Wednesday’s arrest of Christopher Lee Cornell, a 20-year-old U.S. citizen from Ohio, marked the first Islamic extremism-related arrest of 2015 and the first incident of an attempted domestic terror attack motivated by a radical interpretation of Islam since 2013.
Cornell is accused of attempting to attack the U.S. Capitol building by planting and detonating pipe bombs at and near the building and then using a semi-automatic rifle to increase casualty counts. The plot was the first since December 2013, when Kansas resident Terry Lee Loewen allegedly attempted to bomb the Wichita Mid-Continent Airport.
Cornell’s alleged plot comes at a time of increasing calls for violence and homegrown extremism by Islamic State of Iraq and Syria(ISIS), as well as the continued influence of Al Qaeda propagandists including Anwar al-Awlaki and the power of social media in the modern radicalization process. Awlaki, who was killed in a U.S. drone strike in 2011, was an English-language spokesman for Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).
Cornell was reportedly hoping to undertake his attack as a way to support ISIS. This fits with current trends in extremism: The vast majority of the identified Americans known to have engaged with extremism in 2014 sought to join or aid ISIS.
Cornell, who used the alias Raheel Mahrus Ubaydah, Tweeted ISIS propaganda and Awlaki quotes and apparently found justification for his alleged plot in the propaganda materials he accessed from ISIS and Anwar al-Awlaki.
Although ISIS leadership is currently at odds with Al Qaeda leadership, the group still cites Awlaki as an ideological leader. It is not uncommon for apparent terrorist supports online to share materials from both including ISIS and AQAP despite fighting between the groups’ leadership.
According to court documents, Cornell claimed to have contacted members of ISIS in hopes that they would assist him in his efforts to attack the U.S. He also watched extremist videos and used his computer to research bomb making instructions and information about how to purchase firearms, and he communicated with an undercover informant he believed to be a co-conspirator using instant messaging services. He told the informant “I believe that we should just wage jihad under our own orders and plan attacks,” according to court documents.
Some of his apparent Tweets indicated support for lone wolf attacks, including one that praised attacks in Canada by Martin Rouleau Couture and Michael Zehaf Bibeau stating, “May Allah reward the brothers who fought and received Shahada (martyrdom) in Canada! May these recent attacks send terror into the hearts of the kufr (disbelievers)!
According to family members, Cornell had converted to Islam less than a year prior to his arrest.
According to FBI Director James Comey, the FBI is currently tracking nearly 150 Americans who traveled to Syria, “a significant number” of whom went there to fight. Other reports have indicated that close to 90 additional Americans are believed to have died fighting or attempted to travel abroad to join extremist groups but failed.
17 of the 22 individuals who have been publicly identified as engaging in terrorism in 2014 sought to join or aid ISIS.