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The U.S. Department of Justice indicted Robert Lorenzo Hester, Jr., 25, of Columbia, Missouri, on 21 February 2017, for attempting to provide material support to the Islamic State (IS) and plotting an act of domestic terrorism. The plan had been an attack on 20 February, the first Presidents’ Day of the Donald Trump administration.
This was the second IS-related indictment of 2017 in the U.S.: on 16 January, Noor Salman was arrested and charged with aiding and abetting her husband Umar Mateen’s murderous rampage at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida, on 12 June 2016.
The Washington Post reported that between 2014 and August 2017 there were 114 IS-linked criminal cases in the United States. The first case was Nicholas Teausant, who was sentenced days before the Mateen attack, having been arrested in March 2014 for trying to provide material support to terrorism.
Between 2014 and 2016, there were nine completed terrorist incidents traceable to IS’s foreign attacks campaign, and one attack that was interrupted after it had begun. In 2017, there were at least two more completed IS attacks on the U.S., and perhaps five, pending evidentiary developments.
Hester, 25, enlisted in the U.S. Army in “late 2012”, but was given a general discharge from the military less than a year later, in “mid-2013”, after being “cited for numerous violations of U.S. Army regulations”, according to the affidavit filed by Patrick T. Casey, an FBI agent, in support of the criminal complaint against Hester.
At some point thereafter, Hester converted to Islam and at various times used the names: Muhammad Junaid al-Amreeki, Rabbani Junaid Muhammad, Rabbani Junaid Muhammad, Rami Talib, and Ali Talib Muhammad.
Hester came to the FBI’s attention in August 2016 after posting material on social media such as weapons and “one photograph of a handgun and a knife next to the Quran”. On 14 August 2016, Hester changed his social media profile picture to the black tawhid (monotheism) flag.
The FBI initiated an investigation to assess whether Hester was a threat in September 2016 by examining his online postings, and found that he had said, “Burn in hell FBI” and that “ISIS [was] created by the U.S. and Israeli government[s]”, among other things. On 30 September, Hester wrote: “we need to get something going here all those rednecks have their little militias why shouldn’t we do the same”. Other posts that day referred to the creation of a “Lion Guard”. As the affidavit dryly notes: this meant “the FBI was unable to discount HESTER as a potential security threat.”
Hester was arrested on 3 October 2016 in Columbia, Missouri, after he got into an argument with his wife at a petrol station, then “threw a folded pocket knife through a plate-glass window near the entrance of the store”, and threatened the staff who confronted him with a concealed handgun. “Hester was charged in state court with a felony count of property damage, a felony count of unlawful use of a weapon, and a misdemeanor count of assault. Hester remained in custody until on or about October 13,2016, when he was released on bond. His bond conditions included electronic monitoring.” On 17 January 2017, a warrant was issued for Hester’s arrest for violating his bond conditions—a urinalysis tested positive for cannabis. Hester pleaded guilty on 24 January 2017 “to one count of felony property damage and one count of unlawful use of a weapon, and was released on his own recognizance pending a sentencing hearing that was scheduled for March 2017. Hester was no longer on electronic monitoring after [24 January].”
It was on the day prior to this case beginning, 2 October 2016, that the undercover FBI officer (“UC-1”) “accepted a friend request on the social media platform from Hester” [emphasis added], and thereafter contacted Hester “via the private messaging function on the social media platform” to learn more about his intentions, specifically the “Lion Guard”. It can be assumed that this social media platform is Twitter. Hester informed UC-1 that “america is about to get rough”, that the U.S. government should be overthrown, that “hitting govt hard” was a starting point, but that it was “not a one man job”. Hester added that he had recently met “with some brothers” and was “looking into it now” to “come up with some serious ideas”. Hester then suggested that he and UC-1 find a secure means of communication, namely an encrypted application, which from the context given is Telegram.
In discussion with UC-1 on 17 October 2016, which began on social media and switched over to the encrypted application, Hester mused on assassinating government officials and economic sabotage of the United States. Hester said, “We need to hit hard where it counts i was thinking oil production and federal places”. Hester continued: “Govemment officials also need to be taken care of but we must hurt the economy”. “[I]t can be done but we need some big help”, Hester concluded.
Hester expressed his hatred for unbelievers and his desire to kill them as part of a global holy war. During the 17 October conversation, UC-1 had offered to send pictures of two AK-47s that “the brothers” had “moved for someone”. Hester said he wanted one of the rifles and that he would “love to shoot the kufr with [it]”. Hester added: “I want to actually make a difference and change this entire world [through] a global jihad”. Hester repeated the theme the next day: “Oil production has to be shut down to control the governments movements”. Missouri’s oil industry was too small, Hester felt, so he was looking to Texas, and also exploring other targets such as “military bases” and, less distinctly, “Washington DC” and “Wall Street”, though he did say that “[a]ny government building in DC would get attention of everyone”.
On 31 October 2016, Hester expressed his desire and willingness to meet in-person with a “brother” involved in terrorism plotting, and UC-1 was then sent a link to an invitation-only IS channel on Telegram. UC-1 said on 3 November that this man, another undercover FBI operative (“UC-2”), would be in Missouri the following week, and on 8 November the meeting took place “in UC-2’s vehicle, while it was parked outside of Hester’s residence in Columbia, Missouri”:
The meeting, which lasted about 30 minutes, … was audio and video recorded, as were HESTER’s subsequent meetings with UC-2. For this first meeting, HESTER brought his two young children, which HESTER explained could not be avoided, given his child care responsibilities that day. During the meeting, HESTER and UC-2 discussed a broad range of topics, including their respective backgrounds, employment, race and religion.
Hester conceded that he was still learning religion and had been confused by some of the competing versions, but he did not like his local mosque (“very watered down”) and, “I don’t like America, like for my kids”. Hester said: “shari’a is the only law”, and affirmed that he was “looking for an Islamic state”, even though his family circumstances prevented him making the move immediately. UC-2 did not directly engage on the matter of terrorism plotting, allowing the tacit understanding that UC-2 was “vetting [Hester] for participation in an illicit endeavor”. Later in the day, Hester sent a Telegram message to UC-1 saying, “I like the brother [UC-2] he is very smart”.
In a second meeting with UC-2 on 30 November 2016—a car journey between Hester’s place of business and his home—UC-2 gave Hester $100, explaining that it was a “duty to make sure that the brother is okay”. Hester repeatedly (and falsely) denied smoking cannabis. It was made clear at this meeting that UC-2 was seeking to clarify Hester’s sincerity—and to either vouch for him with the other “brothers”, or cease contact. Hester ended the conversation by expressing gratitude for the meeting, and later messaged UC-1 to say he felt good about this meeting with UC-2.
The work-to-home drive with UC-2 was repeated the following day, 1 December 2016, and UC-2 asked Hester for the first time to explain what he had discussed with UC-1:
HESTER said that instead of “three or four guys … shootin’ up somewhere,” he wanted to do “things that could actually make a difference, like doing something to the economy and stuff, things to hurt the economy.” HESTER said that “instead of fighting hand to hand combat,” he “was thinking about oil lines, hitting oil pipelines and oil markets.” HESTER also suggested hurting the economy by getting into “computer systems and stuff.”
UC-2 repeatedly told HESTER that he could disassociate himself from the operation at this time because “this is real.” But as they sat in the vehicle parked in front of TIESTER’s home, UC-2 cautioned that once HESTER committed himself, there would be “no turning back.” HESTER confirmed that he understood, left the vehicle to take items into the residence, but returned to continue the conversation. After thoroughly explaining to HESTER that it was acceptable for him to decide to take care of his family rather than be involved in the operation, HESTER said, “I’m in.” HESTER explained, “I wanna help the brothers and sisters anyway I can,” which included “fighting skills,” helping “spread the word,” and training others on “everything I was taught in the Army” …
UC-2 asked HESTER if he was “willing to make that sacrifice.” HESTER responded: “I can’t say yes like I’m ready to die because I don’t know where I sit with Allah right now.” When asked whether he was willing to leave his family if he could receive safe passage to travel to fight, HESTER stated, “Yes,” because the risk of death was no different than when he joined the army.
Before the conclusion of the meeting, UC-2 reiterated that HESTER could be part of the operation or could disassociate himself from it. At the same time, for security reasons, UC-2 was adamant that HESTER did not have a third option to engage in any sort of violence on his own or participate in some other operation of which UC-2 was unaware. UC-2 insisted that HESTER promise that he would engage in no such thing and UC-2 threatened to come back and find HESTER if he learned that HESTER reneged on the promise. For emphasis, and for the purpose of mitigating the security threat posed by HESTER, UC-2 displayed a knife and reminded HESTER that UC-2 knew where HESTER and his family lived, among other forceful words.
Hester messaged UC-1 on 6 December to complain about this concluding part of the meeting:
HESTER said he was not scared, but that it was wrong for UC-2 to threaten his family and that HESTER did not “like being treated like a snitch.” HESTER asked UC-1 not to raise the matter with UC-2 because HESTER did not “want to have to kill someone for running up on [HESTER’s] family.”
Hester had two further meetings with UC-2 in 2016, following the same routine as before, being driven from work to home.
Hester met UC-2 on 20 December 2016, and UC-2 said that Hester had passed a “test” set in their last meeting by obeying an instruction to refrain from the use of social media. Hester said he had cut people out of his life to avoid falling into legal trouble. UC-2 reiterated his warning against Hester doing anything individually: UC-2 told Hester that the plot involved a “big network” and would take time, which Hester said he understood and was “comfortable with”. At the end of the meeting, UC-2 gave Hester a “clean” mobile telephone.
The next day, 21 December, UC-2 gave Hester the cards containing minutes for the telephone, which were said to be sufficient until the end of January 2017, when Hester got off electronic tagging, something about which Hester expressed relief. Hester expressed a willingness to commit a terrorist attack in Missouri and thereafter to leave to the caliphate. “‘Just know you got the brothers from the Islamic State supporting you now,’ [UC-2 told HESTER,] to which HESTER expressed his appreciation. UC-2 stated that if HESTER was ready to leave Missouri, ‘we’ll leave with something to remember’. HESTER said, ‘Okay, that sounds like a plan’.”
Hester’s tagging ended on 24 January and he exchanged messages with UC-2 on 28 January, where he expressed a desire to move with his family, either to St Louis or Houston, Texas. On 29 January, UC-2 said he would be in Missouri and wanted to meet Hester. Hester “said he was looking forward to the meeting”.
Hester and UC-2 met on 31 January in UC-2’s car outside Hester’s home. Hester said he was glad to be off electronic monitoring, and lied to UC-2 about having to go back to jail—he claimed it was because he had been pulled over and somebody in the car with him possessed cannabis. Hester said he had broken the telephone supplied by UC-2 because he had gotten scared it would create a security problem for the operation. UC-2 commended Hester for this and said it was “a small gesture [that] goes a long way in the next step”. UC-2 then asked Hester to purchase a list of items:
UC-2 … stated that he needed the list back from HESTER the next day. The list, which was written on a paper napkin, included 9-volt batteries, duct tape, copper wire, and roofing nails. HESTER stated that he would purchase the items but that he did not have the money to do it that night. … UC-2 provided HESTER with $20 to purchase the items … UC-2 implied that the items would be used to make bombs, stating that those materials are needed “to make … things … to bring some kind of destruction.” HESTER responded by stating: “I’m just ready to help. I’m ready to help any way I can.”
When UC-2 stated what they are planning is “going to bring them to their knees … and then they gonna know to fear Allah,” HESTER expressed his anticipation by stating: “I can’t wait. I can’t wait.”
Hester bought the items in the morning of 1 February, though was unable to find the wire. As had been discussed, later that day, UC-2 arrived at Hester’s home and Hester opened the garage so UC-2 could back his car into it. In the boot of the car was a display of weapons. Before UC-2 showed them to Hester, UC-2 made clear that what he was about to show Hester was intended for use in an atrocity “ten times more” destructive than the Boston Marathon bombing, to be timed for various upcoming “kufr” holidays, and underlined that the operation in which Hester was now about to further implicate himself was one that included “killing a lot of people”. UC-2 added that the killers in Boston, Dzhokhar Tsarnayev and Tamerlan Tsarnayev, had been caught because they worked alone, whereas UC-2 was coordinating this attack with the Islamic State. Hester said he understood this. UC-2 then gave Hester one more chance to back out. Hester refused the opportunity.
After being shown the firearms, Hester was shown a backpack with mock pipe bombs in it and it was explained to him that the tape he bought would be used to bind several explosives together, and the backpacks would then be left at various locations to kill and maim. Hester affirmed that he was “down” with such a scheme. “UC-2 stated that the nails HESTER provided would ‘cut peoples heads off’ and HESTER responded, ‘Oh yes. Oh yeah. I know,’ indicating that HESTER understood that the nails were to be used as shrapnel for bombs. … UC-2 stated that they were going to ‘strike fear in all these infidel hearts,’ and HESTER responded that he agreed and that he was ready.”
Hester had promised at the 2 February meeting to acquire ammunition, though noted that he could not at the present time because of the criminal proceedings against him, but that he had an accomplice who would and as soon as Hester received his tax refund he would have the cash to do this. In follow-up text messages, Hester confirmed his willingness to do this.
On 4 February, Hester was asked by UC-1 to find storage units for the weaponry that UC-2 had shown him on 2 February. On 6 February, Hester sent a list of six facilities to UC-1. When UC-1 said that there appeared to be CCTV in place, Hester “reported that he was ‘seeing a lot of these [facilities] have cameras’ and that he was to determine precise locations of the cameras”. In other words, Hester had been driving around to these facilities to see if they were suitable venues; this was not simply googling.
A Telegram conversation on 7 February showed Hester again willing to participate in mass-murder on the Islamic State’s behalf:
After an exchange of greetings, HESTER asked how the “party plans” were progressing and offered to help in any way. Shortly thereafter, UC-l opined: “Once this is over and the kafir are counting their dead They [sic] will know that the Islamic State Caliphate has spread into the United States.” HESTER said he was excited, that he was “happy to be part” of it, and that it was “time they answer for their atrocities.” HESTER predicted that it was “going to be a good day for Muslims worldwide.”
Hester again enquired about the “party plans” on 11 February, and said he was still planning to get the “supplies”.
On 16 February, Hester was informed that the terrorist attack he had abetted was near:
UC-l told HESTER that the “party” would take place on Presidents’ Day (that is, February 20,2017) and that the targets of the operation would include buses, trains and a train station in Kansas City, Missouri. HESTER expressed approval and asked UC-1 whether particular “supplies” were needed. UC-1 said they needed shrapnel, mentioning nails and screws as examples. HESTER said he would “pick some things up” and added that it felt “good to help strike back at the true terrorist.”
Hester was taken into custody on 17 February:
UC-2 met HESTER in front of HESTER’s residence and HESTER joined UC-2 in the front seat of UC-2’s vehicle. HESTER had with him a plastic bag, which was later determined to contain two boxes of roofing nails, among other items. UC-2 and HESTER drove to a nearby storage facility, which was one of the facilities HESTER previously identified in his communications with UC-1. Upon arrival at the storage facility, HESTER and UC-2 briefly conducted surveillance and discussed the location of the facility’s security cameras. Shortly thereafter, HESTER was arrested.
Hester has been charged with attempting to provide material support and resources to a designated foreign terrorist organization.
ISLAMIC STATE ATTACKS IN THE UNITED STATES
One might also count the 3 May 2015 attack, guided by Junaid Hussain, which was stopped after it was underway but before it harmed anybody. Elton Simpson and Nadir Soofi drove from Phoenix, Arizona, and were shot dead outside the Curtis Culwell Centre in Garland, Texas, as they tried to murder the participants, specifically Pamela Geller, involved in a contest to draw the Prophet Muhammad. IS claimed the attack in Dabiq.
(An attempted follow-on attack by Usaama Rahim, also guided by Hussain and intending to murder Geller, was stopped much further “left of boom”, with Rahim killed resisting arrest on 2 June 2015. IS adopted Rahim as one of their martyrs in Dabiq.)