FBI Gets Its Lone Wolf, Just in Time for PATRIOT Debate

This morning, the FBI arrested 20-year old Saudi citizen Khalid Ali-M Aldawsari on one charge of attempted use of a weapon of mass destruction. According to the FBI, Aldawsari had allegedly purchased all the ingredients to make an IED using the explosive trinitrophenol, which also known as T.N.P., or picric acid. In addition, he had researched targets, including George W Bush’s home in Dallas, not far from his own location in Lubbock, TX.

If the facts are as alleged, Aldawsari sounds like a potentially much more dangerous person than the number of aspirational terrorists the FBI has entrapped of late. So I am grateful that Con-Way freight officials alerted the Lubbock Police Department when Aldawsari attempted to have them receive his shipment of phenol, an ingredient in picric acid.

But I have two concerns. The first, as Robert Chesney lays out, this case seems to strain the meaning of “attempt” in the charge.

This could be an important case from a legal perspective, in the sense that it may turn on the anticipatory scope of attempt liability – an issue that just doesn’t matter when it is possible to charge conspiracy, but which becomes central in the case of a lone wolf.

Absent a conspiracy, the prosecutors are instead relying on attempt as the inchoate charge (under 18 USC 2332a, the WMD statute; recall that “WMD” is defined very loosely to encompass more or less all bombs). The interesting question is whether the facts alleged below suffice to trigger “attempt” liability.  It does not sound as if he had yet assembled a bomb, which would have made for a much easier case.  On the other hand, the many substantial steps that he had actually taken, if one credits the allegations below, leave no room for doubt as to what was going on.  In any event, we can expect some interesting and important debate about the anticipatory scope of the attempt concept. If this proves problematic, and if this turns out to be a truly solo operation, it will serve to highlight a critical point about inchoate criminal law: criminal liability attaches far earlier in the planning process for groups than for individuals.

Unlike the case of Mohamed Osman Mohamud, the FBI doesn’t have evidence of the suspect literally trying to trigger a bomb. Unlike Najibullah Zazi, they FBI doesn’t have evidence of him trying to make the explosive he intended to use. They have, according to the affidavit, just evidence that he had purchased all the things he’d need to make an IED, and evidence that he had researched potential targets. Is that going to be enough to constitute an attempt?

But what I find more interesting is a point Chesney also alludes to.

Note too that this was not a “sting” case that might raise objections on entrapment grounds, at least according to these allegations.  It is very much the real deal lone wolf scenario, or so it seems, and we were deeply fortunate that it was discovered in advance.

Unlike Zazi and Mohamud, who had contacts with people abroad, Aldawsari is portrayed to be someone who plotted this completely on his own using research available on the Internet. Also unlike Zazi and Mohamud, Aldawsari is not a US person; he’s an F-1 student visa holder, meaning he qualifies for the Lone Wolf provision in the PATRIOT Act. And it appears likely that the government used the Lone Wolf provision to collect evidence in this case.

It appears Aldawsari first came to the government’s attention when Con-Way Freight contacted the Lubbock Police sometime on  January 30 or February 1, 2011 to report Aldawsari’s attempt to get them to receive the phenol he had ordered. It appears that the FBI in Greensboro, NC (either in response to the Con-Way alert or independently, the affidavit doesn’t make clear) learned that the company from which Aldawsari ordered the phenol had had a suspicious attempted purchase of phenol. From there, the FBI agent in this case, Michael Orndoff, first had the chemical supply company call (on February 3) and then posed as an employee of that company to call (February 8) Aldawsari to find out more about why he intended to buy the phenol. The FBI conducted physical searches of Aldawsari’s apartment on February 14 and February 17.

But the rest of the evidence against Aldawsari appears to come from what the affidavit repeatedly describes as “legally authorized electronic surveillance.” The affidavit describes emails on three different accounts going back to October 2010 (though I assume these would have been accessible in archived storage).

Now, we don’t know that the FBI used the Lone Wolf provision to get those emails. But DOJ has a habit of using expiring provisions just in time to demand their reauthorization. I suppose we’ll learn whether they did when the debate over the PATRIOT Act heats up again in the coming weeks.

If Aldawsari is as he is alleged, the detective work here was responsive and thorough; it may have prevented a real attack. But I can’t help but wonder whether the FBI triggered this “attempted use of a WMD” early so as to have its Lone Wolf in time for Congressional debates.

  1. PeasantParty says:

    “But the rest of the evidence against Aldawsari appears to come from what the affidavit repeatedly describes as “legally authorized electronic surveillance.” The affidavit describes emails on three different accounts going back to October 2010 (though I assume these would have been accessible in archived storage).”

    This morning when this came on the news I started wondering if they had known all this back last year, especially the Greensboro, NC buy why did they not do something before now. Then it dawned on me that the Saudi King came to the US for back surgery and then spent a short recovery in either Moroco, or Monoco, just now returning home to Saudi Arabia this week.

    Like you I say good job if all this falls into place as they have purported. But, I am so wary of any FBI, CIA capture now that it is hard to believe anything. The timing of the King returning home must have something to do with this “revelation”.

  2. jerryy says:

    But I can’t help but wonder whether the FBI triggered this “attempted use of a WMD” early…

    Have you considered signing up to participate in some kind of Victim Notification Program? The ones that let you know bad folks that really did bad things are getting out of jail.

    Since there does seem to be a pattern of arrests being made and publicized conveniently to influence debate (must have taken a page from the use pysops on US Senators and Heads of State gang) it would be nice to know if those bad folks really are still in jail or enjoying steady payments for an acting job well done. :^)

  3. earlofhuntingdon says:

    Funny how the highly emotive phrase “WMD” has been legislatively expanded to include virtually any explosive device. No doubt, the FBI will make the most noise about cases that are easiest to win. But the pathway is troubling.

    Is it to rationalize the use of global security state resources and apply them domestically against the most ordinary crimes of ordinary citizens? Is it to rationalize domestic spying, and attempts to circumvent rules of evidence that might limit what can legitimately be used against an accused in court. Is it meant to make convictions much easier by persuading juries to suspend their judgment out of fear, and to rationalize imposing excessive penalties?

    How hard would it be to apply these tools to combat growing labor unrest, a response to being stripped of civil rights and, at last, anger at the ruthless demands of a wealthy elite for higher profits and immunity from paying for the society they live in?

  4. PJEvans says:

    in Dallas, not far from his own location in Lubbock, TX.

    Most people in the area of Lubbock fly to Dallas, because it’s faster and easier than driving. It’s really not close to Dallas. (It’s 350 miles by road, if you take main roads.)

    Also, I’d think a Saudi would be conspicuous in Lubbock. It’s mostly farm country, and Reese AFB was shut down years ago.

    • WilliamOckham says:

      Yeah, I was gonna bring that up. Lubbock to Dallas is roughly the same distance as Boston to Baltimore.

      Or for Marcy, it farther than Detroit to Cheboygan.

      • WilliamOckham says:

        If you had ever been to Lubbock, you would know that it is a long way from anywhere. It’s over 300 miles from Lubbock to Albuquerque or El Paso or Oklahoma City or San Antonio. There’s just nothing around there…

        • mzchief says:

          Lubbock Or Leave It” – Dixie Chicks on Austin City Limits (Jan. 20, 2007)

          From Austin City Limits: Frequently Asked Questions“:

          According to the mythology, Austin City Limits is taped on an Austin hillside above the city. In reality, the show is recorded in a KLRU television studio located on the University of Texas campus. The studio is located on the 6th floor of the U.T. Communications Building B. The famous skyline set, based on a photograph of the city taken from south Austin, debuted in 1982 for Season 7 and has remained the series’ backdrop ever since.

          From Austin City Limits Live:

          Austin City Limits Live at The Moody Theater is a state-of-the-art, 2,700 + person capacity live music venue that will also serve as the new home of the KLRU-TV produced PBS program Austin City Limits, the longest running music series in American television history. The venue will host 60-100 concerts a year, in addition to the nights the Austin City Limits show will tape. Commitment to green building standards qualify us to apply for LEED® certification, the highest standard for sustainable development.

          New address:

          ACL Live at The Moody Theater

          310 W. Willie Nelson Blvd
          Austin, TX 78701

          Venue: (877) 471-4225
          Tickets: (877) 435-9849

          { LOL }

        • emptywheel says:

          I’ve been there.

          Drove there from Austin, in fact.

          I had to go. In college my roommates were from, among other places, Lubbock and Peoria. I lived in a place affectionately called Cowpie (Poway, CA). And since we all made a lot of fun of our towns I had to go see the other ones that were so much more famously awful towns than Cowpie.

        • bmaz says:

          “If I owned Hell and Lubbock Texas I’d rent out Lubbock Texas and live in Hell.” – paraphrased from General William Tecumseh Sherman

          • Gitcheegumee says:

            Sherman never had the privilege of eating chicken fried steak with cream gravy and mashed potatoes at Furr’s cafeteria in Lubbock.

            That is certainly a taste of paradise.

          • emptywheel says:

            FWIW, Hell, MI, is actually a pretty nice place, within easy driving distance of Ann Arbor.

            I may think Lubbock is drivable (cause I’ve done it), but I don’t pretend it’s drivable to anything palatable.

    • mgloraine says:

      “Also, I’d think a Saudi would be conspicuous in Lubbock. It’s mostly farm country, and Reese AFB was shut down years ago.”

      If the locals didn’t engage him in conversation, they would probably figure he was Latino. But the use of an Arabic name may have set off the warning buzzers at Con-Way. He probably should have used a pseudonym like “Merle Austin” or something.

  5. ApacheTrout says:

    I really hate that our distrust of criminal allegations related to terrorism is so warranted. It’s downright criminal in itself to use the Justice Department to help scare our representatives into supporting the PA extension. Frack.

  6. mzchief says:

    Uh, this is love-it-or-leave-it Lubbock:

    First United Methodist’s production of “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang”
    Feb. 18 – 19
    Lubbock Memorial Civic Center Theatre
    1501 Mac Davis Lane
    Friday: 7:30pm • Saturday: 2pm and 7:30pm

    (from “Visit Lubbock“)

    Great place for someone who actually know how to ranch (population 270,550 versus a population of 49,332 for Corvallis, Oregon). Friends kept their angora goats and some drought-resistant cattle out there. They’d only visit the place once a year. The boutique business/tax shelter of wine grape growing started in the 1980s when a few lawyers in Austin needed to figure out what to do with their excess cash (same thing happened in Loudoun County, Virginia by the 1990s). They do have Texas Tech.

    Large Hail – West of Lubbock, Texas – May 31, 2005

    • PJEvans says:

      The northernmost vineyard in Texas is about 50 miles north of Lubbock; my parents lived next to it. Farmland, ranching not so much. At least while they can get water out of the aquifer for a reasonable price.

      It’s a nice area, if you like wind.

  7. john in sacramento says:


    My Dad’s uncle Louis died there (my great uncle right?). He was in one of those airplane barnstorming shows in the 30’s, back when my Dad was a little kid.

    The show went there because the locals wanted to publicize that Lubbock was the perfect area for an airfield. Anyway, when the show was scheduled just happened to be during a really windy day or weekend. And Louis, was, what’s now known as a skydiver, jumped out of the plane, but because the gusty wind caught his parachute, he got dragged along the ground and hit his head on a rock and went into a coma

    We still have a picture of my Dad when he was about 5, his Dad, and Louis posing beside the plane

  8. Ironcomments says:

    What?! wait he can’t be a terrorist, the media hasn’t had a chance yet to psycho-analyze the dude from every angle possible and come up with other reasons for his actions. Oh yea that is only for the fairer skinned./s

    • emptywheel says:

      The targeting info comes from more “legally authorized electronic surveillance.” Three of these, last September and October, had email titles “Targets.”

      The Bush one is particularly interesting, because it’s the only one cited written since October (it was written on February 6). The title was “Tyrant’s House” and had Bush’s Dallas address.

  9. eCAHNomics says:

    Thought crime?

    R.C.s familiar with that as confession (at least in the 60s, last time I went) starts with “Bless me father, for I have sinned in thought, word & deed.”

  10. gigi3 says:

    There is a second angle to this story. Marcy wrote Aldawsari plotted this on his own “using research available on the Internet.” This provides more ammunition for placing restrictions on use of the Internet.

  11. Triad1 says:

    The only WMD is a nuclear bomb.

    Chemical, biological, high explosives & dirty nuclear bombs are capable of killing dozens of people not masses.

    WMD got it’s start in the fall of 1990. Pappy Bush was searching for a reason to invade Kuwait and get Saddam out (Recall that “it’s about jobs” fell flat). The NY Times did an October survey which found there was no support for spilling American blood in Kuwait to get Saddam out. The reason scoring highest in this poll was if Saddam had WMD and then only 52% of Americans would support spilling American blood to reinstall Kuwati autocracy. WMD has been the chicken-hawk excuse of choice for war ever since.

      • eCAHNomics says:

        As opposed to millions (or hundreds of thousands anyhow) with nukes.

        Depends on what your definition of ‘mass’ is.

        Turns out, except for U.S. warz, WMDs in the hands of terrorists have killed mebbe about 100,000 worldwide since 1968. (Last I heard the stats was about a decade ago, when it was 20,000 since 1968, so tried to be generous in allowing for last decade.)

        • PierceNichols says:

          That’s only if you include bombs in your definition of WMDs… and even so, that sounds extraordinarily high unless you’re counting some hot civil wars in the count.

          • eCAHNomics says:

            I was just guessing what might have happened in the last decade and as I said trying to be generous so I couldn’t be accused of underestimation. Actual figure could well be 1/10th of what I stated.

            Or, as I am fond of saying, dogs caused more deaths in U.S. in 2010 (25) than terrorists, leading to my suggestion that terrorists replace dogs as man’s best friend.

      • PierceNichols says:

        Not in the hands of terrorists, they can’t. The deadliest terrorist attack to date with WMDs was the Tokyo subway attack… which killed a grand total of 13 people despite nearly ideal conditions. That was the result of years of work by the one of the best organized and certainly most technically competent terrorist organization in history. Killing thousands of people with chemical weapons requires huge amounts of chemical warfare agents and the ability to disperse them over a large number of unprotected people who are unable to leave the area.

        The Amerithrax attacks, which are to my knowledge the only terrorist use of biological weapons in recent memory, killed five people over a series of half a dozen separate incidents.

        The fact is the chemical and biological weapons have much worse ROI for a terrorist than good old fashioned explosives. They occasionally get seduced by the scare mongering into using them, but they just don’t work very well.

        • PJEvans says:

          Did I say they already had killed thousands (although, if you include the Nazis, gas has killed thousands if not millions)?
          They’re dangerous enough to be kept in the middle of nowhere, not close to cities.

          Also terrorists aren’t the brightest people around, or they’d realize how easy it is for them to noticed and tracked.

          • eCAHNomics says:

            I read somewhere, awhile ago, so link lost to history, that the U.S. specifically had gas included in WMDs after WWI bc it is so easy and cheap to make and U.S. could not brook any other country having an effective weapon to use against its expensive & ineffective MIC.

            However, poison gas in the hands of a military on a battlefield is far different from a lone terrorist having some.

            As for bio, my scientist friends tell me that, not only are they difficult to engineer & control (mobile bio labs LOLOLOLOL) but their damage could be controlled with a competent CDC (I know, assuming facts not in evidence) by quarantine, which would limit deaths.

            • PierceNichols says:

              That is complete and utter nonsense. The US did not have a military-industrial complex worth mentioning between the wars — it barely had a functional military. The drive to ban chemical weapons after WWI was a result of the popular horror at their effects.

          • PierceNichols says:

            The record on non-state terrorist use of biological and chemical weapons indicates that claims that they could use them to kill thousands are overstated. They are much less deadly in the hands of terrorists than guns, explosives, and the odd airliner.

  12. quanto says:

    Your title of this post seems spot on, for an outfit that can spend months and months surveilling a suspect the FBI seems to have jumped the gun on this one for none other than political purposes. I’m not a chemist but it would seem the FBI could have substituted the phenol with an inert ingredient of the same composition and let him build a dud bomb. Then they could just keep an eye on him and find out his real target.

  13. EternalVigilance says:

    the FBI doesn’t have evidence

    He’s a lone actor, Arab and Muslim…for the FBI and the U.S. Gubmint that’s case closed.

    (Though I never realized until now Bruce Ivins was Muslim….)

  14. Teddy Partridge says:

    If Aldawsari is as he is alleged, the detective work here was responsive and thorough; it may have prevented a real attack. But I can’t help but wonder whether the FBI triggered this “attempted use of a WMD” early so as to have its Lone Wolf in time for Congressional debates.

    Or both.

    But how convenient that “legally authorized wiretapping capabilities” were applicable to all the emails he emailed to himself, over and over again, delineating not only his means and motives, but also target lists. Which makes me lean to ‘re-up needed’ rather than ‘prevented real attack.’

    • PierceNichols says:

      Since I’ve used emails to myself as a form of electronic note-taking, I don’t find that detail particularly unusual.

      What concerns me here is the fact that while he’d acquired chemicals and done some research, but taken no apparent actual steps to make a bomb. I’ve always thought stinks and bangs were kind of cool, so I’ve done plenty of poking around on the internet for stuff about explosives. Further, at one point shortly after 9/11, I had substantial quantities of all of the following in my possession:

      – hydrogen peroxide, 50% and higher concentrations
      – acetone
      – methanol
      – 70%+ nitric acid
      – metal shot

      And the aforementioned head full of knowledge. In addition, the owner of the property where I kept and used these things believed devoutly in black helicopters and was generally a very strange character. I had excellent, well-documented, and mostly permitted reasons to have all of these things; with the exception of the shot (which was for some metal casting experiments) all of these things were part of my work with an amateur liquid rocket research project. Somehow, I doubt that documentation would have done much to dissuade the FBI if I’d happened to fall into their sites and been brown.

      • Teddy Partridge says:

        My point is: wouldn’t someone with evil intent avoid this form of easily surveilled electronic note-taking in America nowadays? Sure, people of goodwill probably use it extensively, but it seems an odd choice for some Lone Wolf™ working alone, selecting targets and documenting motivation — alone.

        In a country where debate about legal and illegal state surveillance for purposes of catching people attempting exactly what he was, this seems unwise.

        • PierceNichols says:

          Habits can be very hard to break. If his email showed a long-standing pattern of taking notes that way, it would make sense. If it did not, I would find that suspicious.

      • john in sacramento says:

        What concerns me here is the fact that while he’d acquired chemicals and done some research, but taken no apparent actual steps to make a bomb. I’ve always thought stinks and bangs were kind of cool, so I’ve done plenty of poking around on the internet for stuff about explosives.

        Yea, that’s what I was looking for earlier in Marcy’s second link (didn’t click on the pdf). And I was going to ask what his major was because maybe he was just doing research for school. From the first link

        According to the affidavit, phenol is a toxic chemical with legitimate uses, but can also be used to make the explosive trinitrophenol, also known as T.N.P., or picric acid.

        Anyone know what else phenol can be used for?

        PS And his writings about jihad? Do they know he was serious? Or was he joking? The internets are notorious for misinterpreting the tone of the writer

        Did they rush in too soon?

        • PierceNichols says:

          It’s widely used in the production of plastics, including phenolics (such as Bakelite), polycarbonates, and in one of the routes to nylon. It is also used in the production of many drugs (incl aspirin) and embalming.

          And a college student talking trash about radical politics? That’s like so rare, man.

          I think it’s very clear the FBI rushed in way too soon.

      • bmaz says:

        You know, now that you list it out like that, there was a time when I had all of that too. Now the shot would only be in the form of different grades of shotgun shells for different hunting seasons, and some of the other things were out at my mom’s house and some were at mine, but I had all of that. Was also long before 9/11, but still it was all for quite non-terroristic purposes.

        • PierceNichols says:

          Explosives precursors are, with few exceptions, common industrial chemicals that are used for a broad variety of different things. It’s not that hard to have a set that can add up to a bomb if you’re doing anything with chemistry beyond the common consumer.

  15. Synoia says:

    It’s is much harder to make bombs than just assembling the chemicals and stirring the pot.

    That approach leads to the “exploding meth lab” result, and is more than likely to involve the bomb maker in their own personal fireball.

    Nitrated organic compounds, the basis for many if not all explosives, are notoriously unstable. That’s why Nobel got so much money for his dynamite – it was much more stable (controllable) than nitro-gylcerine, and delivered a better bang than gun cotton (nitrated cotton).

    Many people tried to make better explosives before Nobel, and their empirical methods resulted in them going to pieces, very quickly.

    There are better methods than nitrating organic compounds, one was conspicuous by its success on Mythbusters, and involved trying to launch a water heater into orbit under its own steam.

    Lone Wolf = Lone Fireball.

    Lone WMD = Ain’t gonna happen. Boxcutters are sooo much less difficult.

    • eCAHNomics says:

      Lone Wolf = Lone Fireball.

      Lone WMD = Ain’t gonna happen. Boxcutters are sooo much less difficult.

      Love the way you put it, and very much in keeping with my much less scientific knowledge of the small danger WMDs are in the hands of terrorist wannabes.

      Remember Bojinka? Perfect illustration of your point. Blew up in their apt in Manilla so, except for TWA 800, was unable to be carried out.

    • emptywheel says:

      I meant to say above that his first two years after getting ESL certified was at Texas Tech studying chemical engineering. He had moved into a different school studying business. But I would guess two years in chemeng at TT would give you a much better base from which to make explosives than most alleged terrorists.

      Your point still stands–it still takes work. But this guy presumably understood how the chemicals worked.

      • PJEvans says:

        I;m wondering (based on going to college with students from the ME) how well he actually was doing in those chemistry classes.
        Also how conspicuous he might have been; a lot of people in that part of Texas have low opinions of Hispanics and will, if they think you might agree with them, tell you all about it.

  16. canby says:

    I might buy all the ingredients to make brownies and tell people I was going to make them, but then decide not to.

    Legally, can you arrest somebody for something they might do?

    • eCAHNomics says:

      Legally, can you arrest somebody for something they might do?

      If you’re O or W, you can do any damned f’g thing you want to do without consequence.

        • MarkH says:

          As I understand the situation a person on the field of battle engaging ‘the good guys’ can be held until the ‘war’ is over, but someone ‘arrested’ must be given a normal due process.

          This situation of a non-state actor attacking our soldiers (see Taliban or al Qaeda) has really thrown our normal handling of things for a loop.

  17. PJEvans says:

    The coverage in the local news there was pretty much straight down the FBI press release, but it did include one piece that’s not really mentioned most places: he wasn’t at Texas tech, he was at South Plains College (in Levelland).