CINCINNATI — A 20-year-old Ohio man's Twitter posts sympathizing with Islamic terrorists led to an undercover FBI operation and the man's arrest on charges that he plotted to blow up the U.S. Capitol and kill government officials.
Christopher Lee Cornell, also known as Raheel Mahrus Ubaydah, told an FBI informant they should "wage jihad," and showed his plans for bombing the Capitol and shooting people, according to a criminal complaint filed in federal court in Ohio Wednesday. The FBI said Cornell expressed his support for the Islamic State.
Cornell's arrest came only days after a grand jury indictment charged another Cincinnati-area resident with threatening to murder House Speaker John Boehner.
Boehner spokesman Michael Steel said in a statement Wednesday: "Once again, the entire Congress owes a debt of gratitude to the FBI and all those who keep us safe."
The complaint against Cornell charges him with attempting to kill officers and employees of the United States.
Cornell was arrested Wednesday after buying two semi-automatic rifles and about 600 rounds of ammunition, authorities said.
The public was never in danger, said John Barrios, acting special agent in charge of the FBI's Cincinnati division.
Messages were left Thursday for attorney Karen Savir, a federal public defender listed in court records as Cornell's attorney. A working phone number could not be found for Cornell's family.
His father, John Cornell, told The Cincinnati Enquirer in a story for Thursday's editions that his son was a "momma's boy who never left the house." He said his son endured frequent incidents of abuse as a practicing Muslim.
"Everything you're hearing in the media right now, they've already painted him as some kind of terrorist," John Cornell told the newspaper. ... "They've painted him as some kind of jihadist. ... (Christopher) is one of the most peace-loving people I know."
In a statement Thursday from Oak Hills High School, which Cornell attended, Principal John Stoddard said teachers were shocked at the 2012 graduate's alleged involvement in the plot. Stoddard said Cornell was a typical student, and teachers remember him as quiet but not overly reserved.
The complaint alleges that an FBI informant began supplying agents with information about Cornell last year. The informant and Cornell, who lives in Green Township, first began communicating through Twitter in August 2014 and then through an instant messaging platform separate from Twitter, according to the complaint.
It's unclear from the complaint if Cornell had contact with any terrorist groups, but in an instant message to the informant, Cornell wrote that he had been in contact with persons overseas.
"I believe we should meet up and make our own group in alliance with the Islamic State here and plan operations ourselves," Cornell wrote in an instant message, according to the court document.
The two met in October in Cincinnati and again in November, the complaint states. Cornell told the informant at the November meeting that he considered the members of Congress as enemies and that he intended to conduct an attack on the Capitol, according to the complaint. The document says Cornell discussed his plan for them to travel to Washington and conduct reconnaissance of the security of government buildings including the Capitol before executing "a plan of attack."
Cornell planned for the two to detonate pipe bombs at and near the Capitol and then shoot and kill employees and officials, and Cornell had saved money to fund the attack, according to the complaint.
Similar cases in recent years have prompted controversy over whether law enforcement's tactics involve entrapment and violate civil liberties. One such case involved an undercover agent pretending to be a terrorist who provided a teenager with a phony car bomb, then watched him plant it in downtown Chicago. In another instance in Boston, a man was sentenced to 17 years in prison for plotting with undercover agents to fly remote-controlled planes packed with explosives into the Pentagon and U.S. Capitol. Still, the FBI has argued such stings are vital for averting potentially deadly terror attacks, and juries have returned tough sentences.
On Tuesday, authorities had disclosed that Cincinnati-area bartender Michael R. Hoyt, who has a history of mental illness, had been charged with threatening to kill Boehner at a country club near his home with a gun or a poisoned drink. A grand jury indictment against Hoyt was filed in U.S. District Court in Ohio on Jan. 7.
Hoyt, 44, is being held for mental evaluation and treatment at a federal medical center in Massachusetts.