AMARILLO, Texas – A former Texas college student from Saudi Arabia was sentenced to life in prison Tuesday for trying to make a bomb for use in a religious attack, possibly targeting a former U.S. president.
Khalid Ali-M Aldawsari was sentenced in Amarillo, where jurors convicted him in June of attempting to use a weapon of mass destruction. Prosecutors say he had collected bomb-making material in his apartment and researched possible targets, including the Dallas home of former President George W. Bush. A handwritten journal found in his apartment included notes that he believed it was time for "jihad," a Muslim term for holy war.
Although the 22-year-old Aldawsari apologized Tuesday for "these bad actions," Judge Donald E. Walter said the evidence against him was overwhelming. Walter acknowledged he was conflicted due to Aldawsari's youth and signs that outside influences had led him astray.
"But the bottom line is that but by the grace of God there would be dead Americans," Walter said. "You would have done it. In every step, it was you all alone."
Aldawsari stood silently in shackles as the sentence was read. The formerly clean-shaven, close-cropped man now had a full beard and long hair, and appeared to have lost a lot of weight.
There is no parole in the federal system for defendants convicted of recent crimes.
Aldawsari came to the U.S. legally in 2008 to study chemical engineering. He was arrested in Lubbock in February 2011, after federal agents searched his apartment and found explosive chemicals, wiring, a hazmat suit and clocks, along with videos showing how to make the chemical explosive TNP.
Investigators say Aldawsari's goal was to carry out jihad. His attorneys claimed he was a harmless failure who never came close to attacking anyone.
FBI bomb experts say the amounts of chemicals he had would have yielded almost 15 pounds of explosive — about the same amount used per bomb in the 2005 London subway attacks. He also tried to order phenol, a chemical that can be used to make explosives.
Court records show that his emails and journal contained the explosive's recipe.
Prosecutors said other targets he researched included nuclear power plants and the homes of three former soldiers who were stationed at Abu Ghraib prison.
Prosecutors offered to show the judge a video of the possible damage Aldawsari could have done had he succeeded in assembling explosives. Walter declined.
"I'm fully aware of what 15 pounds of plastic can do," he said.
During his trial, Aldawsari's attorneys acknowledged that their client had intent, but they argued that he never took the "substantial step" needed to convict him.
Defense attorney Dan Cogdell repeatedly berated Aldawsari as a "failure" and poor student who never came close to threatening anyone. Aldawsari did not testify at trial, but on Tuesday he told Walter he felt lonely and isolated from his family, friends and faith.
"I am sorry for these bad actions, but none of these bad actions did harm to the United States," Aldawsari told Walter.
Aldawsari wrote in his journal that he had been planning a terror attack in the U.S. for years, even before he came to the country on a scholarship, and that it was "time for jihad," according to court documents. He bemoaned the plight of Muslims and said he was influenced by Osama bin Laden's speeches.
Authorities said Aldawsari purchased bottles of sulfuric and nitric acids — chemicals that can be combined with phenol to create TNP.
Investigators say they were tipped to his online purchases by chemical company Carolina Biological Supply and shipping company Con-way Freight on Feb. 1, 2011. The chemical company reported a $435 suspicious purchase to the FBI, while the shipping company notified Lubbock police and the FBI because it appeared the order wasn't intended for commercial use.
Court records show that Aldawsari had successfully ordered 30 liters of nitric acid and three gallons of concentrated sulfuric acid in December 2010.
At his trial, prosecutors played recordings of a frustrated Aldawsari complaining to the supply company when his order was held up. He had allegedly told the company he wanted the phenol for research to develop a cleaning solution.
Aldawsari had transferred from Texas Tech in early 2011 to nearby South Plains College, where he was studying business. A Saudi industrial company was paying his tuition and living expenses in the U.S. The judge moved his trial to Amarillo, about 120 north of Lubbock.