An elaborate sting operation conducted secretly by the FBI ended late Wednesday with the arrest of a 26-year-old man charged with a terrorist plot to destroy the Pentagon and U.S. Capitol using large remote-controlled aircraft filled with C-4 plastic explosives.
Rezwan Ferdaus, an American citizen and physics major, was nabbed by federal agents in Boston after he told undercover officers how he planned to arm "small drone airplanes" with explosives in order to hit the Washington buildings then kill the survivors, federal officials said in a statement to the media.
"This conduct shows that Ferdaus had long planned to commit violent acts against our country," said U.S. Attorney for the District of Massachusetts Carmen M. Ortiz in a statement issued Wednesday.
“Thanks to the diligence of the FBI and our many other law enforcement partners, that plan was thwarted.”
Federal agents told reporters Ferdaus spent the better part of this year modifying cell phones to serve as electrical switches for improvised explosive devices (IEDs) to be passed on to fighters in the Middle East.
He allegedly wanted to command a team of six operatives that would use up to three remote-controlled aircraft filled with explosives in the "aerial" part of the attack before firing on any survivors in a follow-up "ground" attack.
"The suspect bought mobile phones, then modified them to act as an electrical switch for an IED. He then supplied the phones to FBI undercover agents who he believed to be members of, or recruiters for, al Qaeda," undercover agents said in a statement after Ferdaus' arrest.
Federal investigators followed Ferdaus as he traveled to Washington, D.C., to "conduct surveillance" and take photographs of his targets and purchased weapons, including six AK-47 assault rifles, grenades and what he believed to be C-4 explosives.
He is charged for conducting the plot as well as attempting to provide material support and resources to al Qaida.
Federal agents monitored a closed-door meeting in June, when the suspect appeared pleased when he was told that his first phone detonation device killed three U.S. soldiers and injured four or five others in Iraq.
“That was exactly what I wanted,” Ferdaus said to the undercover agents who reported his comments in their statement.
"Ferdaus envisioned causing a large 'psychological' impact by killing Americans, including women and children, who he referred to as 'enemies of Allah,'" officials with the Department of Justice said in a statement.
"According to the affidavit, Ferdaus' desire to attack the United States is so strong that he confided, 'I just can't stop; there is no other choice for me.'"
On Sept. 20, 2011, Ferdaus made a training video, which he provided to the UCs, demonstrating how to make “cell phone detonators.”
The United States’ assassination of Osama bin Laden and continued drone attacks on al Qaida training camps in Pakistan have devastated the terrorist group’s ability to strike the U.S. But the group still has the ability to inspire homegrown terrorists in the U.S.
“The lone wolf offender continues to be a threat. We’re talking about individuals who identify with a particular cause and they will independently, on their own, strike out," local FBI spokesman Darrell Foxworth told reporters.
"That’s why it’s so important to engage the public as well as the intelligence and law enforcement community to help us identify any suspicious activity which would be indicative of someone wanting to commit an attack."
Just prior to the 10th anniversary of 9/11, President Obama said a "lone wolf" terror attack in the U.S. is more likely than a major coordinated effort like the Sept. 11 attacks nearly a decade ago.
"The biggest concern we have right now is not the launching of a major terrorist operation, although that risk is always there," the president said in an interview with CNN.
"The risk that we're especially concerned over right now is the lone wolf terrorist, somebody with a single weapon being able to carry out wide-scale massacres of the sort that we saw in Norway recently," he said. "You know, when you've got one person who is deranged or driven by a hateful ideology, they can do a lot of damage, and it's a lot harder to trace those lone wolf operators."
In recent years the U.S. has endured terror-linked attacks that authorities believe were carried out by a single person, The Associated Press reports. In November 2009, 13 people were killed at Fort Hood, Texas, in a shooting that led to charges against an Army psychiatrist who authorities allege had become an Islamic extremist.
A botched car bomb in New York's Times Square in 2010 and a Christmas Day 2009 attempt to bring down a Detroit-bound jetliner with a bomb also were tied by authorities to one person in each instance, according to media reports.
Department of Justice records show that if convicted, Ferdaus faces up to 15 years in prison on the material support and resources to a foreign terrorist organization charge; up to 20 years in prison on the charge of attempting to destroy national defense premises; and a five-year minimum mandatory in prison and up to 20 years on the charge of attempting to damage and destroy buildings that are owned by the United States, by using an explosive.
On each charge, Ferdaus also faces up to three years of supervised release and a $250,000 fine.