Would-Be Terrorist was One Chemical Away from Building Bomb
How a company’s tip helped unravel a man’s deadly plans to build a powerful bomb.
|Surveillance image of Khalid Ali-M Aldawsari
Stopping a Would-Be Terrorist
Who was One Chemical Away from Building a Bomb
The 20-year-old Saudi Arabian man living in Lubbock, Texas was intent on waging jihad against Americans—possibly even a former U.S. president—and he was one ingredient away from being able to build a powerful bomb.
But Khalid Ali-M Aldawsari’s deadly plans began to unravel when a shipping company’s suspicions were raised—illustrating once again how the FBI relies on private industry and the general public in the fight against terror.
In early February 2011, a Lubbock shipping firm received a package from a North Carolina chemical company containing 10 bottles of phenol intended for Aldawsari. Combined with just two other chemicals, phenol can be used to make a potent explosive. Delivering such poisonous chemicals to an individual’s home is not common, so the shipping company contacted the North Carolina firm. Both decided that the phenol should not be delivered and that local law enforcement should be alerted. A Lubbock Police Department officer was called to the scene.
“That officer and his supervisor—because of their relationship with the FBI (see sidebar)—decided that this was something we needed to know about,” said Special Agent Frazier Thompson, who works in our Dallas Division. “Our initial focus was to identify Aldawsari to see if he had a legitimate reason for purchasing phenol.”
In a matter of days, members of our North Texas Joint Terrorism Task Force learned that although Aldawsari had once been a chemical engineering student at Texas Tech, he was no longer enrolled there and had no affiliation with the university.
“He was trying to pass himself off as a Texas Tech student doing research on cleaning products,” said Special Agent Mike Orndorff, who worked the investigation. “Those credentials, if legitimate, would have allowed him to buy the phenol.”
Most alarming was that Aldawsari had already purchased the two other chemicals needed to make his bomb, along with test tubes, beakers, and protective gear. Through covert operations, investigators learned he had disassembled clocks and cell phones and stripped the wires off Christmas lights in apparent attempts to fashion timers and initiating devices.
|Evidence of Aldawsari’s attempts to fashion timers and initiating devices.|
“His apartment bedroom was basically a storage room where he kept his chemicals and equipment,” Thompson said. “He was sleeping in the living room on the couch or the floor.”
The investigation revealed troubling things about Aldawsari, who had come to the U.S. legally in 2008 on a student visa. “Based on evidence from the Internet and his journal entries,” Thompson said, “Aldawsari was radicalized before he ever came to the United States. It appears he started planning this attack when he was a teenager and sought a scholarship to study specifically in America.”
By this point, surveillance teams were monitoring Aldawsari around the clock. “He was searching online for large targets such as dams and electrical plants,” Thompson said. He also searched for ways to conceal explosives in baby dolls and carriages and even sought the Texas address of former President George W. Bush.
On February 23, 2011, after agents were certain that Aldawsari was working alone, he was arrested and charged with attempted use of a weapon of mass destruction. In November, after being convicted by a jury, he was sentenced to life in prison.
“Aldawsari wanted to take out a lot of people,” Thompson said. “It scares me to think what might have happened if we hadn’t stopped him.”