Yonathan Melaku wasn’t on any watch lists and had never given people much to worry about. The 22-year-old high school graduate and Marine Corps Reservist was living at home with his parents in Fairfax County. Law enforcement officials had never heard of him.
Authorities said Thursday that it was Melaku’s seemingly mundane existence that allowed him to elude detection as he engaged in the incidents that included shooting at military buildings in the Washington area last fall and culminated with his arrest June 17 at Arlington National Cemetery .
Federal officials said Melaku had bombmaking materials in his backpack, and they later found a self-made videotape of him shouting “Allahu Akbar!” after he fired shots at the National Museum of the Marine Corps in Prince William County in October.
Melaku was charged in federal court Thursday with shooting at the museum and at the Pentagon in October — two of the five attacks that occurred in the late-night or early-morning hours and appeared to target locations related to the Marines.
Police had speculated that the person responsible was associated with the Marines — and they were right. Melaku enlisted with the reserves in 2007, went to Parris Island, S.C., for boot camp and had attained the rank of lance corporal with a combat engineer unit based in Baltimore.
But a motive for the shootings — and why Melaku had possible bombmaking materials — remains elusive.
Law enforcement officials said in court documents that when Melaku was arrested last Friday morning, he had plastic baggies with ammonium nitrate — a readily available material that can be used in explosives and was used in the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing — as well as a notebook that included references to Osama bin Laden and “The Path to Jihad.”
FBI agents said in court papers that they found instructions for making a timer for an improvised explosive device at Melaku’s home on Sage Drive in the Alexandria section of Fairfax County. They also found a list with some of the materials for the device, including a battery and wires.
At a news conference Thursday, prosecutors and FBI agents declined to comment on why Melaku might have been targeting the military.
“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,” said U.S. Attorney Neil H. MacBride.
Law enforcement sources said that it was unclear what religion Melaku follows and that they were investigating that aspect of his life; leaders at the mosques near his home said they did not know Melaku or his family.
Melaku is a naturalized U.S. citizen who moved to the United States from Ethiopia in 2005, authorities said. He graduated from Edison High School in Franconia in 2006. Like other students, he posed in a tuxedo for his yearbook photograph; school officials said he did not list any extracurricular activities.
Melaku lives in a two-story redbrick townhome with a two-car garage and long concrete steps leading to the front door. The curtains were drawn Thursday, and neighbors said they rarely saw the people who lived there. They said Melaku’s father is a cabdriver who could be seen outside frequently watering flowers or cutting grass.
Nobody answered the door at the home Thursday, and family members did not return phone calls seeking comment.
Marine Corps officials said that Melaku joined the reserves Sept. 4, 2007, and that he had been awarded the National Defense Service Medal and the Selected Marine Corps Reserve Medal. He has never been deployed overseas and was not scheduled to deploy, and he has not had any documented mental or disciplinary issues, Corps officials said.
“It’s always disappointing when someone who wears this uniform gets in trouble with the law,” said Lt. Col. Chris Hughes, a Marine Corps spokesman. “It’s heart-wrenching. The nature of the offenses is heart-wrenching to us all.”
The military shootings began Oct. 16 or early the next morning when shots were fired into the windows of the Marine Corps museum in Triangle. The Pentagon was hit a few days later. A Marine recruiting center in Chantilly was hit Oct. 25. Then, a shooter fired again at the 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 few people were 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 a grievance against the Marine Corps.
But on Thursday, federal officials didn’t seem 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. “It’s not readily apparent yet.”
Melaku was found at Fort Myer in Arlington County about 1:30 a.m. Friday and fled into Arlington National Cemetery, where he was captured. His backpack contained what the FBI considers “inert” materials, but the ammonium nitrate was worrisome because of its potential for use in an explosive device. Authorities said that what Melaku had with him Friday could not have been used for much more than vandalism. But coupled with a timer and other materials, the items could have been lethal.
“He had materials that could have caused some real trouble,” said one law enforcement official, who spoke anonymously because of not being authorized to speak publicly. “We’re trying to figure out what he was trying to do and why. But to try to figure this guy’s actions out logically? I’m not sure you can.”
The arrest June 17 occurred about a month after Melaku had been arrested in Loudoun County on suspicion of breaking into cars and stealing items. He is being held there on those charges. Marine Corps officials said Thursday that they will administratively separate Melaku from the service as a result of the Loudoun grand larceny charges.
Law enforcement officials said there did not appear to be a connection between Melaku and any organized terrorist organization, but they said his writings and the contents of his laptop appeared to indicate a desire to be involved in jihad.
In a search of Melaku’s bedroom, officials found a video in a desk that showed him driving by the Marine Corps museum and firing repeatedly out the passenger window. Melaku appeared to be alone in the car.
“All right, next time this video turns on, I will be shooting,” Melaku says 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.”
If convicted, Melaku faces a minimum of 35 years in federal prison and a maximum of a life sentence on four charges that include damaging U.S. property and using a firearm.
Staff writers Caitlin Gibson and Jerry Markon and researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.