In the end, it was his plot to kill American soldiers, and not the bomb he planned to do it with, that blew up Friday on John Thomas Booker Jr.
The 20-year-old would-be suicide bomber from Topeka, who allegedly used Facebook last year to publicly telegraph his intention to wage war in the American Midwest on behalf of the Islamic State, was arrested Friday morning by the FBI.
Booker, also known as Muhammad Abdullah Hassan, was arrested while in the process of arming what he thought was a 1,000-pound ammonium nitrate bomb just outside the perimeter of Fort Riley, Kan., according to Barry Grissom, U.S. attorney for Kansas.
Grissom announced the arrest Friday at a news conference in Kansas City, Kan. He also said that his office had charged Booker with three terrorism-related crimes that each carry a potential sentence of life in prison.
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“We face a continued threat from individuals within our own borders who may be motivated by a variety of causes,” said Grissom said in a news release. “Anyone who seeks to harm this nation and its people will be brought to justice.”
Late Friday federal officials announced charges against a second Topeka man, 28-year-old Alexander E. Blair, for allegedly knowing about the bomb plot and failing to report it to authorities.
Booker comes from a military family and he was an ROTC cadet at Topeka West High School before he graduated in 2012, his mother, Danielle Booker, told The Star on Friday.
She said the family was surprised by the charges against her son. She said they were struggling to “get our head around this.”
“We love our country,” she said. “We don’t know why he chose this path.”
Booker’s father told The Associated Press he’s glad authorities arrested his son and no one was hurt.
John Booker Sr. said that his son moved out of the family’s Topeka home after graduation from high school. He’s spoken to him four times in the last year.
He told the AP he and his wife are Christian, and he doesn’t know whether his son was Muslim. He said once children turn 18, “parents have no control.”
Booker enlisted in the U.S. Army and was scheduled to report for basic training last April. He drew the attention of authorities about that time when he posted on Facebook his desire to die while waging jihad, according to court documents detailing the allegations.
“I will soon be leaving you forever so goodbye!” he allegedly posted.
A few days later, according to the charges, he said “getting ready to be killed in jihad is a HUGE adrenaline rush!!”
Those postings prompted a tip to the FBI and agents were assigned to question Booker and, according to the court documents, he was candid in discussing his desire to kill American soldiers.
“Booker stated that if he went overseas and was told to kill a fellow Muslim, he would rather turn around and shoot the person giving orders,” an agent with the FBI Joint Terrorism Task Force wrote in the affidavit supporting Friday’s charges.
He allegedly told agents that he planned to shoot other soldiers on the firing range during training.
Booker was “subsequently denied entry into the military,” according to the documents.
He was apparently not arrested. No charges were filed as a result of that interview.
The court documents don’t mention any subsequent law enforcement action until October 2014 when they state that Booker came in contact with a person who he did not know was a confidential source for the FBI.
He “repeatedly expressed” to the source his desire to engage in a holy war and join the the Islamic State, sometimes referred to as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, or ISIL.
Last month, that source introduced him to a second source who claimed to be planning terrorist attacks in the United States.
Booker allegedly told them that he wanted to build and detonate a truck bomb. The court documents contend he said it was his “number one aspiration because he couldn’t be captured, all evidence would be destroyed, and he would be guaranteed to hit his target.”
Booker also allegedly suggested they target Fort Riley, home of the Big Red One, the Army’s 1st Infantry Division.
Officials said Friday that Booker recorded two videos to be released after his death in which he warned Americans that the war being waged by ISIL was being brought to their doorstep.
In the ensuing weeks, Booker allegedly rented a storage locker and helped gather components and materials for the planned bomb.
Authorities said Friday that there was never a breach in security at Fort Riley and the assembled bomb material was inert, incapable of explosion, although Booker believed that it was.
“Today’s threat was real,” said Eric Jackson, special agent in charge of the FBI’s Kansas City office. “And Booker was fully committed to his plan.”
Jackson said law enforcement and military officials worked hand in hand to ensure the safety of soldiers and civilians on and around the base.
Friday was determined to be the day of the attack, and court records contend Booker planned a specific route through the base and targeted particular buildings to be struck with a car bomb. He had identified a utility gate to the base chosen because Booker believed his entry would not easily be detected and he could find an area where the car bomb “would kill as many soldiers as possible,” the charges allege.
The investigation was conducted by the FBI Joint Terrorism Task Force, including members from the FBI’s Kansas City Division, the Topeka Police Department and the Kansas Highway Patrol.
Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback and U.S. Rep. Lynn Jenkins were among officials who commended the law enforcement work on the case.
“The investigation is ongoing and today’s arrest serves as a reminder that even here in America’s heartland we must remain vigilant against threats to our nation,” Brownback said in a written statement.
Jenkins also released a written statement, expressing shock that someone from Topeka was accused of plotting such an attack.
“While he may reside in Topeka, his actions stand in stark contrast to the attitude of support for our military of everyday Kansans,” she said.
Booker’s first court appearance was Friday afternoon at the federal courthouse in Topeka. The federal public defender’s office was appointed to represent him.
Federal prosecutors, citing a danger to the community, asked that Booker be kept in custody while the case is pending. The judge granted the request after Booker waived his right for a hearing on the issue.
His next court appearance was scheduled for April 20.
Blair, the second man charged Friday, allegedly knew about Booker’s plans and did not tell authorities. He was charged with failing to report a felony.
The complaint against Blair alleges that he shared some of Booker’s extremist views and loaned Booker money to rent a storage unit to conceal the bomb components. The complaint alleges that Blair knew Booker was serious about his plan and failed to report him to authorities.
Federal agents contacted Blair after Booker’s arrest Friday. The complaint states that Blair admitted he knew about Booker’s plan and that he had urged him not to talk openly about it because it would attract attention and could be reported. Blair allegedly told agents he believed Booker would carry out the plan.
Don Bradley and Matt Campbell contributed to this report.
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How Booker's plot was uncovered
According to court documents:
▪ About a year ago, Booker, scheduled to report for Army basic training, expressed a desire to die while waging jihad, prompting a tip to the FBI.
▪ FBI agents questioned Booker, who talked about killing U.S. soldiers.
▪ Booker was denied entry into the military, but not arrested.
▪ In October 2014, Booker came into contact with a secret FBI source, saying he wanted to join the Islamic State.
▪ In March 2015, that FBI source introduced Booker to another source who claimed to be planning terror attacks in the United States.
▪ Booker told the sources he wanted to set off a truck bomb and suggested Fort Riley as a target. He rented a storage locker and gathered materials for the planned bomb.
▪ Friday was the planned day for the attack, but Booker was arrested while in the process of arming what he thought was a bomb.