FBI thwarts suspected bomb plot in Texas

Bombing suspect Khalid Ali-M Aldawsari. CBS/DOJ

Updated 6:22 p.m. EST

WASHINGTON - A young college student from Saudi Arabia studying chemical engineering in the state of 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.

"It is war ... until the infidels leave defeated," the student wrote in online postings.

One of the chemical companies, Carolina Biological Supply, reported suspicious purchases by Khalid Ali 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 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.

CBS News justice and homeland security correspondent Bob Orr reports that Aldawsari had had used his real name and contact numbers in trying to make the purchase. So, the FBI had a quick road map to the suspect. Searches of Aldawsari's apartment turned up chemicals, wiring, a hazmat suit, and a journal detailing Aldawsari's desire to commit Jihad.

CBS News' Bob Orr on how the Aldawsari bust went down

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.

South Plains College confirmed to CBS station KTVT in Dallas that he was listed as a transfer student who had been enrolled for six weeks. A school official said that Aldawsari was studying business and had registered for the spring semester in January. Prior to South Plains College, Aldawsari had been a student at Texas Tech University since August 2009.

A Saudi-based 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.

The terrorism case against Aldawsari was significant because it demonstrated 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 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 Thursday.

Bush spokesman David Sherzer said: "We've seen the reports. I would just refer you for comment to law enforcement."

A U.S. official told CBS News that the arrest was not a sting and that the suspect was one chemical away from finishing a bomb. Officials believe the suspect acted alone and is not affiliated with any foreign or domestic terrorist groups.

In addition to Bush's Dallas home, authorities believe that former U.S. soldiers, nuclear power plants and reservoir dams in Colo. and Calif. were also potential targets. He also wrote an e-mail that mentioned "Tyrant's House" with the address of 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. A second 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. A different e-mail contained an Internet link for real-time traffic cameras in New York City.

Aldawsari also described a plan in his journal that involved leaving car bombs in different places during rush hour in New York City and remotely detonating them.

The FBI said the North Carolina company reported the attempts to purchase 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 in December 2010, he successfully purchased concentrated nitric and sulfuric acids that are combined to make TNP.

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.

According to CBS affiliate WFMY in Greensboro, N.C., one of the companies mentioned in the affidavit, Carolina Biological Supply in Burlington, N.C., said 10 500ml bottles of 80 percent concentrated phenol was purchased on their website by Aldawsari on January 30. The order shipped the next day to Texas.

Federal authorities say Aldawsari's diary indicated the young man had been plotting an attack for years and obtained a scholarship so he could come directly to the United State to carry out jihad. 

According to KTVT, a journal believed to belong to Aldawsari included an extremist entry that said, "After mastering the English language and learning how to build explosives to target the infidel Americans, it is time for jihad."

In his writings he did say 9/11 had changed him and he drew inspiration from Osama bin Laden, reports Orr.

Prosecutors said Aldawsari, who hoped to create an Islamic group under the al-Qaida banner, 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.

Aldawsari was living one block from Texas Tech University in Lubbock. Neighbors said they had never seen him, but noticed people in the hallway the day of the arrest.

Comments