The father of the 20-year-old Ohio man accused of plotting an attack on the U.S. Capitol told NBC News on Thursday that he believes his son was coerced by an FBI "snitch" and never could have carried out the attack on his own.
Christopher Lee Cornell, 20, of Green Township, near Cincinnati, was arrested Wednesday after he bought two M-15 semi-automatic rifles and about 600 rounds of ammunition as an undercover operative watched, according to an FBI affidavit. Authorities said in court documents that Cornell wanted to set up an ISIS cell in the U.S.
"If he did wrong, he's gonna have to pay for it," Cornell's father, John Cornell, said Thursday. But he insisted that "people that really know Chris, they know he's a good guy."
"He's more like a 16-year-old kid than a 20-year-old. There's no way he could've come up with something like this," John Cornell said.
Christopher Cornell faces a preliminary hearing next Thursday in U.S. District Court in Cincinnati on charges of the attempted killing of a U.S. government officer and possession of a firearm in furtherance of an attempted crime of violence.
Investigators said in court documents that Cornell told its undercover operative — whom it described as an informant seeking lenience in a separate case — in a text message: "I believe we should meet up and make our own group in alliance with the Islamic State here and plan operations ourselves."
John Cornell confirmed that his son recently converted to Islam, but he said Christopher Cornell was too quiet and shy to have harmed anyone. The young man, in fact, was seriously considering a nurse so he could help people, his father said.
"His best friend is his kitty cat," John Cornell said. "He's never even fired a gun before."
But a former schoolmate, Jake Flick, told NBC News that Cornell began to change during his senior year and "would say the weirdest stuff about the government."
"He's more like a 16-year-old kid than a 20-year-old. There's no way he could've come up with something like this"
Flick said Wednesday night that while "everyone is weird in their own way," Cornell's views seemed particularly extreme, describing how his friend was very interested in "anarchy."
"The radical s*** he would say was kind of outrageous," Flick said.
John Cornell said his son "was kind of lost, and he was trying to find some kind of direction, and he was really vulnerable." That, he said, made him open to manipulation by the FBI "snitch."
"I think a lot of it was coercion. I think he got coerced," John Cornell said. "No way he had the money to carry out any kind of terrorist attack."
Scott Newell contributed to this report from Cincinnati.