LUBBOCK, Texas (AP) - The world is watching to see how the justice system treats a college student from Saudi Arabia who is accused of buying chemicals online as part of a plan to blow up key U.S. targets, his attorney said Friday.
Khalid Ali-M Aldawsari appeared in federal court in Lubbock on Friday. He has been charged with attempted use of a weapon of mass destruction after federal authorities said he bought explosive materials online and planned to hide them inside dolls and baby carriages to blow up dams, nuclear plants and former President George W. Bush's Dallas home.
Aldawsari's attorney, Rod Hobson, declined to comment as he left the courtroom but said in a statement that his client will plead not guilty. The "eyes of the world are on this case" and how Aldawsari is treated, Hobson said.
"This is not 'Alice in Wonderland,' where the Queen said 'First the punishment then the trial,'" Hobson said in his statement. "This is America, where everyone is entitled to the presumption of innocence, due process, effective representation of counsel and a fair trial."
U.S. Magistrate Judge Nancy Koenig asked the 20-year-old Aldawsari - who was handcuffed with his feet shackled, and flanked by armed officers - if he understood the charges against him, and ordered him to remain in custody until a March 11 detention hearing. Aldawsari faces a maximum penalty of life in prison and a $250,000 fine if convicted.
Aldawsari, who was legally in the U.S. on a student visa, studied chemical engineering at Texas Tech University until January when he transferred to a nearby college to study business.
Prosecutors allege that he was influenced by 9/11 and speeches by Osama bin Laden and had secretly planned for years to launch a terrorist attack in the U.S. According to court documents released Thursday, he described in his journal a plan to travel to New York City, place bombs in several rental cars for remote detonation and leave the vehicles in different places during rush hour.
"After mastering the English language, learning how to build explosives and continuous planning to target the infidel Americans, it is time for jihad," or holy war, Aldawsari wrote in the journal, according to the documents filed by prosecutors.
Robert Casey, the FBI special agent in charge of the case, said Thursday there was a range of targets being considered.
"I can't speak to his state of mind or the priority in his mind of any of the range of targets we think we discovered," he said.
Federal authorities said a chemical company, Carolina Biological Supply of Burlington, N.C., reported $435 in suspicious orders by Aldawsari to the FBI on Feb. 1. Separately, Ann Arbor, Mich.-based shipping company Con-way Freight notified Lubbock police and the FBI the same day with similar suspicions because it appeared the order wasn't intended for commercial use.
Curtis Shewchuk, senior director of corporate security for Con-way, credited a dock worker and service center manager for flagging the package and triggering the company's Homeland Security escalation plan, which was developed shortly after 9/11 and has been in place for about seven years.
Within weeks, federal agents had traced Aldawsari's other online purchases, discovered extremist posts he made on the Internet and secretly searched his apartment, computer and e-mail accounts and read his diary, according to court records.
The White House said President Barack Obama was notified about the alleged plot before Aldawsari's arrest on Wednesday.
Hobson said that media coverage of the case had been "very one sided."
"I request that everyone take a step back and allow the legal proceedings to unfold in a timely and orderly fashion," he said in his statement. "This is a wonderful opportunity for us to show the world how truly fair our legal system is - even to those who are accused of trying to harm our country."
The court documents say Aldawsari wrote that he was planning an attack even before coming to the U.S. on a scholarship.
Tibor Nagy, Texas Tech's vice provost of international affairs and a former US ambassador to Ethiopia and Guinea, said students from other countries who want to attend college in the U.S. have many hoops to jump through.
They first must be selected by a sponsor - a Saudi industrial company not identified in court documents was paying Aldawsari's tuition and living expenses in the U.S. - and gain admittance to a school, then apply for a visa. Then government databases are checked, Nagy said.
"At the end of the day, it's the U.S. government who is the decider on whether or not a student shows up on campus," he said.
Representatives at the Saudi embassy in Washington, D.C., and at the consulate in Houston did not immediately return calls for comment.
The case outlined in court documents is significant because it suggests radicalized foreigners can live quietly in the U.S. without raising suspicions from neighbors, classmates, teachers or others. But it also showed how quickly U.S. law enforcement can move when tipped that a terrorist plot may be unfolding. Casey declined to go into why the arrest occurred when it did.
"We think we have neutralized any other threats or imminent harm surrounding the actions that he's charged with, but the investigation is continuing," Casey said.