Rezwan Ferdaus Terror Plot: Serious or Amateur?

Rezwan Ferdaus, an American Muslim, has been charged with a major terrorist plot against his country.

Rezwan Ferdaus, an American Muslim, has been charged with a major terrorist plot against his country.

NYT (“Man Is Held in a Plan to Bomb Washington“)

A 26-year-old man from a town west of Boston was charged Wednesday with plotting to blow up the Pentagon and the United States Capitol using remote-controlled aircraft filled with plastic explosives.

The suspect, Rezwan Ferdaus of Ashland, is an American citizen and has a physics degree from Northeastern University in Boston, according to an F.B.I. affidavit. Mr. Ferdaus also tried to provide detonation devices, weapons and other resources to Al Qaeda to carry out attacks on American soldiers stationed overseas, law enforcement officials said.

The arrest was the result of an undercover F.B.I. operation that included a cooperating witness with a criminal record, according to Richard DesLauriers, the special agent in charge of the F.B.I. office in Boston. According to the affidavit, Mr. Ferdaus began planning to commit “violent jihad” against the United States in 2010, modifying cellphones to act as detonators and supplying them to undercover agents who he thought were affiliated with Al Qaeda.

His alleged plan to attack the Pentagon — detailed on two thumb drives that he delivered to the undercover agents, the affidavit said — involved using three remote-controlled planes, similar to military drones, guided by GPS equipment.

Mr. Ferdaus went to Washington in May to take photographs of the Pentagon, the Capitol and places in Potomac Park from where he planned to launch the explosives-filled aircraft. According to the affidavit, he described Americans as “enemies of Allah” and told undercover agents that his desire to attack the United States was so strong that “I just can’t stop; there is no other choice for me.”

In what seems an elaborate operation, undercover F.B.I. agents who had been talking to Mr. Ferdaus for months provided him with some of the necessary components for his planned attack, including six assault rifles, three grenades, 25 pounds of C-4 plastic explosives and even an F-86 remote-controlled aircraft. The explosives and guns were provided on Wednesday just before his arrest, law enforcement officials said.

“The public was never in danger from the explosive devices,” Carmen M. Ortiz, the United States attorney in Boston, said in a statement.

Boston Globe (“Federal agents charge Ashland man with targeting Pentagon, Capitol with aerial explosives“) adds:

He appeared for an initial status hearing today in US District Court in Worcester. Prosecutors are seeking that he be detained without bail until his trial. A detention hearing will be held at 3 p.m. Monday.

“The conduct alleged today shows that Mr. Ferdaus had long planned to commit violent acts against our country,” US Attorney Carmen Ortiz said. “Thanks to the diligence of the FBI and our many other law enforcement partners, that plan was thwarted.”

She added, “I want the public to understand that Mr. Ferdaus’ conduct, as alleged in the complaint, is not reflective of a particular culture, community or religion. In addition to protecting our citizens from the threats and violence alleged today, we also have an obligation to protect members of every community, race, and religion against violence and other unlawful conduct.”

While most of the reports speak of a plot to destroy targets in Washington, TPM (“FBI Arrests Man For Plotting To Attack Capitol, Pentagon With C-4 Loaded Remote Controlled Planes“) emphasizes a plot to hit US targets overseas.

The Northeastern University graduate allegedly began planning to commit “jihad” against the United States in early 2010 and obtained mobile phones that he modified to act as an electrical switch for an IED.

Ferdaus allegedly supplied the phones to undercover FBI agents that he thought were members of or recruiters for al Qaeda. He allegedly thought the devices would be used to kill American soldiers overseas.

What’s never clear to me in these reports is how credible the threat was. There’s a big difference between having aspirations to carry out a massive plot and the technical and tactical expertise to pull it off. Clearly, the FBI got wind of this very, very early in the process and managed to string Ferdaus along and convince him to buy his equipment through their channels. How much of this is a function of outstanding work by the FBI vice the amateurism of Ferdaus?

Indeed, despite being a graduate student in the sciences, he seemed to lack the expertise to do simple things like distinguish real C-4 from fake. The Hill (“Man arrested in ‘step-by-step’ plot to blow up Capitol, Pentagon“):

Ferdaus’s plan allegedly evolved to include a “ground assault” as well, in which six people would coordinate an automatic weapons attack with the aerial assault and massacre whomever came into their path, according to the DOJ.

For the past five months, Ferdaus has allegedly been stockpiling the equipment he needed for his proposed attack, including a remote-controlled aircraft, 25 pounds of fake C-4 explosives, six automatic AK-47 assault rifles and three grenades, according to the DOJ. He allegedly kept all of it in a storage facility in Massachusetts, where he was arrested.

But did he have six trained gunners ready to go? Ammo to go with the AK-47s? Detonators for the C-4?

Oh: He used the alias “Dave Winfield.”

That is: was this some yahoo with aspirations to be a terrorist with a little scientific know-how and several action flicks as his guide? Or was he the real deal?

Either way, obviously, I’m happy to have him off the streets. But it’s not clear whether we’ve dodged a big one here or this was just some clown.

FILED UNDER: General
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. I’m kind of with you here. I really wonder if these elaborate sting operations end up being a productive use of law enforcement resources. Nonetheless, yea, glad to have him off the streets

  2. Either way, obviously, I’m happy to have him off the streets. But it’s not clear whether we’ve dodged a big one here or this was just some clown.

    Indeed. I must confess, it feels (given known information) that we are more in clown territory here than in big one land.

  3. Ron Beasley says:

    There have been way too many of these sting operations. Could this guy have accomplished anything without help from the FBI? The worst case of this is Mohamed Osman Mohamud. He was a young man who was troubled because his parents got divorced. He didn’t have the resources or skills to blow up anything and was set up by the FBI. His father reported him to the authorities because he thought he was trying to get in touch with al-Qaeda – he never did. He should have been treated as a troubled young man not set up as a terrorist. His father has said he regrets that he notified the authorities.

  4. john personna says:

    Somewhere some clown might be turning down an offer to buy C4 and assault rifles, because he thinks there are high odds that it is the FBI on the other side of the deal.

    As we know the sets of nuts and terrorists overlap (nearly identical groups), sweeping some up and scaring others is a good thing.

  5. john personna says:

    (Shoe bombers, and underwear bombers, were not models of sanity.)

  6. James Joyner says:

    @john personna: A fair and good point. But I wonder if the FBI is asking these questions. It’s an awfully elaborate charade to go through if the guy’s not a significant threat, even if it does send out a “you’ll get caught” message. Presumably, quality terrorists have connections to get C-4 without going about and buying it from random folks they’ve never met.

  7. Remote controlled planes with explosives? This reminds of a particularly stupid mission in Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas.

  8. Hey Norm says:

    Kinda shoots another big hole in the Profile Muslims theory of fighting terrorism.

  9. Ron Beasley says:

    Most of these stings are done for PR reasons not law enforcement. “Look – we are protecting you”.

  10. John Burgess says:

    One story I read (don’t recall where, sorry) said that Fardous had used his engineering smarts to make up remote control detonators and that he provided samples for testing to his contact. The FBI is saying that they were functional.

    Not being able to differentiate C4 from PlayDo is more a matter of chemistry than physics, at least until you try to make them do something bang-ish.

  11. Hey Norm says:

    Kind of shoots another big hole in the fighting terrorism is a military problem and not a law enforcement problem theory.

  12. Ben Wolf says:

    In these times, it is (in my personal opinion) best to assume the police are lying when their lips move. The FBI would say Ferdaus had a working quantum torpedo if they thought it would improve their public image of Doing Something to keep America safe.

  13. Dave Schuler says:

    Like Ron Beasley, above, I have concerns about the number of “sting” operations. And like you,James, I wonder whether these operations are netting real terrorists or just yahoos who, absent the sting operation, wouldn’t provide any actual threat.

    Note that some countries don’t allow their law enforcement officers to conduct this sort of operation and they’re not notably lawless so, clearly, there’s no necessary and sufficient relationship between sting operations and good law enforcement. In that context I wonder what sort of administrative approvals and safeguards there are in conducting them. Perhaps this particular operation had no element of public risk. Apparently, they weren’t giving the guy real C4.

    But not all such operations are conducted so prudently and some do involve an element of public risk. The “Gunwalker” operation, for example, put real automatic weapons in the hands of real criminals. What sort of approvals and safeguards were there on this operation? What sort should there be?

  14. Argon says:

    Mid-twenties and still living with the parents. Now there’s a ‘profile’ for ya. If he could have gotten sex at some point in his life, this might never have happened.

  15. Ron Beasley says:

    @Dave Schuler: In the case of s Mohamed Osman Mohamud I talked about above it should have been obvious to any FBI agent with half a brain that on his own he represented little if any threat. If they had monitored his internet usage instead they might have been able to obtain some usable intelligence. Instead they took the PR photo op route.

  16. Argon says:
  17. Jay Tea says:

    @john personna: We’ve butted heads before, and will again, but that “deterrent” argument of yours is superb — I’m definitely gonna steal it. I once said that you’re safe if you assume that every child online and every hit-man is actually a cop, but never thought about extending it to terrorists. It’s always wonderful to sow confusion and insecurity and paranoia among your enemies.

    Plus, there’s a phrase I picked up years ago from an Air Force guy — “honor the threat.” Treat every single threat as valid until proven otherwise, and even then take it seriously. This guy wanted to kill a lot of Americans; I don’t have a lot of sympathy for him.

    J.

  18. jan says:

    @Jay Tea:

    Treat every single threat as valid until proven otherwise, and even then take it seriously. This guy wanted to kill a lot of Americans; I don’t have a lot of sympathy for him.

    It’s called to error on the side of caution by treating this man’s threat seriously, until proven otherwise. Attempting to psychoanalyze his motives, believing him to be a non-threat because he lived with his parents is layman’s gibberish. Apparently the people involved with the sting gave him several opportunities to rethink his mission — reminding him that women and children would be killed in his strikes. He basically wasn’t deterred.

    The source informing authorities about the intentions of the underwear bomber was also the parents of the would-be bomber. He was a strident young man too, who was serious about his mission to create death and chaos.

    Ironically, if the FBI hadn’t followed up on this tip, dismissed the man as just a troubled youth, and he had actually gone through and blown some places up, what would the comments have been then? Would they have been “What a government screw-up!” like they were towards Bush/CIA/FBI for not immediately acting on the 911 airplane tip?

    It’s kind of a damned if you do and damned if you don’t situation. But, hindsight is always so much more accurate than taking the initiative beforehand, by attempting to stop a presumed attack before it happens.

  19. Alex Knapp says:

    So let me get this straight:

    The FBI got in touch with this guy.
    Gave him weapons.
    Gave him a radio-controlled plane.
    Gave him “explosives.”
    Then arrested him for planning a terrorist attack involving guns and a radio controlled plane.

    Gee, I feel safer already.

  20. jan says:

    @Alex Knapp:

    Here is one article explaining some of what happened. From what I’ve heard the FBI, sold him the explosives, but he hatched the plan and bought the 6 foot model airplane himself. It doesn’t sound as benign as you described it in your post, like he was nothing but a pawn of the FBI.

  21. Alex Knapp says:

    @jan: According to the reports above, the FBI bought the plane and gave him explosives. How do we know he’s the one who hatched the plan?

  22. James Joyner says:

    @jan: Nobody’s suggesting he shouldn’t have been arrested. I’m questioning whether the FBI saved us from disaster or just arrested a wannabe. Others have also raised the question of whether an elaborate, months-long sting was productive in this case.

  23. Lit3Bolt says:

    This is FBI Security Theater. I think we should all be concerned that law enforcement is now more about good PR than actual, y’know, law enforcement.

    I’m more curious why they set up these sting operations for young Muslim Americans and not, say, anti-abortion crews or anti-tax fanatics like the lunatic who flew his plane into a building in Texas. Somehow when those events happen we’re not supposed to be in breathless fear.

  24. jan says:

    @James Joyner:

    I’m questioning whether the FBI saved us from disaster or just arrested a wannabe

    And, I thought I answered that by saying:

    It’s called to error on the side of caution by treating this man’s threat seriously, until proven otherwise.

    There is really no absolute way of knowing how serious this threat was until after the fact — after he blew people up, or after he was arrested and authorities could examine the details more fully, while he is in custody. The very fact, though, that he was so intensely interested and involved in the porcess of implementing this threat , over a period of many months, is enough, IMO, to have arrested him. And, like jc said earlier, this will act as a disclaimer of sorts, warning other ‘wannabes’ that such threats are not child’s play and will be prosecuted to the fullest degree.

  25. James Joyner says:

    @jan: Again, no one is arguing that we shouldn’t arrest these people. The question is whether we’re trumping it up as some major threat averted when it wasn’t.

    And, yes, there are ways of assessing the competency level and seriousness of would-be criminals.

  26. TM says:

    @Ron Beasley:

    Hi all, it’s refreshing to see the diversity of viewpoints presented here. I live in Massachusetts and took the initiative to investigate the context of the case, as an exercise in fact-checking. I went so far as to speak to people at the mosque he frequented in Worcester, and was even fortunate enough to directly interview his parents face to face in their own home to learn more about what for me is a local story.

    From the information I gathered, Rezwan was a fairly “normal” kid as a teen and even through his graduation from Northeastern, apart from the fact that he appears to have been a borderline prodigy since about age 12 or so, with respects to his talent for building electronics/mechanical devices. The FBI’s statement remains the only discovery that he ever applied his gift to such clandestine ends; none of my findings support their conclusion. He comes from a upper/middle class home, with parents both holding advanced degrees, his father having a lengthy career of increasing responsibility in the Dept. of Defense, his mother an employee of the Federal Court system. Everything I learned about the family suggests it was well integrated and acculturated into American society.

    What is striking, and touches directly on Ron’s comment, is what is his parents told me, which is that roughly two years ago, he slipped into a deep clinical depression of idiosyncratic etiology. Being a pharmacist, I asked what medications he was taking, for confirmation of their claims. His parents showed me the stubs from his prescriptions; the kid has been on a cocktail of antipsychotics and antidepressants. I am very familiar with the psychological compromise these types of psychotropic agents can produce, and with the clinical expression of neurodepressive disorders. Medications like these disturb the sensitive neurochemical balance of dopamine, norepinephrine and serotonin and trigger acute psychosis activation, profound behavioral changes, emotional disturbance and so on. I am not saying “the drugs made him do it,” but rather that in an individual with an already tenuous psychological clinical status complicated by multidrug therapy, this young man lacked the sociocognitive faculties to make rationale decisions. My interviews with members of the Worcester congregation confirmed accounts of erratic behavior by him consistent with these findings.

    In my professional judgement as a healthcare provider, this young man would have lacked the motivation to develop and execute such an elaborate plot unless it was made extremely convenient for him, as in everything being laid out for him. I gather this was the role of the informant, the FBI’s calling card and notably an individual with a criminal background. The flagship symptom that identifies severe clinical depression is profound lethargy; that is, people in Rezwan Ferdaus’ condition are not exactly known for their go-getter mentality and proactive planning, particularly not over an extended sequence of events like what the FBI alleges. Quite the opposite, in fact. To clarify, lethargy presents as the lack of motivation to execute even simple errands like going to the corner store, even as far as getting out of bed or off the couch; lack of motivation, profound in magnitude, persistent in duration. You will be hard pressed to find any clinician experienced in managing psychiatric disease states who would find it credible that a patient afflicted as he has been for two years now took the lead in the planning and execution of sophisticated plot, much less

    As such a clinician and a public servant with a sworn pledge to enhance the safety and health of my fellow citizens and human beings, I find it appalling to see the FBI preying on low-hanging non-applies like Ferdaus. Vulnerable individuals like these could just as easily be shaped into productive citizens, if provided with proper leadership and coaching. Instead, the FBI continues to prove it’s willingness to target vulnerable populations that could just as easily be railroaded towards becoming productive members of society as towards becoming cases like Rezwan’s. I hope I am not the only contributor to this discussion who finds it deeply concerning that when given an opportunity to achieve the socially desirable endpoint, they still choose to create fauxterrorists. Thanks to such decisions, this kid is totally screwed now; he is probably going to be locked away for life in a Federal Prison, when what he needs is attentive and diligent medical attention and his family around him.

    Earlier the comment was made that Rezwan should have recognized the C-4 as fake. Regrettably for us as a nation, what is even easier is to identify a psychologically compromised and highly impressionable individual and to shape him into that which he otherwise would not likely have become.

    Just sharing my two cents.

  27. Bairkus says:

    @TM:
    Great work, TM.
    Thank you.

    I have a serious question: If this fellow really did make a reconnaissance trip to DC, how many ways would you confidently differentiate him from somewhat more nearly successful attackers such as Jared Loughner or Umar Abdulmutallab.

  28. Be Free says:

    This is uncalled for. If the young man was doing dangerous things then keep him under surveillance. The elaborate means the FIB used to entrap this person are wasteful and unjust. It would have been more productive to keep an eye on him and check out the people he contacted. That is if he ever contacted any people in this “scheme” that weren’t members of law enforcement. The FIB is untrustworthy.

  29. IMaDEM0N says:

    Nah, I went to school with Rezwan Ferdaus, he was in the same grade as I was, we both graduated in 2003. & I’ve known him since elementary school…he definitely had like a little computer knowledge & some general electronic knowledge & he was a pretty descent Drummer too, granted all 3 different categories; (Computer Expert, Amateur Electrical Engineer into Electronics & as a Musician), he was nowhere NEAR on the same level as I am; I’ve been dealing with personal computers practically since they have been truly available, my dad’s an electrical engineer by trade & I’ve always been the guy he needs to hold the light & yell at while he’s working on all his stuff at our house, & as a Musician, my dad’s been a gigging guitar player in different bands since he was 15 years-old, I started playing when I was 2 years-old & now I’m 26….I’ve picked up a lot of stuff over time. But, Rezwan was never really an angry guy about anything & I truly don’t think he could actually lock eye contact with anyone, no matter their Age, Sex, Size or Political/Social/Religious position & then continue to pull a trigger killing them. I don’t what got into his head where he would ever think it would be okay to destroy government property or kill innocent people in the name of religious views. Okay (& this applies for ALL Muslims), IF we’re agreeing that their “Allah” is a God, Lord, Higher Power, or however you want to look at it, THEN ALLAH DOESN’T NEED THEIR HELP WITH VENGEANCE, & if they think Allah does need their help, THEN THEY ARE THE NON-BELIEVERS!!! I’m Sick & Tired of all this stuff where religious groups are always at war to worship THE SAME LORD, just not being able to agree on what to call Him/Her/It. (but back to Rezwan Ferdaus) He was kinda a Hippie in High School…didn’t seem dangerous in any way…but he *DID* used to pull that “turning he back on the American Flag during the Pledge of Alligence, & I was the Blonde Haired, Blue Eyed white American kid who got right in his face when he pulled shit like that & tell him “do you have any even remote f-ing CLUE, what would happen to you in almost ANY OTHER COUNTRY but the US, or Canada…” it was a stunt because he was protesting the beginning of the war & I tried to make it clear to him “If you were ANYWHERE in the middle east & disrespected THEIR flag in ANY Way, Shape, Fashion or Form, he’d be SHOT for it, so Go pass your peaceful non-violent bullsh!t someplace they’d respect it….like the 1960’s!!!”