The FBI in Cleveland has arrested a 48-year-old man it says was planning a July 4 attack in the city’s downtown, authorities said.
The man — Demetrius N. Pitts, who also used the names Abdur Raheem Rahfeeq and Salahadeen Osama Waleed — was taken into custody Sunday and charged with attempted material support of a foreign terrorist organization. He appeared in federal court on Monday afternoon.
According to an FBI affidavit, Pitts had extensive discussions with someone he believed to be working for the al-Qaeda terrorist network about attacking the city — possibly with a remote-control toy car equipped with a bomb or a full-size van laced with explosives — and considered himself more of a planner or scout than an on-the-ground attacker.
The man with whom Pitts was speaking was working undercover for the FBI, and their interactions were being recorded.
“I’m trying to figure this out. I’m trying to figure out something that would shake them up on the 4th of July,” Pitts told the undercover FBI employee last month, according to the affidavit.
“What would, what would hit them in the core?” he added later, the affidavit says. “Blow up in the, have a bomb to blow up at the 4th of July parade.”
FBI Special Agent in Charge Stephen Anthony said it was unclear whether Pitts had the means to carry out an attack by himself. “His precise ability to do specific things, again, we may never know,” he said. But he said Pitts’s extensive conversations with the undercover FBI employee, combined with a criminal record that included charges for assault, domestic violence and carrying a concealed weapon, gave agents cause for concern.
He said the FBI arrested Pitts after he met with the undercover employee for a final time Sunday.
“We don’t have the luxury of hoping that an individual decides not to harm someone or get others to act, especially when his continued repeated intentions were to do just that,” Anthony said.
The FBI had been tipped to Pitts as far back as 2015, when he sent a private Facebook message to “The Craig Sewing Show,” a California-based political commentary show, saying: “The USA will be destroy. Allahu Akbar.” In 2017, he made public Facebook comments suggesting violence, and an FBI investigation that continued into 2018 determined he was “willing to conduct a U.S. based attack,” according to the affidavit.
The FBI began investigating Pitts when he lived in the Cincinnati area and continued to monitor him when he moved in May to a Cleveland suburb, Anthony said. Last month, an undercover FBI employee posing as someone with al-Qaeda ties met with Pitts, and Pitts talked of chopping off people’s heads and hands, according to the affidavit.
“You take the head and the three hands and that’s how you make your statement. You send it straight to ’em. The person’s head and his, and his two hands. And they know right off the bat, boy these people ain’t playing,” he told the undercover FBI employee.
“Can you imagine the fear that that would strike in the hearts. I mean that would spread through the millions,” the employee responded.
“Oh yeah. And I’m not — I’m not scared to do it. That’s how I would send Donald Trump back,” Pitts said.
Pitts broached the idea of a July 4 attack in a conversation later in June, saying, “I did tell myself that, that their, their holiday is coming up, the 4th of July, Independence Day,” according to the affidavit. He eventually told the FBI employee he would take surveillance pictures and footage in downtown Cleveland, and he asked for a phone and bus pass to help his efforts, according to the affidavit.
Pitts indicated to the FBI employee that he did not want to detonate any bombs himself, at one point saying, “My part is just to go scope, get the information we need, and bring it back.” He also, on June 27, seemed to suggest the attack should be called off.
“They are all ready on high alert. I seen it on the web. Cancel the party for now. To bad for family to go. Very very bad weather,” he said in text messages, according to the affidavit.
Days later, though, the FBI employee told Pitts the attack was a “go,” and Pitts acknowledged receiving the message, according to the affidavit. He then asked to meet in person to discuss another plan he had for an attack in Philadelphia, and the next day, he showed the FBI employee a map with landmarks that he considered worthy bombing targets in that city, according to the affidavit.
The undercover employee showed Pitts a device the two had discussed previously — a remote-control toy car containing the explosive C-4, according to the affidavit. Pitts told the undercover employee the device could be rolled under a police car or given to the children of military personnel to play with at a parade, “so that the children would unwittingly detonate the bombs,” according to the affidavit.
A defense attorney for Pitts could not immediately be located. A fireworks display is still planned in Cleveland for July 4, and U.S. Attorney Justin Herdman urged residents not to be deterred from attending.
“I ask this week that we all continue to gather, continue to celebrate America, continue to celebrate our men and women in law enforcement, to acknowledge those who have given their lives in the line of duty, to engage in the exchange of ideas that is central to our democracy, to continue to have our barbecues and continue to go see fireworks, knowing that our police, our sheriff’s department and our Justice Department employees will remain vigilant in protecting our community,” he said.