A 22-year-old Alexandria man has been charged with shooting at military buildings in the D.C. region last fall, and federal officials said in court papers that he videotaped himself shouting “Allah Akbar” after he fired shots at the U.S. Marine Corps museum in October.
Yonathan Melaku, a Marine Reservist, was taken into custody Friday under suspicious circumstances at Arlington National Cemetery. He had been carrying a backpack that held plastic baggies with ammonium nitrate, a material that can be used to make a bomb, as well as a notebook that included references to Osama bin Laden and “The Path to Jihad.”
Melaku was charged Thursday with two counts each of damaging U.S. property by shooting, and discharging a firearm in relation to a crime of violence.
At a news conference Thursday morning, prosecutors and the FBI declined to comment on Melaku’s motivation in the shootings.
“Today’s charges allege a pattern of violent behavior...we believe his statements that he’s targeting military installations speak to his desire to engage in violent activity against the military,” U.S. Attorney Neil H. MacBride said.
Federal officials said in court papers that between Oct. 16 and Nov. 2 Melaku fired shots at five military sites around the region. The shootings began Oct. 16 or early the next morning when shots were fired into the windows of the National Museum of the Marine Corps at Triangle. The Pentagon was hit a few days later. A U.S. Marine recruiting center in Chantilly was hit Oct. 25. Then, a shooter fired again on the Marine Corps museum Oct. 28, and on Nov. 1 shot a window at a U.S. Coast Guard recruiting center in Woodbridge.
In each instance, the shots were fired overnight or early in the morning when there were few people around, and authorities said at the time that they did not think the shooter aimed to harm anyone. They said they suspected the shooter might have been a Marine or someone with a grievance against the Marine Corps.
But on Thursday, federal officials weren’t so sure. “I can’t suggest to you his motivations or intent,” said James W. McJunkin, assistant director in charge of the FBI’s Washington Field Office. “Its not readily apparent yet.”
McJunkin and other officials would not comment on Melaku’s faith.
The FBI reported that Melaku joined the Marine Corps Reserve on Sept. 4, 2007, and has been awarded the National Defense Service Medal and the Selected Marine Corps Reserve Medal. He has never been deployed overseas nor had any documented mental or disciplinary issues, the Marines said.
Authorities said in the court papers that Melaku was found on Fort Myer in Arlington at 1:30 a.m. Friday and was approached by the base police. He fled and dropped a backpack.
He was found later Friday morning at Arlington National Cemetery. At first, he refused to identify himself, and he had no identification on him, authorities said in court papers.
Authorities said they found spent 9mm shell casings, the plastic baggies later found to contain ammonium nitrate, work gloves and a headlamp in the backpack.
The spiral notebook that mention Osama bin Laden also included a reference to “defeat coalition and allies and America” and a list of people associated with foreign terrorist organizations, officials said in court papers. They did not specify which organizations or people were included on that list.
They also searched Melaku’s bedroom and found a video in a desk that showed him driving by the Marine Corps Museum and firing repeatedly out of the passenger window. Melaku appeared to be alone in the car and authorities think he positioned a camera to record the shooting, court papers say.
"Alright next time this video turns on, I will be shooting," Melaku said on the video, court papers say. "That's what they get. That's my target. that's the military building. It's going to be attacked."
The search of Melaku’s Alexandria home also found a typed list with the heading “Timer.” Below the heading were nine numbered household items, some of them crossed out, according to the court papers. The items included a 9-volt battery, electrical tape, a bulb and wires.
The items on the list “are consistent with the requirements for a time power unit and firing mechanism of an Improvised Explosive Device,” the complaint states. But other items, including ammonium nitrate, fuel and a detonator, would have been needed to make a working explosive device, according to the complaint.
Authorities who searched Melaku’s home also found his laptop computer, the complaint said, and found documents about explosives and bomb making.
“Its always disappointing when someone who wears this uniform gets in trouble with the law,” said Lt.. Col Chris Hughes, a spokesman for the Marines. “It’s heart-wrenching. The nature of the offenses is heart-wrenching to us all.”
Melaku remains in the custody of Loudoun County authorities. He is charged there with grand larceny for allegedly stealing items from several cars.
[This post has been updated.]