LEESBURG, Va. – A Marine Corps reservist arrested in a security scare near the Pentagon last week was charged Thursday in a series of pre-dawn shootings at the Pentagon and other military buildings in the Washington area last year.
Yonathan Melaku, 22, of Alexandria, has been in custody since early Friday, when he was caught after fleeing from police while trespassing inside Arlington National Cemetery after dark. His behavior and possessions prompted immediate suspicion from authorities, who closed the highways leading to the Pentagon during the Friday rush hour and launched an intensive investigation.
Federal prosecutors said in court documents Thursday that they found bomb-making materials in Melaku's backpack and later found a typewritten list of potential bomb components inside his home. Investigators also found a video he took of himself firing shots outside the National Museum of the Marine Corps last fall and repeatedly saying the Arabic words "Allahu Akbar," which means "God is Great."
"That's what they get. That's my target. That's the military building. It's going to be attacked," he said in the video, which shows him firing shots out the passenger-side window at the museum, according to court papers.
Melaku lists his religion as Muslim in military papers, according to a Marine Corps spokesman.
He has been a Marine reservist since September 2007 but has never deployed overseas. The Marine Corps has initiated procedures to kick him out of the Corps, and Melaku is not objecting, said spokesman Lt. Col. Francis Piccoli.
Military records for Melaku do not show any violations of the Uniform Code of Military Justice, Piccoli said. But Melaku did miss mandatory training exercises from Oct. 14 through Oct. 17. The first shooting, at the Marine Corps museum, occurred on Oct. 17. Melaku made up some of the drills he missed and continued to report for monthly assignments after October, Piccoli said.
Investigators said Melaku was carrying a backpack last Friday with a quantity of ammonium nitrate, which is widely used in explosives and is available commercially as fertilizer; a spiral notebook containing references to al-Qaida, the Taliban and Osama bin Laden; spent 9 mm shell casings; work gloves; a head lamp; and cans of spray paint.
The ammonium nitrate was contained in plastic bags marked "AN," though authorities said the substance was inert.
Ballistics evidence shows that a 9mm handgun was used in last year's shootings, and the spent shell casings in Melaku's backpack were the same brand as those used in last year's shootings, according to an affidavit.
Inside his bedroom, authorities found a numbered list of items — including an alkaline battery, battery connector for 9 volt, LED light, and epoxy or super glue — consistent with producing a bomb.
At a news conference Thursday, U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia Neil MacBride said it was possible Melaku could face further charges.
Investigators say forensic evidence links Melaku to five shootings last October and November, including at a U.S. Coast Guard recruiting office and a Marine Corps recruiting sub-station. He was charged in two of the shootings, outside the Pentagon and the National Museum of the Marine Corps.
The FBI said at the time that the shooter was likely someone with a gripe against the military.
If convicted of all the charges already filed, Melaku would face a mandatory minimum sentence of 35 years in prison and a maximum of life.
Melaku was "not on our radar prior to Friday's events," said James McJunkin, the assistant director in charge of the FBI Washington field office. It appears Melaku had intended to carry out some sort of vandalism in the cemetery, McJunkin said. Authorities believe he was acting alone.
The federal charges, filed Thursday in U.S. District Court in Alexandria, allege two counts each of damaging federal property with a gun and discharging a firearm during a crime of violence. He did not make an initial court appearance on those charges Thursday, and a hearing that had been scheduled in state court on unrelated larceny charges was canceled.
The charges were announced as federal authorities in Seattle arrested two men in a plot to use machine guns and grenades in an attack on a military recruiting station that also houses a daycare.
Homeland Security officials do not think it is likely there will be coordinated terrorist attacks against military recruiting and National Guard facilities, according to a May 31 assessment by the department, the National Guard Bureau of Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance Division, the U.S. Army Recruiting Command and other organizations.
The agencies did agree, however, that lone offenders or groups will continue to try to launch attacks against these facilities, according to the assessment, marked "for official use only" and obtained by The Associated Press.
An official has said Melaku has no known ties to al-Qaida or any other terrorist organization.
Associated Press writers Eileen Sullivan and Jessica Gresko contributed to this report from Washington.