His moment was months in the making.
When 20-year-old Christopher Lee Cornell walked into the Point Blank Indoor Shooting Range & Gun Shop near Cincinnati on Wednesday morning, the store manager said he seemed shy, though there was “nothing really out of the ordinary about him.” Dark eyes, full beard, long raven-colored hair, Cornell stood quietly at the counter. Then he bought two semiautomatic weapons and 600 rounds of ammunition, police said.
It was the final piece in his alleged plot to build, plant and detonate bombs at the U.S. Capitol — then use firearms to finish off anyone who tried to escape. But FBI agents had been watching him for months and, moments after he purchased the weapons, the agency’s Joint Terrorism Task Force took him into custody.
During an undercover FBI investigation, Cornell had allegedly expressed support for the Islamic State, suggesting that by carrying out such an attack he would be “fulfilling the directives of violent jihadists,” according to a criminal complaint filed on Wednesday in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Ohio.
“You wouldn’t think Cincinnati, Ohio, and jihadist in the same sentence,” gun store manager John Dean told WCPO-TV. “I’m just as surprised as everybody else.”
Until now, Cornell, a big time video-gamer who rarely left home, has lived with his folks in their apartment in Cincinnati. His parents called him a “momma’s boy” and said “his best friend is his kitty cat.”
He was an unassuming kid from Green Township, less than 10 miles from Cincinnati. From 2008 to 2012, his father said, he walked the halls at Oak Hills High School, somewhat lost, somewhat searching. He wrestled for sport. He grew a goatee. He showed a mature sympathy for Muslims who were being killed in the Middle East, his father said.
“He said, ‘Dad, you just have to let people believe in what they believe. I have my beliefs, and you just have to let people believe what they believe in,'” John Cornell told WCPO-TV.
Recently, Cornell converted to Islam, his father said, explaining that he first noticed his son praying about two months ago. Since then, his son has “found peace in the religion,” he told the Cincinnati Enquirer.
“Everything you’re hearing in the media right now, they’ve already painted him as some kind of terrorist,” John Cornell said. “They’ve painted him as some kind of jihadist. … [Christopher] is one of the most peace-loving people I know.”
Cornell grabbed the FBI’s attention over the summer when he began using an alias — Raheel Mahrus Ubaydah — to voice his support for the Islamic State on social media, according to the criminal complaint. The Twitter handle @ISBlackFlags appears to have been registered to a Raheel Mahrus Ubaydah, but the account has been suspended. According to BuzzFeed, the profile photo showed a soldier toting an Islamic State flag.
Police said Cornell posted statements, videos and other information on Twitter, showing his allegiance to the terrorist group, violent jihad and related attacks committed by those in the United States and elsewhere, the complaint stated. However, he does not appear to have formal support from them, The Washington Post’s Sari Horwitz reported.
During the fall, an informant began working with the FBI to gain favor in an unrelated criminal case and provided information about Raheel Mahrus Ubaydah, according to the complaint. In August, Cornell allegedly told the informant via instant message, “I believe that we should just wage jihad under our own orders and plan attacks and everything.” And then: “We already got a thumbs up from the brothers over there and Anwar al Awlaki before his martyrdom and many others.”
Awlaki, an American-born leader of al-Qaeda in Yemen, was killed in a drone strike in 2011.
In October, Cornell met with the informant in Cincinnati. He talked about waging jihad and said he wanted to “move” in December, but he said he wasn’t ready to disclose his plan, the complaint stated. Then he opened his laptop and allegedly showed the informant jihadist videos, instructions for building pipe bombs and research on the target: government buildings in Washington, D.C.
Authorities said he planned to execute his attack this week.
Just before lunchtime on Wednesday, FBI agents swarmed the Cincinnati gun shop. Some 10 minutes before Cornell got there, police alerted the store.
“They said that someone would be coming by to purchase two guns and they wanted us to go ahead and handle the sale for them,” Dean told WCPO-TV.
When Cornell arrived, employees ran a standard background check on him and sold him the firearms.
“As soon as the purchase was over and he left the store, several agents came out and tackled him in the parking lot and took him down,” Dean added.
Back at Cornell’s home just two miles away, agents and local police hammered on the front door.
His father told CNN police were ready to ram the door down, saying they had a search warrant.
“Where is my son? What is he being charged with?” John Cornell said. “They wouldn’t tell us anything.”
Police seized two desktop computers, a laptop and four cellphones.
Cornell’s arrest again raises the specter of the so-called lone wolf.
“It is something that we worry about all the time. It is something that we meet about all the time. It’s something that frankly keeps me up at night. Worrying about the lone wolf or a group of people, a very small group of people, who decide to get arms on their own and do what we saw in France this week,” U.S. Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. said Sunday on CBS’s “Face the Nation.”
But Cornell’s father claims his son is a victim of prejudice and injustice. He’s angry that his son’s long beard and traditional Muslim head dress have made him vulnerable to intolerance.
“We always see the looks people give my son,” he told the Cincinnati Enquirer. “One time, he was just walking across the street to the store and people driving by threw [objects] at him. Hey, that’s my son and I love him just the same.”
Furthermore, John Cornell said he believes his son was set up.
“I believe he was really vulnerable,” he told WCPO-TV. “I believe he was coerced in a lot of ways.
“I think that was the FBI that he had been corresponding with all the time. I think they could have arrested him then. If he was making plots or whatever, I think they should have arrested him then. I’m surprised they didn’t kill him.”