LUBBOCK — A young college student from Saudi Arabia who studied chemical engineering in Texas purchased explosive chemicals over the Internet as part of a plan to hide bomb materials inside dolls and baby carriages to blow up dams, nuclear plants or the Dallas home of former President George W. Bush, the Justice Department said Thursday.
“After mastering the English language, learning how to build explosives and continuous planning to target the infidel Americans, it is time for jihad,” the student wrote in his private journal, according to court documents. He said he was influenced by speeches from Osama bin Laden and despaired the plight of Muslims.
One of the chemical companies, Carolina Biological Supply of Burlington, N.C., reported suspicious purchases by Khalid Ali-M Aldawsari, 20, of Lubbock, Texas, to the FBI on Feb. 1. Within weeks, federal agents had traced his other online purchases, discovered extremist posts he made on the Internet and secretly searched his off-campus apartment, computer and e-mail accounts and read his diary, according to court records.
TNP, the chemical explosive that Aldawsari was allegedly trying to obtain, has approximately the same destructive power as TNT. FBI bomb experts said the amounts in the Aldawsari case would have yielded almost 15 pounds of explosive. That’s about the same amount used per bomb in the July 2005 London subway attacks, which killed scores of people.
Aldawsari, who was legally in the U.S. on a student visa, was expected to appear in federal court on Friday. He was charged Thursday with attempted use of a weapon of mass destruction. Aldawsari entered the U.S. in October 2008 from Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, to study chemical engineering at Texas Tech University, then transferred earlier this year to nearby South Plains College, where he was studying business. A Saudi industrial company, which was not identified in court documents, was paying his tuition and living expenses in the U.S.
“He was a weird guy,” said Ahmid Obaidan, a senior at Tennessee State University who also is from Saudi Arabia and met Aldawsar in Nashville, Tenn., when Aldawsari was studying at an English language center at Vanderbilt University. “He was quiet. I thought he was a good guy, but what I’ve heard now, I’m shocked.”
It was not immediately clear whether Aldawsari had hired an attorney. Phone numbers that Aldawsari had provided to others were not working Thursday. No one answered the buzzer or a knock on the door at the address listed as Aldawsari’s apartment, just one block from the Texas Tech campus in a recently gentrified area of mixed-use retail and apartment complexes where many students live.
The terrorism case outlined in court documents was significant because it suggests that radicalized foreigners can live quietly in the U.S. heartland without raising suspicions from neighbors, classmates, teachers or others. But it also showed how quickly U.S. law enforcement can move when tipped that a terrorist plot may be unfolding.
The White House said President Barack Obama was notified about the plot prior to Aldawsari’s arrest on Wednesday. “This arrest once again underscores the necessity of remaining vigilant against terrorism here and abroad,” White House spokesman Nick Shapiro said in a statement.
Bush spokesman David Sherzer said: “We’ve seen the reports. I would just refer you for comment to law enforcement.”
In e-mails Aldawsari apparently sent himself, he listed 12 reservoir dams in Colorado and California. He also wrote an e-mail that mentioned “Tyrant’s House” with the address of President Bush’s home. The FBI’s affidavit said he considered using infant dolls to hide explosives and was possibly targeting a nightclub with a backpack filled with explosives.
Aldawsari was using several e-mail accounts. One e-mail message traced to him described instructions to convert a cell phone into a remote detonator. Another listed the names and home addresses of three American citizens who had previously served in the U.S. military and had been stationed at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.
The FBI said the North Carolina company reported the attempts to purchase just over one-tenth of one gallon of phenol, a chemical that can be used to make the explosive trinitrophenol, also known as TNP, or picric acid. Aldawsari falsely told the supplier he was associated with a university and wanted the phenol for “off-campus, personal research,” according to court records. But frustrated by questions, Aldawsari canceled his order and later e-mailed himself instructions for producing phenol.
Prosecutors said that earlier, in December 2010, he successfully purchased 30 liters of concentrated nitric acid for about $450 from QualiChem Technologies in Georgia, and three gallons of concentrated sulfuric acid that are combined to make TNP. The FBI later found the chemicals in Aldawsari’s apartment as well as beakers, flasks, wiring, a Hazmat suit and clocks.
Prosecutors said Aldawsari created a blog to publish extremist messages expressing his dismay over conditions for Muslims.
“You who created mankind . grant me martyrdom for your sake and make jihad easy for me only in your path,” he wrote, according to court records.
Neighbors in Lubbock said they had never seen Aldawsari, but noticed people in the hallway the day of the arrest.
“That’s so scary,” said Sally Dierschke, a 21-year-old senior at Texas Tech. “That’s my neighbor … Of course, I’m scared.”