A Columbia man has been charged in federal court for his role in making preparations to launch a terrorist attack with people he believed were members of ISIS but who were actually undercover law enforcement agents.
Robert Lorenzo Hester Jr., 25, was charged in a criminal complaint filed in the U.S. District Court of Kansas City with attempting to provide material support to a foreign terrorist organization. Hester, who remains in federal custody, was arrested Friday when he arrived at an arranged meeting with an undercover law enforcement agent. The criminal complaint was signed Sunday and made public Tuesday after Hester's initial court appearance.
"First on social media, then during face-to-face meetings with an undercover FBI employee, this defendant repeatedly expressed his intent to engage in acts of violent jihad against the United States," Tammy Dickinson, United States attorney for the Western District of Missouri, said. "He believed he was part of an ISIS-sponsored terrorist attack that would result in the deaths and injuries of many innocent victims. He readily participated in the preparations for an attack, provided materials and resources for an attack, and voiced his intent to carry out an attack. I commend the FBI for protecting the public from a security threat."
Added Eric Jackson, FBI special agent in charge of the Kansas City field office: "Terrorism knows no demographic boundaries and remains the FBI's top priority. The arrest of Hester is the culmination of an extensive FBI investigation and demonstrates the challenges law enforcement faces in identifying individuals intent on causing harm."
Hester attempted to provide support to ISIS by participating in what he believed would be a deadly attack, said Mary B. McCord, acting assistant attorney general for national security. "Countering terrorist threats remains the highest priority of the National Security Division, and we will continue our efforts to identify and hold accountable those who seek to commit acts of terrorism within our borders," she said.
According to an affidavit filed in support of the criminal complaint, Hester he posed a security threat by his willingness to provide material support to a foreign terrorist organization and his willingness to help in what he believed would be a murderous terrorist attack.
Hester is a U.S. citizen who was born in Missouri. He was enlisted in the U.S. Army for less than a year, receiving a general discharge from service in mid-2013.
FBI agents reviewed Hester's publicly available posts on multiple social media accounts in September 2016. On Oct. 3, Hester was arrested by the Columbia Police Department in an unrelated case and remained in state custody until he was released on bond Oct. 13. His bond conditions included electronic monitoring. While Hester was being monitored, undercover federal agents maintained regular contact via an encrypted messaging app and text messages and met with him on several occasions.
On Jan. 24, Hester pleaded guilty in state court to property damage and unlawful use of a weapon and was released on his own recognizance. Hester was no longer on electronic monitoring after that date. But undercover agents continued to meet with Hester and communicate via social media, texting and an encrypted message app.
Hester agreed to meet again with an undercover agent Friday. When Hester arrived for the meeting, he was arrested.
The undercover investigation
According to the affidavit, the FBI became aware through multiple confidential sources of Hester's social media posts in which he expressed hostility toward the United States and suggested an adherence to radical Islamic ideology as well as a propensity for violence.
He used several online aliases, including "Mohammed Junaid Al Amreeki," "Junaid Muhammad," "Rabbani Junaid Muhammad," "Rami Talib" and "Ali Talib Muhammad."
On Oct. 3, Hester was arrested by Columbia police officers after an incident in the parking lot of a grocery store. Hester, who appeared to be in an argument with his wife, threw a folded pocket knife through a plate-glass window near the entrance of the store. When store employees confronted Hester, he forcefully placed his hand into the diaper bag he was carrying in a manner that appeared to be reaching for a weapon. Police officers later recovered a 9mm handgun from the diaper bag. He was in custody until Oct. 13, when he was released on bond and placed on electronic monitoring.
On Oct. 15, an FBI employee using an undercover identity contacted Hester by private message. They continued to communicate via social media, text and an encrypted messaging app, the affidavit said, during which Hester presented himself as a security threat, stating, for example, the U.S. government should be "overthrown" and suggesting "hitting" the government "hard," while noting it would not be "a one man job."
Hester identified categories of potential targets for attack and said he wanted a "global jihad." When the undercover employee mentioned "brothers," Hester said he wanted to meet them.
Hester then established he would act on the statements he made online. In early November, the affidavit states, Hester made arrangements with the undercover employee to meet with "one of the brothers." The undercover employee arranged this meeting with another undercover FBI employee.
During a Jan. 31 meeting, the undercover employee provided Hester with a list of items to purchase, including 9-volt batteries, duct tape, copper wire and roofing nails. The undercover employee implied the items would be used to make bombs. Hester allegedly responded by stating: "I'm just ready to help. I'm ready to help any way I can."
When the undercover employee stated what they were planning was "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 and the undercover employee agreed to meet again at Hester's residence the next day. When the undercover employee arrived, Hester gave him the items he had purchased. The undercover employee told Hester they were planning something "10 times more" than the Boston Marathon bombing, and Hester expressed his approval.
The undercover employee told Hester he could "walk away," the affidavit says, but Hester said, "I'm down." The undercover employee told Hester they were going to "wage all kinda war," and Hester again expressed his approval.
The undercover employee then pulled back blankets in the back of the SUV to show Hester three AK-47 style rifles and two .45-caliber handguns. The undercover agent told Hester, while they had plenty of firearms, they needed more ammunition.
Hester said he could not purchase ammunition because of his state charges, but had a friend who could get ammunition. Hester said he would have money to purchase ammunition after he received his tax refund and after he was paid in a couple of weeks.
The undercover employee also opened a backpack, which contained pipes and fuse, stating, "these are bombs right here." The undercover employee explained the duct tape Hester provided would be used to tape the bombs together, which Hester acknowledged, and the nails Hester provided would "cut peoples' heads off."
Hester responded: "Oh yeah. I know," indicating he understood the nails were to be used as shrapnel for bombs.
The undercover employee stated they had more backpacks they were going to put in different locations. Hester acknowledged he understood and stated they had to be smarter than the Boston Marathon bombers.
The undercover employee said they were going to "strike fear in all these infidel hearts," and Hester said he agreed and was ready.
According to the affidavit, Hester contacted the first undercover employee via text message on Feb. 2 and indicated he would "have some more stuff in a couple of weeks when I get paid." Hester asked the undercover employee, "When you talk to the brother again, let him know I'll have some more gifts in a couple of weeks."
On Feb. 4, 6, 7, 11 and 16, Hester communicated with an undercover employee he was excited, he was "happy to be part" of it, and it was "time they answer for their atrocities." Hester asked how the "party plan" was coming along and reiterated he would get more "supplies."
The undercover employee told Hester the "party" would take place on Presidents Day, and the targets of the operation would include buses, trains and a train station in Kansas City. Hester said, according to the affidavit, it felt "good to help strike back at the true terrorist."
On Friday, Hester met again with the second undercover employee and provided more roofing nails. Hester accompanied the undercover employee to a nearby storage facility, where the two examined the security cameras. He was arrested shortly thereafter.
Evidence supporting the charge against Hester must still be presented to a federal trial jury.