An Ohio man’s alleged plot to wage violent jihad against lawmakers and staff at the US Capitol was a textbook case of a lone wolf terrorist inspired by Al Qaeda and the Islamic State. The way federal agents stopped him before he got much beyond the talking stage was textbook, too.
When Christopher Lee Cornell, 20 years old and also known as Raheel Mahrus Ubaydah, went to the Point Blank Range & Gun Shop near Cincinnati, his plan was to buy two M-15 semi-automatic assault rifles and 600 rounds of ammunition. Then, according to the FBI, he intended to travel to Washington, set off pipe bombs at the Capitol, and then shoot people fleeing the building.
Gun store employees had been instructed by FBI agents to sell Mr. Cornell the guns and ammo. The young man, who paid $1,900 in cash, was described by employees as shy but talkative. As soon as Cornell walked to the parking lot, agents tackled and arrested him. Included as part of the FBI Joint Terrorism Task Force (JTTF) making the arrest were state and local law enforcement agencies as well as US Immigrations and Customs Enforcement and the US Secret Service.
Cornell became known to the FBI last summer when he began voicing support for the Islamic State (also known as ISIS and ISIL) in the form of statements, videos, and other content posted to his Twitter accounts. “Defendant Christopher Cornell also voiced his support for violent jihad, as well as support for violent attacks committed by others in North America and elsewhere,” according to the criminal complaint filed Wednesday with US Magistrate Judge Stephanie Bowman.
The FBI soon enlisted an undercover informant in return for what the complaint says was “favorable treatment with respect to his criminal exposure on an unrelated case.” The informant made contact with Cornell via Twitter, then the two began communicating through another instant messaging service.
Cornell made vague reference to overseas contacts, but wrote, “I believe that we should just wage jihad under our own orders and plan attacks and everything.”
“We already got a thumbs up from the Brothers over there and Anwar al Awlaki before his martyrdom and many others,” he wrote. (Anwar al-Awlaki, a US-born Yemeni cleric and recruiter for Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, was killed in a US air strike in 2011.)
“I believe we should meet up and make our own group in alliance with the Islamic State and plan operations,” Cornell wrote. What the informant wrote in such exchanges is not known, although presumably it was circumspect enough to avoid a successful defense based on illegal entrapment.
The two men began meeting in October – presumably the informant was wearing a recording device – when Cornell discussed his support for the Islamic State. He also showed the informant jihadist videos and bomb-making information on his laptop computer.
At their next meeting in November, Cornell “indicated that he considered members of the Congress as enemies and that he intended to conduct an attack on the US Capitol,” according to the complaint filed Wednesday by FBI Special Agent T.A. Staderman.
As a result, the FBI and US Justice Department believe there is probable cause to charge Cornell with two federal offenses: attempting to kill officers and employees of the United States and possession of a firearm in furtherance of a crime of violence.
In an interview with the Cincinnati Enquirer, Cornell’s parents (with whom he lived and who are not Muslims) were incredulous at the news of their son’s arrest. “He is one of the most peace-loving people I know,” John Cornell said of his son.
Following Cornell’s arrest, the Counter Extremism Project called online extremism “a present and growing threat.”
“This arrest – which follows strong warnings from the NYPD about threats made by ISIS towards law enforcement and soldiers and the recent attacks in Paris – just shows how real and terrifying the likelihood of a homegrown attack is,” the nonprofit research organization said in a statement. “While details are still emerging on Cornell, it is clear that he was actively using Twitter to disseminate pro-ISIS propaganda.”
Since 9/11, several dozen terrorist plots have been thwarted in the US, often through the use of informants.
A Justice Department official told Fox News that Cornell was "aspirational and not operational," adding that the public was never in danger.