A 20-year-old Saudi student who was arrested in Lubbock, Tex., late Wednesday was close to constructing a bomb and had researched possible targets, including the Dallas home of former president George W. Bush and the residences of three Americans who served at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, authorities said.
Khalid Aldawsari made his first appearance in federal court Friday morning in Lubbock and said he understood the charges against him. U.S. Magistrate Judge Nancy M. Koenig set a detention hearing for March 11 and ordered him held in custody until then.
Aldawsari retained criminal defense attorney Rod Hobson, who issued a statement saying that “the eyes of the world are on this case and the treatment of this accused person,” the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal reported. “This is a wonderful opportunity for us to show the world how truly fair our legal system is, even to those who are accused of trying to harm our country,” he said.
The defendant came to the United States as a student in September 2008, but his plan all along was to kill Americans, according to journal entries cited in an FBI affidavit. As a Saudi who entered the United States legally on a student visa, he evoked memories of the Sept. 11, 2001, hijackers, 15 of whom were Saudis.
Aldawsari’s attempts to purchase a chemical used in explosives quickly prompted calls to police from American companies, conduct that law enforcement officials praised.
Unlike in a number of recent arrests of suspected terrorism plotters, however, authorities said that Aldawsari had managed to advance his plans and assemble some of the ingredients for a bomb before the FBI became aware of him. “He was meticulous and a serious threat,” said a U.S. official who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the case publicly.
Officials said that Aldawsari appeared to be acting alone and was not in touch with any terrorist organization overseas. But his journal entries stated that he was inspired by Osama bin Laden and wanted to create “an Islamic group under the banner” of al-Qaeda, according to the affidavit.
In an e-mail cited in the affidavit, Aldawsari wrote that “one operation in the land of the infidels is equal to ten operations against occupying forces in the land of the Muslims.”
Aldawsari first studied English as a second language at Vanderbilt University in Nashville. He entered Texas Tech University in August 2009 to study chemical engineering, then transferred to business studies at South Plains College in Lubbock last month.
Aldawsari, whose education was funded by a Saudi corporation, wrote that he worked hard to excel in high school so he could get a scholarship to study in the United States. He refers to the Saudi royal family as the “Saululi” government, a derisive term, and called the Saudi king the “Traitor of the Two Holy Places,” according to the FBI affidavit.
“And now, after mastering the English language, learning how to build explosives, and continuous planning to target the infidel American, it is time for Jihad,” Aldawsari wrote in his journal, the affidavit said.
A Saudi official said Aldawsari had drawn no attention before his arrest.
“We checked his background for any criminal activity, and there was nothing,” said Nail al-Jubeir, a spokesman for the Saudi Embassy, who said he didn’t know which company sponsored Aldawsari.
The Saudi student was arrested after he attempted to purchase over the Internet the chemical phenol, a key ingredient in the explosive trinitrophenol, or TNP, according to an FBI chemist cited in the affidavit.
The Carolina Biological Supply company reported a suspicious purchase on Feb. 1, triggering an investigation that eventually involved 200 agents and analysts, according to the U.S. official. Aldawsari told a company representative that he was associated with Texas Tech and was conducting “off-campus, personal research.” He had the phenol shipped to a freight company in Lubbock, Con-way Freight, which returned it to the supplier and contacted police.
“Yesterday’s arrest demonstrates the need for and the importance of vigilance and the willingness of private individuals and companies to ask questions and contact the authorities when confronted with suspicious activities,” said James T. Jacks, the U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Texas.
Aldawsari was charged with attempted use of a weapon of mass destruction; if convicted, he would face a maximum sentence of life in prison.
A surreptitious search of Aldawsari’s apartment by the FBI showed that he had already purchased sulfuric acid, nitric acid, lab equipment, wiring and a hazmat suit, among other items, according to the affidavit. The chemical phenol appeared to be the last element in a potential bomb, officials said.
Aldawsari also appeared to be researching a range of possible targets, which were recorded in e-mails he sent to himself or in journal entries, according to the affidavit.
In one e-mail, under the title “Tyrant’s House,” he sent himself the Dallas address of Bush’s home, the affidavit said. White House press secretary Jay Carney said Bush was informed of the investigation, as was President Obama. A spokesman for Bush declined to comment.
Another e-mail contained the names and home addresses of three Americans who had served in the military and were stationed at Abu Ghraib, the prison outside Baghdad where Iraqi prisoners were tortured and abused. The release of photos of the treatment of prisoners at the facility sparked international outrage.
“This case raises a unique red flag; to single out former military members and their families represents a fundamental shift in the targeting practices by Islamic radicals,” said Robert Jackson, executive director of Military Families United.
Aldawsari also e-mailed himself a list of 12 reservoirs or dams in Colorado and California.
In a journal entry, Aldawsari wrote a “synopsis of important steps” that included “traveling to New York for at least a week; renting a car via the internet; changing clothing and appearance before picking up the car; using a different drivers’ license of each car he rents; preparing the bombs for remote detonation; putting the bombs into cars and taking them to different places during rush hour; and leaving the city for a safe place,” according to the affidavit.
Aldawsari also maintained an Arabic-language blog in which his extremism appears evident. “Grant me martyrdom for Your sake and make Jihad easy for me,” he wrote in March 2010.
The affidavit also alleges that Aldawsari researched possible means of disguising a bomb.
“He viewed photos of realistic looking newborn and infant dolls,” the affidavit said. “In addition, numerous websites were viewed that are related to baby accessories, including strollers . . . this web activity could indicate Aldawsari’s consideration of the use of a realistic doll to conceal explosives or other weapons.”
Staff writer William Branigin and researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.