5 Years Later, Aldawsari Case a Reminder That Terrorism Can Hit Texas Panhandle

Khalid Ali-M Aldawsari spends his days at a medium- security penitentiary in Illinois, where he is serving a life sentence handed down in Amarillo.

Nearly a decade ago, Aldawsari was a college student who came to Lubbock on a school visa. But his actions while attending Texas Tech University and South Plains College made national headlines and reminded the Texas Panhandle that terrorism can hit close to home.

Last week marked the fifth anniversary of an Amarillo jury finding Aldawsari, a citizen of Saudi Arabia, guilty of attempting to use a weapon of mass destruction.

Eloquently said by former U.S. Congressman Randy Neugebauer, R-Lubbock, Aldawsari’s arrest in late February 2011 reminded residents in the Texas Panhandle that fear of terrorism isn’t just for those in larger cities.

“This should be a lesson to us that we must remain diligent in our fight against terrorism,” Neugebauer said the day after Aldawsari’s arrest. “Additionally, we must remain alert and aware everywhere, including Lubbock, Texas, because terrorism isn’t just a New York City or Washington, D.C., threat.”

Harry Hueston, a criminal justice professor at West Texas A&M University that worked with one of the lead investigators on the case, said the case raised situational awareness in the area but terrorism is still seen as something that doesn’t happen in rural Texas.

That notion, he said, is simply not true.

“If it occurs in Paris, France, today it can occur in Amarillo, Texas, tomorrow,” he told the Amarillo Globe-News.

Historical context

Since 9/11, hundreds of American citizens and residents have been charged with jihadist terrorism or related crimes.

An in-depth analysis report by the International Security Program looked at individuals accused of crimes related to jihadist terrorism since 9/11 who are either American citizens or who engaged in jihadist activity within the United States, as well as those who died before being charged, and posed the questions — Who are the terrorists? Why do they engage in terrorism? What is the threat to the U.S. today?

The report detailed hundreds of cases — 409 to be exact — and said most of those accused were as “American as apple pie.”

“Far from being foreign infiltrators, the large majority (84 percent) of jihadist terrorists in the United States have been American citizens or legal residents,” the report stated. “Moreover, while a range of citizenship statuses are represented, every jihadist who conducted a lethal attack inside the United States since 9/11 was a citizen or legal resident.”

The report found that, since 9/11, jihadists have killed 95 people inside the U.S. The 2016 attack at Pulse, a nightclub in Orlando, Fla., was the deadliest terrorist attack since Sept. 11, 2001, and the deadliest mass shooting in American history with 49 killed by Omar Mateen.

Aldawsari was one 25 terrorists the report noted from its 2011 cases, with only the date and the details of his terror plot differentiating him from the others.

Descent into terrorism

Aldawsari, now 27, came to the U.S. legally in 2008 to study chemical engineering at Texas Tech.

Prior to coming to the Texas Panhandle, he was a young Saudi immigrant looking to improve his language in Nashville, Tenn. He studied informally at Vanderbilt University — spokeswoman Beth Fortune said Aldawsari participated in a program at the school’s English language center from the fall of 2008 to the summer of 2009 but was not a registered Vanderbilt student — and expressed career aspirations of one day working for Google.

He stressed over his driving test. He fell in love, even if it was unrequited.

“I am falling in love of her …” he wrote in his journal. “She is gorgeous that I can’t forget her just right away … I am asking Allah the great to covert (sic) her to Islam and marry me.”

At some point, federal prosecutors said that his attention shifted from girls to the explosive chemicals he planned to use to terrorize the United States.

Aldawsari started a blog while in Nashville, court records show, and his posts over a three-year period went from his hopes and dreams to a growing hatred for America, expressed in Arabic.

He went from a young man who spoke admiringly of American culture and delighted in popular culture to a withdrawn man living in Lubbock who was mostly unknown by neighbors.

At the time of his arrest, Aldawsari was still living in Lubbock but had transferred from Texas Tech and was attending South Plains College in Levelland. A former classmate and fellow Saudi described Aldawsari as a loner who did not interact with other Islamic students or Saudis, the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal reported.

“He was completely anonymous. The guy was, like, so to himself,” one student said. “He doesn’t like to interact with people.”

Aldawsari’s neighbors across the hall remembered him, but only from the mug shot flashed by news organizations as the news broke.

“I’d just seen him in passing, but nothing ever spectacular or weird about him,” the neighbor reported at the time.

When Aldawsari was arrested in Lubbock in 2011, prosecutors say he had collected bomb- making material in his apartment and researched possible targets, including the Dallas home of former President George W. Bush.

A handwritten journal found in his apartment included notes that he believed it was time for “jihad,” a Muslim term for holy war.

Hueston said when investigators began looking at Aldawsari, the case provided an illustration of an iceberg.

“And the reason I use an iceberg is (because) you go into this investigation with just the top showing, but as you went through and evidence was collected … the amount of evidence that began to be captured via the internet and other investigation tools built tremendously.”

The iceberg revealed

Investigators said Aldawsari’s goal was to carry out jihad, though his attorneys claimed he was a harmless failure who never came close to attacking anyone.

FBI bomb experts said the amounts of chemicals in the case would have yielded almost 15 pounds of explosives — about the same amount used per bomb in the 2005 London subway attacks.

During his trial, Aldawsari’s attorneys acknowledged that their client had intent, but they argued he never took the “substantial step” needed to convict him.

Aldawsari wrote in his journal that he had been planning a terror attack in the U.S. for years, even before he came to the country on a scholarship, and that it was “time for jihad,” according to court documents. He bemoaned the plight of Muslims and said he was influenced by Osama bin Laden’s speeches.

Court records show a major Saudi Arabian chemical company largely owned by the country’s ruling royal family helped pay Aldawsari’s tuition, living and medical expenses.

Authorities said Aldawsari purchased bottles of sulfuric and nitric acids — chemicals that can be combined with phenol to create the explosive Picric acid, or trinitrophenol (TNP).

Investigators say they were tipped off to his online purchases by chemical company Carolina Biological Supply and shipping company Con-way Freight on Feb. 1, 2011. The chemical company reported a $435 suspicious purchase to the FBI, while the shipping company notified Lubbock police and the FBI because it appeared the order wasn’t intended for commercial use.

Court records show Aldawsari had successfully ordered 30 liters of nitric acid and three gallons of concentrated sulfuric acid in December 2010.

At his trial, prosecutors played recordings of a frustrated Aldawsari complaining to the supply company when his order of phenol was held up. He had allegedly told the company he wanted the phenol for research to develop a cleaning solution.

‘You would have done it’

Judge Donald Walter, who declined to speak with the Globe-News for this article, handed down the life sentence in Amarillo in November 2013 — a move about which he was clearly conflicted.

The judge said that he wrestled with the fact that Aldawsari had no previous history of this type of behavior. He directly asked Aldawsari what happened to make him change.

Aldawsari addressed the judge quietly at his sentencing, saying that he was happy when he was in Nashville and that life changed when he came to Texas Tech.

“I did not have a friend. I was alone and was isolated for a long time,” Aldawsari said.

He apologized many times, but told the judge “at the end, none of the actions have caused harm to the United States.”

Walter said there were two “bookends” of the case that he had to consider. The first was that the defendant was a 20-year-old who had slipped away from reality into an obsession with jihad. The other factor was that Walter had no doubt that Aldawsari would have carried through with a terroristic act if given the opportunity.

The judge spoke slowly as he handed down Aldawsari’s sentence, saying “The bottom line is, but by the grace of God there would be dead Americans.

“You would have done it.”

Assistant U.S. Attorney Jeffrey Haag, who also declined to comment, argued before the sentencing that a life sentence was necessary to prevent Aldawsari from carrying out a future attack.

After the sentencing, lead defense attorney Dan Cogdell said, “I think the judge really struggled with giving Khalid less than a life sentence, but he believed that that sentence was appropriate.

“I think he wanted Khalid to say something that Khalid was incapable of saying. There is a disconnect with Khalid in terms of his ability to articulate and his ability to communicate and I’m sorry if that contributed to his sentence.”

Aldawsari appealed his conviction and sentencing following the hearing.

Aldawsari’s appellate attorneys had argued that evidence obtained in searches of Aldawsari’s Lubbock apartment was improperly obtained. They asked the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals to order a new trial or at least a review of his life sentence for attempting to use a weapon of mass destruction.

The attorneys said evidence found with Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act search warrants should have been kept out of the trial because investigators never made a case that Aldawsari was a “foreign agent” or engaged in “international terrorism,” according to Globe-News archives.

The appeal was denied by the U.S. Court of Appeals in 2014.

‘Never going away’

Reflecting on the case, Hueston said he still doesn’t see anything wrong with the sentencing.

“If you plan to commit a terrorist act that is going to result in the death of one person or 400 or 4,000 people that is an act of terrorism and that is a serious breach of our law,” he said. “If they catch you and convict you, that (the sentence) is a consequence of those actions.”

Hueston, who teaches a class on terrorism at WT, said reading about Aldawsari — whether at the time of his arrest or today — “is a good reminder for our citizens who are reading your article to understand what this guy planned is still going on in our country.”

Being educated on the subject and being vigilant, he said, is something people both in the Texas Panhandle and across the country need to do.

“Terrorism,” he said, “is never going away.”

This timeline, compiled from the affidavit in support of the criminal complaint and arrest warrant filed by the FBI, chronicles Khalid Ali-M Aldawsari’s time in the U.S.

September 2008: Aldawsari enters the U.S. on F-1 student visa.

October 2008 to August 2009: Completes English as a Second Language program.

August 2009 to January 2011: Enrolled at Texas Tech University, studying chemical engineering.

March 11, 2010: Blogs about Muslim passivity and pacifism. Vows to take a different path through jihad and martyrdom.

April 8: Blogs: “If this is the West’s version of freedom, and their peace policy, we have our own policies in freedom and it is war until … the infidels leave defeated.”

July 22: Writes in his journal his desire to create an Islamic group, under the banner of al-Qaida, called Jamaat Jund al-Islam.

Sept. 22: E-mails himself a list of “targets” with names and addresses of three U.S. citizens who had previously served in the U.S. military and had served at Abu Ghraib prison.

Sept. 24: Writes in his journal he is near reaching his goal of jihad and near getting weapons to use against the “infidels and their helpers.”

Oct. 19: E-mails to himself “how to make explosives.” E-mail lists required materials for nitro urea, how to prepare it and the advantages of using it.

Oct. 25: E-mails himself another list of “targets,” including 12 reservoirs or dams located in Colorado and California. In another e-mail, lists hydroelectric dams and nuclear power plants as targets. A subsequent e-mail contains an Internet link showing real-time traffic cameras in New York.

Dec. 6: Places order for 3 gallons of concentrated sulfuric acid.

Dec. 8: E-mails himself instructions on how to turn a cell phone into a remote detonator.

Dec. 11: Concentrated sulfuric acid delivery confirmed.

Dec. 12: Receives e-mail regarding shipment of soldering iron kit.

Dec. 13: Places order for 30 liters of concentrated nitric acid to be shipped to his apartment. Is later informed the chemical cannot be shipped to residence. Aldawsari has it shipped to FedEx office near his apartment.

Dec. 30: Receives e-mail from Amazon.com thanking him for purchasing miniature Christmas lights, which an FBI expert said can be used to wire improvised explosive devices.

Jan. 3 2011: Receives e-mail from Amazon.com thanking him for purchase of 3.2-million-volt stun gun with built-in flashlight.

Jan. 4: Receives e-mail from Amazon.com thanking him for purchases of a battery tester, alarm clock and screwdriver set.

Jan. 12: E-mails himself in Arabic a lesson on booby-trapping a vehicle with household items. Page says “one operation in the land of infidels is equal to ten operations against occupying forces in the land of the Muslims.”

Jan. 17: Receives e-mail from Amazon.com regarding shipment of two Pyrex 1-liter Erlenmeyer flasks and a glass stir rod.

Jan. 18: Receives e-mails from Amazon.com regarding shipment of a 2,000-milliliter Pyrex flask and another e-mail regarding the purchase of a professional chemistry lab equipment set.

Jan. 21: Receives e-mail from eBay confirming bid on a gas mask. Bid was not successful.

Jan. 22: Receives e-mail from eBay member confirming shipment of hazmat suit.

Feb. 1: Carolina Biological Supply reports to FBI attempted purchase by Aldawsari of chemical used to make explosives.

Feb. 3: Aldawsari tells Carolina Biological Supply official he is associated with Texas Tech University and wanted the chemical, (10 500-milliliter bottles of 80 percent concentration phenol), for “off-campus, personal research.”

Feb. 6: E-mails himself the Dallas address for former President George W. Bush under the subject line “Tyrant’s House.”

Feb. 8: Undercover FBI agent, posing as a Carolina Biological Supply employee, questions Aldawsari about why he wanted to buy phenol. Aldawsari tells agent he was researching cleaners that contained phenol for the purpose of reducing their odor so he could get into a bigger university.

Feb. 11: Aldawsari cancels phenol order, saying he had contacted other companies who would sell the chemical to him. Aldawsari e-mails himself recipe for picric acid, an explosive chemical made from phenol and nitric and sulfuric acids.

Feb. 14 and Feb. 17: FBI agents search Aldawsari’s Lubbock apartment. Agents find concentrated sulfuric acid, concentrated nitric acid, lab equipment, beakers, flasks, wiring, Christmas lights, hazmat suit, clocks – including one that was partially dismantled with hand removed. Agents also found notebook, handwritten in Arabic.

Feb. 19: Uses the Internet to search the key words “party in dallas;” “can you take a backpack to nightclub;” “backpack;” “dallas night clubs.” (An FBI agent stated in the affidavit the Internet search could indicate Aldawsari’s consideration of targeting a nightclub with an explosive concealed in a backpack.)

Feb. 24: Arrested on a federal charge of attempted use of a weapon of mass destruction in connection with his alleged purchase of chemicals and equipment necessary to make an improvised explosive device (IED) and his research of potential U.S. targets.

April 4, 2012: District Judge Sam R. Cummings recuses himself without explanation. The case is assigned to visiting District Judge Donald E. Walter.

April 13: Walter orders the trial to be held in Amarillo.

June 21: The trial begins.

June 26: Found guilty in Amarillo of attempted use of a weapon of mass destruction.

Nov. 13, 2012: Sentenced in Amarillo to life in prison at BOP Springfield.

Nov. 20: Notice of appeal filed.

Jan. 2014: A federal court of appeals upheld Aldawsari’s conviction and sentence.

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