously, we're concerned any time New York City is referenced in this way," New York Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly said. "We've known we're at the top of the terrorists' target list, and this confirms it. This particular case has not led to any adjustment. We're always on high alert here."
Aldawsari is due to make his initial court appearance in Lubbock on Friday morning. If convicted of attempting to use a weapon of mass destruction, he could face a maximum $250,000 fine and a sentence of life in prison.
It was not immediately clear whether Aldawsari had hired a lawyer. Telephone numbers that Aldawsari had provided to others were not working Thursday. No one answered the buzzer or a knock on the door at the address listed as Aldawsari's apartment, just one block from the Texas Tech campus in a recently gentrified area of mixed-use retail and apartment complexes where many students live.
Neighbors in Lubbock said they had never seen Aldawsari, but noticed people in the hallway the day of the arrest.
"That's so scary," said Sally Dierschke, a 21-year-old senior at Texas Tech. "That's my neighbor ... Of course, I'm scared."
Vanderbilt University spokeswoman Beth Fortune said Aldawsari participated in a program at the school's English language center from the fall of 2008 to the summer of 2009 but was not a registered Vanderbilt student.
"He was quiet. I thought he was a good guy," said Ahmid Obaidan, a senior at Tennessee State University who also is from Saudi Arabia and met Aldawsar in Nashville, Tenn., when Aldawsari was at Vanderbilt University.