Ohio man was planning terrorist attack on US Capitol
(WCPO.COM) GREEN TOWNSHIP, Ohio – From Oak Hills High School student to terrorist.
That’s how federal agents described a 20-year-old Green Township man’s dramatic transformation after they said they stopped him Wednesday from setting off explosives in the U.S. Capitol.
Agents from the FBI’s Cincinnati-Dayton Joint Terrorism Task Force arrested Christopher Cornell shortly after 10 am. at the Point Blank Range & Gunship in the 7200 block of Harrison Ave. in Cole rain Township.
They said Cornell purchased two AR-15 style semi-automatic rifles and about 600 rounds of ammunition at the shop before officers arrested him.
The FBI said he intended to build, plant and detonate pipe bombs at and near the U.S. Capitol. Agents said he also planned to use his recently-purchased firearms to kill any employees or officials trying to escape.
John Cornell Sr., Cornell’s father, said his son converted to Islam only recently. He said his son didn’t discuss his new religion often, and was just a normal kid “who loved video games and was best friends with the family cat.”
Cornell Sr. said he noticed his son praying about two months ago.
“He might be 20, but he was more like a 16-year-old kid who never left the house,” Cornell Sr. said.
He said his son was lost and vulnerable while attending high school between 2008 and 2012. He said Cornell often showed sympathy for Muslims being killed in the Middle East.
“He said, ‘Dad, you just have to let people believe in what they believe. I have my beliefs, and you just have to let people believe what they believe in,’” Cornell Sr. said.
John Dean, the manager of the gun shop where Cornell was arrested, told WCPO that FBI agents entered his store Wednesday 10 minutes before Cornell arrived.
“They said that someone would be coming by to purchase two guns and they wanted us to go ahead and handle the sale for them,” Dean said. “As soon as the purchase was over and he left the store, several agents came out and tackled him in the parking lot and took him down.”
Cornell used the alias Ra heel Mahrus Ubaydah on Twitter beginning last summer and claimed to be an active member of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), federal agents said.
Documents state he often tweeted statements, videos and other content indicating his support for ISIS, violent jihad and violent attacks committed by others in North America and elsewhere. A jihad is defined as a war or struggle against unbelievers.
Dean said Cornell was shy when he entered the gun shop, and didn’t seem unusual. He said he didn’t know exactly what Cornell was involved with until a few hours after agents arrested him.
“There was nothing really out of the ordinary about him at all – certainly nothing that would indicate he was involved in something of this magnitude,” he said. “You wouldn’t think Cincinnati, Ohio and jihadist in the same sentence. I’m just as surprised as everybody else.”
A confidential government source made contact with Cornell on Twitter in August and began communicating through an instant messaging program separate from Twitter, FBI Special Agent T.A. Staderman said.
Cornell told the source in a message on Aug. 29 that he was in contact with ISIS members overseas and was ready to start planning an attack.
“He did not think he would receive specific authorization to conduct a terrorist attack in the United States, but stated that he wanted to go forward with violent jihad and opined that this would be their way of supporting (terrorists),” Staderman said.
Cornell messaged the government source the following statements throughout their communication, according to investigators:
“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.”
“I believe we should meet up and make our own group in alliance with the Islamic State here and plan operations ourselves.”
Awlaki was killed in a U.S. drone strike in 2011, but his online messages calling for attacks in North America are still being spread.
U.S. officials considered Awlaki an operational leader within al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the Yemen-based terror group tied to the deadly assault on the satirical magazine in Paris last week.
The FBI informant met with Cornell in Cincinnati on Oct. 17 and 18 to discuss plans for the attack, agents said.
Cornell told the source he needed weapons and wanted to “move” on an attack in December, according to court documents.
He also showed the source “jihadist videos and information about constructing bombs,” Staderman said.
FBI officials said Cornell told the informant their first meeting was just to get acquainted, and their second meeting would involve the discussion of their “jihadist plans.”
When the two met again on Nov. 10 and 11, federal officials said Cornell called members of Congress “enemies” and revealed his plan to attack the U.S. Capitol.
Staderman said Cornell showed the informant details he had researched on government buildings, pipe bombs and the cost to obtain firearms. He also identified a gun store nearby that would sell a Smith & Wesson semi-automatic rifle.
Cornell told the undercover source that he saved money to fund the attack, documents state.
Cornell Sr. said he thinks FBI agents followed his son around and “set him up.”
“I believe he was really vulnerable,” he said. “I believe he was coerced in a lot of ways.”
Cornell left his father a note Tuesday night that stated he left to stay with a friend. Cornell Sr. said he believes his son’s “friend” was the FBI informant.
“I think that was the FBI that he had been corresponding with all the time,” Cornell Sr. said. “I think they could have arrested him then. If he was making plots or whatever, I think they should have arrested him then. I’m surprised they didn’t kill him.”
Acting FBI Special Agent in Charge John A. Barrios said the public was not in danger during the investigation into Cornell’s plans.
The 20-year-old was charged with attempting to kill officers and employees of the United States and possession of a firearm in furtherance of a crime of violence.
Cornell is currently in the Butler County Jail on no bond. WCPO was unable to reach his public defender, Karen Savir, for comment.
This is the second death plot involving Congress originating from a person in Cincinnati to emerge in 24 hours. Bartender Michael Robert Hoyt, 44, was indicted Jan. 7 on charges of threatening to murder House Speaker John Boehner in a plot police said included poisoning his drink at a country club.