Published February 25, 2011
LUBBOCK, Texas -- The Saudi college student who allegedly planned to bomb a series of U.S. targets, including the Dallas home of former President George W. Bush, pleaded not guilty in federal court Friday.
Khalid Ali-M Aldawsari, 20, faces a maximum sentence of life in prison and a $250,000 fine if convicted of attempted use of a weapon of mass destruction.
In his private journal, the chemical engineering student wrote that he was planning an attack in the United States for years, even before coming to the U.S. on a scholarship, according to court documents released Thursday. He said he was influenced by Osama bin Laden's speeches and that he bemoaned the plight of Muslims.
"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, Aldawsari wrote in the journal, according to the documents filed by prosecutors.
A federal public defender in Lubbock, David Sloan, said he would be at Friday's court appearance in case U.S. Magistrate Nancy Koenig needed to appoint him to represent Aldawsari.
Aldawsari was arrested Wednesday on a charge of attempted use of a weapon of mass destruction.
Aldawsari was expected to appear in federal court Friday, two days after his arrest on a charge of attempted use of a weapon of mass destruction.
"As we lay out in this affidavit, there were a range of targets being contemplated," Robert Casey, the FBI special agent in charge of the case, said. "I can't speak to his state of mind or the priority in his mind of any of the range of targets we think we discovered."
In e-mails Aldawsari apparently sent to himself, he listed 12 reservoir dams in Colorado and California; the documents did not state their exact locations. He also wrote an e-mail that mentioned "Tyrant's House" with the address of Bush's home.
The FBI's affidavit said Aldawsari considered using infant dolls to hide explosives and was possibly targeting a nightclub with a backpack filled with explosives.
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.
Aldawsari also described a plan in his journal that involved leaving car bombs in different places during rush hour in New York City and remotely detonating them.
Aldawsari, who entered the U.S. legally in 2008 on a student visa, studied chemical engineering at Texas Tech University until January before transferring to a nearby college to study business.
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 near the Texas Tech campus.
The case outlined in court documents was significant because it suggests that radicalized foreigners can live quietly in the U.S. 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.
"We think we have neutralized any other threats or imminent harm surrounding the actions that he's charged with, but the investigation is continuing," Casey said.
Aldawsari wrote that he was planning an attack even before coming to the U.S. on a scholarship, the court documents say. He said he was influenced by bin Laden's speeches and he bemoaned the plight of Muslims.
Federal authorities said they learned of the plot after a chemical company, Carolina Biological Supply of Burlington, North Carolina, reported $435 in suspicious orders 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 Aldawsari's other online purchases, discovered extremist posts he made on the Internet and secretly searched his apartment, computer and e-mail accounts and read his diary, according to court records.
Neighbors in Lubbock said they didn't remember seeing Aldawsari but noticed an unusual number of people in the hallway the day of his 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."
Ahmid Obaidan, a senior at Tennessee State University who also is from Saudi Arabia, met Aldawsari in Nashville, Tennessee, when Aldawsari was studying at an English language center at Vanderbilt University.
"He was quiet. I thought he was a good guy," Obaidan said.
The FBI said the North Carolina company reported the attempts to purchase 1.3 gallons (4.9 liters) 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. Frustrated by questions, Aldawsari canceled his order and later e-mailed himself instructions for producing phenol, the documents say.
TNP, the chemical explosive that Aldawsari was suspected of trying to make, has approximately the same destructive power as TNT. FBI bomb experts said the amounts in the Aldawsari case would have yielded almost 15 pounds (6.8 kilograms) of explosive. That's about the same amount used per bomb in the London subway attacks that killed scores of people in July 2005.
Prosecutors said that in December, he bought 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.
A Saudi industrial company, which was not identified in court documents, was paying Aldawsari's tuition and living expenses in the U.S.
Casey declined to go into why the arrest occurred when it did.
"We just felt it was the right time," he said.