Two men unconnected to each other or to the investigation that has spawned recent national terrorism warnings are in federal custody after attempting to detonate what they thought were bombs outside an Illinois courthouse and a Texas skyscraper, authorities said.
Michael C. Finton, 29, who also went by the name Talib Islam and idolized American born Taliban soldier John Walker Lindh, was arrested Wednesday in Springfield, Ill., after federal officials said he attempted to set off explosives in a van outside a federal courthouse in the Illinois capital.
Hosam Maher Husein Smadi, 19, who is a Jordanian national, was arrested Thursday in Dallas after federal officials said he placed what he believed to be a car bomb in a parking garage beneath the 60-story Fountain Place office tower.
In both cases, decoy devices were provided to the men by FBI agents posing as Al Qaeda operatives. Both are charged with trying to detonate a weapon of mass destruction and face up to life in prison if convicted.
Finton also is charged with attempting to murder federal officers or employees.
Finton appeared in federal court in Springfield on Thursday and said he was an unmarried, part-time cook at a fish and chicken restaurant in the central Illinois city of Decatur. He was ordered held pending action by a grand jury. A message was left for his attorney, federal defender Robert Scherschlight.
Smadi, who federal prosecutors said lived and worked in the north central Texas town of Italy, was to appear in court Friday. Court documents did not list a defense attorney.
Finton had been closely monitored by federal agents including in the months leading up to his arrest, according to a federal affidavit in his case. It said an FBI agent who posed as an al-Qaida operative presented Finton on Wednesday with a van containing materials he described as explosive but which actually were harmless.
The two men parked the van at the courthouse and close to the office of U.S. Rep. Aaron Schock, R-Ill., which Finton allegedly hoped also would be damaged. They then drove a short distance to where Finton twice used a cell phone to try to detonate the explosives, the affidavit said. He was arrested immediately.
A similar scenario played out Thursday in Texas, where the FBI had been keeping tabs on Smadi since an undercover agent discovered him in an online extremists group, according to an affidavit in that case.
"He stood out based on his vehement intention to actually conduct terror attacks in the United States," FBI supervisory special agent Thomas Petrowski wrote.
Undercover agents communicated and met with Smadi over several months, posing as members of an Al Qaeda sleeper cell, according to Petrowski's affidavit. The agents provided Smadi with what he believed was a car bomb but was actually an inert device, it said.
Smadi on Thursday parked a vehicle containing the device in a garage beneath the Dallas office tower and set the device's timer, the affidavit said. Smadi then met with an agent, who drove several blocks away and Smadi dialed a cell phone in an attempt to detonate the bomb, according to the affidavit.
The affidavit in the Illinois case traced two years of activities by Finton. It said Finton's parole on a previous conviction was revoked in August 2007 and writings found at the time included reference to a letter to Lindh, who was captured fighting for the Taliban in Afghanistan. The affidavit said Finton later told police and agents that he idolized Lindh, who is now in prison.
Public records show Finton was in an Illinois prison from 1999 until 2005 aggravated robbery and aggravated battery convictions. After getting out, Finton told his parole officer he had converted to Islam, the affidavit said.
The affidavit said Finton's bank records showed that in March 2008 he received a wire transfer of $1,375.14 from "Asala Hussain Abiba" in Saudi Arabia and the next day sent the money to a travel agency. It said that April, he went on a monthlong trip to Saudi Arabia, but did not provide details on what he did there.
Authorities said the Finton and Smadi cases are not connected to that of Najibullah Zazi, a 24-year-old airport shuttle driver who federal officials allege received explosives training from Al Qaeda and bought large quantities of hydrogen peroxide and nail-polish remover in a plot to build bombs for attacks on U.S. soil.
Talk of the possible plot in recent days set off the most intense flurry of national terrorism warnings since the aftermath of 9/11.