Model plane bomb plot tests US antiterrorism strategy at home

Rezwan Ferdaus, a US citizen and would-be jihadist, is indicted Thursday in connection with a model plane bomb plot to attack the Pentagon and the Capitol. His arrest is the latest example of what authorities warn is home-grown violent extremism.

Yoon S. Byun/The Boston Globe/AP
Law enforcement officials at the home of Rezwan Ferdaus in Ashland, Mass. Ferdaus was arrested by federal agents in a sting operation and charged with plotting to blow up the Pentagon and the US Capitol using remote-controlled airplanes filled with explosives.
AP/Courtesy WBZ-TV, Boston
This undated Massachusetts driver's license photo obtained by WBZ-TV in Boston shows Rezwan Ferdaus of Ashland, Mass., arrested Wednesday in Framingham, Mass.

The arrest this week of a man the FBI says is a would-be Islamic terrorist is now Exhibit A in the US fight against home-grown violent extremism – a textbook case in what to look for and how to respond to “lone-wolf” jihadis intent on doing their fellow Americans harm.

The essence of the strategy is to find and track such individuals as they troll the Internet for terrorist websites, then use undercover agents or willing civilians to set up a sting operation in which the suspect is allowed to continue plotting right up until the moment the trap snaps shut and the arrest is made.

One important feature here is to give such suspects chances to back off – asking if they know that innocent civilians could be killed, for example – so that illegal entrapment does not stymie the government’s case.

That’s the way the FBI and other law enforcement agencies say they were able to arrest Rezwan Ferdaus, a US citizen and graduate of Boston’s Northeastern University with a degree in physics, charging him with plotting to kill US soldiers overseas as well as planning to attack the Pentagon and the US Capitol with explosives carried by remote control aircraft.

The Obama administration’s antiterrorism strategy includes Al Qaeda’s America-based “adherents” as a principal target. According to the affidavit in Mr. Ferdaus’s case, he thought he was working with members of Al Qaeda.

John Brennan, deputy national security adviser for homeland security and counterterrorism, describes such adherents as “individuals, sometimes with little or no direct physical contact with Al Qaeda, who have succumbed to its hateful ideology and who have engaged in, or facilitated, terrorist activities here in the United States.”

“These misguided individuals are spurred on by the likes of Al Qaeda’s Adam Gadahn and Anwar al-Awlaki in Yemen, who speak English and preach violence in slick videos over the Internet,” Mr. Brennan said in a speech to the School of Advanced International Studies in June.

“The is the first counterterrorism strategy that focuses on the ability of Al Qaeda and its network to inspire people in the United States to attack us from within,” Brennan said in releasing the administration’s National Strategy for Counterterrorism, which was spurred by the case of Army Maj. Nidal Hasan, alleged to have killed 13 people in the 2009 Fort Hood shooting. “Indeed, this is the first counterterrorism strategy that designates the homeland as a primary area of emphasis in our counterterrorism efforts.”

The FBI affidavit filed with the arrest of Ferdaus Wednesday, and the indictment issued Thursday, detail the two-year effort to thwart his planned attacks.

“With the goal of terrorizing the United States, decapitating its ‘military center,’ and killing as many ‘kafirs’ (an Arabic term meaning non-believers) as possible, Ferdaus extensively planned and took substantial steps to bomb the United States Pentagon and United States Capitol Building using remote controlled aircraft filled with explosives,” the indictment said.

Agents posing as Al Qaeda operatives took an active part in recruiting Ferdaus to a greater scheme once his original plan was known. They gave him at least $7,000 to buy a remote-controlled model aircraft able to carry about 50 pounds in explosives and also provided AK-47 assault rifles, grenades, and what he believed to be 25 pounds of C-4 explosives.

Up until that point, Ferdaus (who lived with his parents in a well-to-do suburb of Boston) had no criminal record except for vandalism related to a high school prank with several other boys.

Now, he faces much more serious charges.

“This is yet another instance of a US citizen planning to commit violent jihad on behalf of Al Qaeda,” Rep. Peter King, chairman of the House Committee on Homeland Security, said in a statement. “Hopefully this case serves as a reminder to all Americans that even 10 years after the attacks of 9/11, Al Qaeda, its affiliates, and its adherents remain committed to attacking the US homeland,”

“The fact that Ferdaus is a very well-educated physicist should serve as a reminder to us that the threat of Islamic terrorism transcends socioeconomics and does not only emanate from the poor and under-privileged,” Representative King added. “Ferdaus’ arrest also underscores the need to continue efforts to combat domestic radicalization and the evolving threat of ‘lone wolf’ extremists.”

If convicted, Ferdaus faces up to 15 years in prison on the material support and resources to a foreign terrorist organization charge; up to 20 years in prison on the charge of attempting to destroy national defense premises; and between five and 20 years in prison on the charge of attempting to damage and destroy buildings owned by the United States, by using an explosive, according to Lawfare, a national security legal blog. On each charge Ferdaus also faces up to three years of supervised release and a $250,000 fine.

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