Terrorist Attack Thwarted, Media Coverage Negligible
“This is not ‘Alice in Wonderland,’ where the Queen said ‘First the punishment then the trial. This is America, where everyone is entitled to the presumption of innocence, due process, effective representation of counsel and a fair trial.” Strong words from a statement by Rod Hobson, the defense lawyer for Khalid Ali-M Aldawsari.
Aldawsari was sentenced to life in prison on November 13 for attempting to use weapons of mass destruction. From start to finish, Aldawsari’s case serves as an example of how multiple moving parts can collaborate to effectively thwart a possible terrorist attack. Those moving parts included both federal officials and vigilant private corporations.
In February of this year, the Department of Justice issued a public press release describing the reasons for Aldawsari’s arrest. Aldawsari was a twenty-year-old Saudi studying on a student visa in Texas. Originally enrolled at Texas Tech to study chemical engineering, he transferred to White Plains College to study business. FBI officials were tipped off to Aldawsari’s suspicious activity by a private chemical company, Carolina Biological Supply, that reported his $435 purchase of concentrated phenol, a toxic chemical capable of creating the explosive, picric acid.
Rather than delivering that purchase, the shipping company, Con-way Freight, told Aldawsari there were complications with the order. The company then informed the FBI and local police about the suspicious activity since the purchase was not intended for commercial use. Aldawsari alleged he needed the order for “off-campus, personal research.” He was questioned further about his order before and became frustrated, so he sought the phenol from a different company. By December 2010, Aldawsari successfully bought thirty liters of nitric acid and three gallons of concentrated sulfuric acid, the other two main ingredients for picric acid.
The FBI then searched Aldawsari’s apartment, finding e-mails Aldawsari sent himself detailing plans for possible attacks with improvised explosive devices (IEDs). The e-mails included implanting IEDs into dolls, placing an IED in a backpack to be deposited at a nightclub, and planting IEDs in rented cars to leave them in busy spots during rush hour. More e-mails included information on other target locations, such as dams, nuclear power plants, George W. Bush’s address, and the homes of three former American soldiers who had been stationed at Abu Ghraib. Federal officials also uncovered Aldawsari’s journal, revealing his justification for jihad against Americans.
After Aldawsari’s life sentence was handed down, the Department of Justice aptly gave recognition to the many influential players in this case: three Texas law enforcement agencies, federal intelligence officers, computer forensics analysts, linguist analysts, and observant private companies.
U.S. Attorney Sandra Saldana observed that “[t]his case, in which private citizens paid attention to details and notified authorities of their suspicions, serves as a reminder to all private citizens that we must always be observant and vigilant, as there are some who intend to cause great harm.”
Aldawsari’s case is a job-well-done: successful collaboration amongst private and public entities, a fair trial for Aldawsari, and a domestic terrorist attack thwarted. Yet, the news coverage of Aldawsari’s case is marginal at best, especially as compared to the inundating coverage of General Petraeus’s resignation. This raises interesting questions: would a four-star general’s infidelity trump any national security issue, or has America moved past the alarmist sentiments that previous threats of domestic terror raised in previous cases? If Presidential campaigns are at all indicative of what attracts public attention, the latter bodes true since discussions on national security issues were negligible. This proposition is reinforced by the meager news coverage in February of the underwear bomber, Umar Farouk Abdul Mutallab, and his sentencing. It seems that the American public no longer desires the alarmist media coverage of domestic terrorist threats it did in the past.