When FBI director Robert Mueller gave Time magazine permission to shadow him on Feb. 17, it just so happens that one of the chief concerns of that day was Khalid Ali-M Aldawsari (pictured), the Saudi student from Lubbock who, it would soon be revealed, counted former President George W. Bush’s house in Dallas among his possible terrorism targets.
As was pointed out to me earlier today by a Justice Department official, who shall remain nameless, it will be interesting to see how the judge in Aldawsari’s case in Lubbock, Sam Cummings, handles the fact that extra details are coming out about the investigation, given the gag order that’s he imposed. It covers “parties, jurors, lawyers, and others involved with the proceedings,” so I guess, technically, it doesn’t cover the FBI director, and probably doesn’t cover information gathered before the young man’s arrest and before the case was even unsealed. But who knows. Still good reading.
Anyway, here are the sections dealing with Aldawsari. Interesting stuff:
Two men, 1,300 miles apart, had Mueller’s attention when he convened his operations brief on Feb. 17. Khalid Ali-M Aldawsari, a 20-year-old Saudi national, studied chemical engineering at Texas Tech University. Kevin William Harpham, 36, an unemployed Army veteran and avowed white supremacist, lived in a small town near Spokane. On this day the FBI’s interest was a closely guarded secret, but indictments to come would allege that the two men were behind separate plots to set off powerful homemade bombs. Until recently, the FBI had not heard of either man.+++
Good luck and shoe leather led the FBI to Aldawsari, the Saudi student. One of the trip-wire programs rolled out after 9/11 invited vendors of hazardous goods to report unusual purchases to the feds. Aldawsari went undetected at first as he acquired the ingredients of TNP, an explosive used in World War I artillery shells. Amazon.com filled an order for 3 gal. of concentrated sulfuric acid, and the Georgia-based QualiChem Technologies shipped 10 boxes of nitric acid to a FedEx mail drop. Neither reported the buys. Aldawsari also dodged a student-visa review after flunking out of Texas Tech. Only on Feb. 1, when he ordered phenol, his last ingredient, did Aldawsari trip an alarm. Carolina Biological Supply tipped the FBI’s Charlotte, N.C., field office, and Con-Way Freight, where Aldawsari planned to take delivery, sent word to the Dallas field office by way of the Lubbock police.+++
When Mueller convened his executive team on Feb. 17, Aldawsari had been under a microscope for two weeks. Four shifts of agents watched the Saudi engineering student 24 hours a day. Vehicles equipped with StingRay transceivers followed him around greater Dallas, recording his cell-phone calls. Agents had slipped secretly into Aldawsari’s apartment, armed with a warrant from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. They inventoried his chemicals, cloned his computer drive and copied a journal handwritten in Arabic. Hours before that morning’s briefing, Aldawsari had published a blog post alluding to a special celebration of his upcoming 21st birthday. One of his handwritten journal entries, according to a hasty FBI translation, said, “And now, after mastering the English language, learning how to build explosives and continuous planning to target the infidel Americans, it is time for jihad.”+++
As criminal cases, Lubbock and Spokane were well in hand. By now, the FBI of old would have placed the suspects under arrest. Waiting raised the risk that they might slip surveillance and flee or launch an unexpected attack. But Mueller has changed this way of thinking. Moving in too soon would tip the FBI’s hand, risking the loss of valuable intelligence. Harpham and Aldawsari looked like classic lone wolves, but investigators could not yet rule out accomplices. Were there opportunities to trace a network of support — financial, operational or ideological — that might lead to plotters of otherwise unrelated attacks?+++
In Lubbock, the team that searched Aldawsari’s apartment had been interrupted and did not have time to learn whether he had unpacked his chemicals or whether he had the makings for a high explosive that required no phenol. The hasty retreat also left a gap in electronic surveillance, which nowadays has to include not only phone taps and pinhole cameras but voice-over-Internet, social-network messaging and online-gaming consoles. The Texas plot was unfolding across three e-mail addresses, which sent one another lists of “targets” and “nice targets” and directions for handling TNP. Was it one man? Two? Three?
The search team had to get back in. Mueller had no patience for explanations that agents were doing “pattern-of-life analysis” to find an opening. “You’re not getting it done,” Mueller said. “What are you going to do about it?” Later that day, the sneak-and-peek squad got it done. Then the investigators solved the mystery of the three e-mail addresses: Aldawsari was using all of them, they concluded, to send notes to himself.
One week later, on Feb. 24, agents placed Aldawsari under arrest. On March 9 the FBI’s elite tactical force, the Hostage Rescue Team, moved in on Harpham. Both men were charged with attempted use of a weapon of mass destruction, which the law defines broadly enough to cover any kind of bomb. Both have pleaded not guilty, and their lawyers note they are entitled to a presumption of innocence.+++
Harpham’s plot, if the allegations prove true, turned out to be the more advanced. He had built a powerful bomb and placed it, for maximum carnage, atop a metal bench with a brick wall behind it to focus the blast. The half-complete work of Aldawsari, an Arab whose jihadi aims fit the popular image of a terrorist, received far more public attention. More than a year ago, Mueller raised some eyebrows when he testified that “homegrown and lone-wolf extremists pose an equally serious threat.” But that message did not take root in the body politic or even in the national-security establishment. As the FBI chased the twin terrorist plots all through February, President Obama’s team heard daily reports about Aldawsari’s case but not Harpham’s. Some of Mueller’s lieutenants marveled at the contrast.
Source: Crime Blog