It only took six months for Christopher Lee Cornell to go from curious about Islam to allegedly buying two assault rifles and 600 rounds of ammunition to shoot up the U.S. Capitol.
Court documents say the Cincinnati man’s terrorism training, religious radicalization and nefarious networking all took place through a computer screen.
“I’d say Cornell would be your classic lone wolf,” said Vaughn Shannon, a political science professor and terrorism expert at Wright State University.
The FBI arrested Cornell on Wednesday, alleging he planned to set pipe bombs and go on a shooting spree in Washington. Experts say the alleged plot is similar to a spate of one-man terror attacks in 2014 that struck a café in Sydney, Australia; a Jewish center in Brussels, Belgium; and a war memorial in Ottawa, Canada.
The arrest also follows a massacre at a Paris newspaper and grocery store last week.
“I think the lone wolf attacks elsewhere … probably sped up this process in a major way, a desire to do something in the United States that would rival the publicity elsewhere,” said Glen Duerr, assistant professor of international studies at Cedarville University.
Some suggest such an attack was thwarted by government programs that took note of Cornell’s online activity. U.S. House Speaker John Boehner on Thursday credited a controversial government surveillance program with stopping the Hamilton County man.
“With regard to the threat to the Capitol, coming frankly not far where I live, the first thing that strikes me is we would have never known about this had it not been for the FISA program and our ability to collect information on people who pose an imminent threat,” Boehner said, referencing the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.
“Our government does not spy on Americans unless there are Americans who are doing things that frankly tip off our law enforcement officials to an imminent threat,” Boehner said. “And it was our law enforcement officials and those programs that helped us stop this person before he committed a heinous crime in the nation’s capital.”
Task force success
The arrest marks a success for the Joint Terrorism Task Force and methods put in place over the past decade to stop terror attacks before they happen, according to Donna Schlagheck, chair of Wright State’s political science department and author on a book about terrorism.
“None of this would have happened had the NSA not swept up his Twitter feed,” she said. “(Had he) not communicated with ISIS, or Islamic jihadists, he would’ve bought those rifles, those M-15s and he would’ve been on his way to Washington right now.”
Court records don’t reference the use of NSA surveillance. They suggest a human informant helped the Joint Terrorism Task Force move Cornell from his parent’s small Greene Twp. apartment to facing federal charges in Butler County jail.
The regional FBI Joint Terrorism Task Force — which includes police in Dayton and Xenia — is one of 104 such task forces across the country, 71 of which have been created since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. An FBI spokesman said they don’t release caseload statistics on the task forces.
The criminal complaint by Special Agent T.A. Staderman says Cornell created a Twitter account last summer under the name Raheel Mahrus Ubayhdah and posted statements supporting violent jihad and support for violent attacks committed by others in North America and elsewhere.
The complaint says that in the fall an informant offered information on Cornell in exchange for favorable treatment on an unrelated criminal case. The informant and Cornell met through Twitter in August and communicated through a seperate instant messaging platform, it says.
‘We should just wage jihad’
One instant message said Cornell was in contact with someone overseas but didn’t think he would get specific authorization for a terrorist attack.
“I believe that we should just wage jihad under our own orders and plan attacks and everything,” Cornell allegedly said in one message. “We already got a thumbs up from the Brothers over there and Anwar al Awlaki before his martyrdom and many others.”
Al-Awlaki was an Al Qaida leader killed by a drone strike in 2011.
“I believe we should meet up and make our own group in alliance with the Islamic State here and plan operations elsewhere,” another statement said.
Court records say Cornell showed the informant he had researched and targeted government buildings in Washington, researched how to build pipe bombs and looked into buying firearms. He was arrested Wednesday moments after buying a semi-automatic rifle and 600 rounds of ammo.
‘He was suckered’
Cornell’s father, John Cornell, told this newspaper his son was “very impressionable” and believes the FBI source “lured Chris into a much more serious situation.”
“If he did do it he was suckered into this and the FBI gave him the money to buy those guns,” the father said.
John Cornell said his 20-year-old son first became interested in Islam approximately six months ago but didn’t convert until about six weeks ago.
“Yes did see a change in him … started with rituals, washing the feet and hands and praying,” he said. “The big change was he had become so much nicer, his attitude had changed, he said, ‘Dad I feel at peace, I feel calm all over.’ ”
Cornell says his son was an atheist two years ago and wasn’t sure what he wanted to do with his life, but was interested in attending nursing school. Cornell said his son worked at a Kohl’s store on Harrison Avenue in Cincinnati since August as a seasonal employee and had $1,200 saved up to buy a car.
Cornell graduated from Oak Hills High School in 2012 and was a member of the wrestling team.
School principal John Stoddard released a statement: “During his time at Oak Hills High School, he was a typical student. Christopher was not a disruption or a discipline problem in school. His teachers were shocked at the news of his involvement in this situation. Teachers at Oak Hills High School remember Christopher as a quiet, but not overly reserved, student who would participate in class and did not withdraw from his class work.”
Cornell lived with his parents and older brother John Cornell Jr., 22, in an apartment in the 6500 block of Hearne Road on Cincinnati’s west side.
His father fought back tears as he said, “We would look in their room just to make sure they were breathing … we love our kids, and they loved us,” he said. “There’s no way that he would’ve planned something of that magnitude, he’s never been out of Cincinnati (except to attend wrestling tournaments).”
Cornell said he wasn’t sure where his son’s place of worship was, but thinks it may have been at Masjid Abubakr Siddique mosque on Harrison Avenue.
Kasse Diawaia, who said he has been praying at the mosque for about two years, said he never saw Cornell there. Another man who didn’t want to be identified said Cornell looks familiar, but wasn’t 100 percent sure if he attended the mosque.
No profile for lone wolves
A Twitter account linked to the name Raheel Mahrus Ubaydah, using the handle @ISBlackFlags, currently is suspended. But it’s not hard to find ISIS or other Islamic recruitment materials online.
Experts say ISIL has put a lot of effort into its internet presence. And more than 100 Americans have attempted to join the fight in Syria, according to government reports. Many were arrested before leaving the country.
Experts say there is no reliable profile for a terrorist in the making, though the so-called lone wolves often share traits.
“It’s often someone that is in a difficult life situation, typically younger, typically male, typically someone that doesn’t see a lot of prospects for the future then is caught up in an ideology,” Duerr said.
And officials likely will be on watch for them.
“In the context of what happened in Paris last week, I think standard predictions will be this will inspire more copycats, at least in the near term, the next 6 to 12 months,” Schlageck said.
Staff writer Jack Torry contributed to this report.
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