LUBBOCK, Texas >> A college student from Saudi Arabia accused of buying chemicals online as part of a plan to blow up key U.S. targets, including the home of former President George W. Bush, appeared in federal court in Texas today.
Khalid Ali-M Aldawsari was arrested Wednesday and charged with attempted use of a weapon of mass destruction.
Rod Hobson, his attorney, declined to comment as he left the courtroom in Lubbock. In a statement, he said the “eyes of the world are on this case” and how Aldawsari is treated.
“This is not ‘Alice in Wonderland,’ where the Queen said ‘First the punishment then the trial,”‘ Hobson’s statement reads. “This is America, where everyone is entitled to the presumption of innocence, due process, effective representation of counsel and a fair trial.”
Hobson said his client will plead not guilty.
Judge Nancy Koenig asked the 20-year-old — handcuffed and with his feet shackled — if he understood the charges against him, and ordered him to remain in custody until a March 11 detention hearing.
Four armed U.S. Marshal’s officers flanked Aldawsari as he addressed the judge.
Koenig said Aldawsari faces a maximum penalty of life in prison if convicted.
Moved by 9/11 and speeches by Osama bin Laden, Aldawsari had secretly planned for years to launch a terrorist attack in the U.S., prosecutors allege.
In his journal, the student who studied chemical engineering in Texas described a plan to travel to New York City, place bombs in several rental cars for remote detonation and leave the vehicles in different places during rush hour, according to court documents released Thursday.
“After mastering the English language, learning how to build explosives and continuous planning to target the infidel Americans, it is time for jihad,” or holy war, Aldawsari wrote in the journal, according to the documents filed by prosecutors.
The Justice Department said Thursday that Aldawsari bought explosive materials online and planned to hide them inside dolls and baby carriages to blow up dams, nuclear plants and Bush’s Dallas home.
“As we lay out in this affidavit, there were a range of targets being contemplated,” Robert Casey, the FBI special agent in charge of the case, said. “I can’t speak to his state of mind or the priority in his mind of any of the range of targets we think we discovered.”
Aldawsari, who was legally in the U.S. on a student visa, studied chemical engineering at Texas Tech University until January when he transferred to a nearby college to study business.
The White House said President Barack Obama was notified about the alleged plot before Aldawsari’s arrest.
Telephone numbers 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 near the Texas Tech campus.
The case outlined in court documents is significant because it suggests radicalized foreigners can live quietly in the U.S. 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.
“We think we have neutralized any other threats or imminent harm surrounding the actions that he’s charged with, but the investigation is continuing,” Casey said.
Aldawsari wrote that he was planning an attack even before coming to the U.S. on a scholarship, the court documents say. He said he was influenced by bin Laden’s speeches and he bemoaned the plight of Muslims.
Federal authorities said they learned of the plot after a chemical company, Carolina Biological Supply of Burlington, N.C., reported $435 in suspicious order by Aldawsari to the FBI on Feb. 1.
Separately, Con-way Freight, the shipping company, notified Lubbock police and the FBI the same day with similar suspicions because it appeared the order wasn’t intended for commercial use. Within weeks, federal agents had traced Aldawsari’s 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.
A Saudi industrial company, which was not identified in court documents, was paying Aldawsari’s tuition and living expenses in the U.S.
Casey declined to go into why the arrest occurred when it did.
“We just felt it was the right time,” he said.