An Ohio man who converted to Islam and became radicalized in the U.S. was plotting to attack Cleveland’s July Fourth fireworks celebration, hoping to hit America at its core, the FBI said Monday.
Agents said they have recordings of Mr. Pitts plotting attacks, including one plan to send remote-controlled cars packed with explosives and shrapnel toward the children of U.S. military officers marching in Cleveland’s Independence Day parade.
“Just last week, this individual was walking around downtown Cleveland, taking reconnaissance for what he thought was a large-scale attack on the Fourth of July,” said Justin Herdman, U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Ohio. “He looked for a place to park a van full of explosives.”
Authorities said Mr. Pitts, a U.S. citizen living in Maple Heights, Ohio, expressed on social media his desire to join al Qaeda and kill Americans in large-scale terrorist attacks.
“Look at our Muslim brothers and sisters being slaughtered every day,” Mr. Pitts told an FBI informant, according to court documents. “They kill one of us, we kill ten thousand of them. They kill two of us, we kill they whole city.”
Mr. Pitts, who is also known as Abdur Raheem Rafeeq and Salah ad-Deem Osama Waleed, started expressing anti-American sentiment in 2015 and soon showed up on the FBI’s radar. This year, Mr. Pitts met with an undercover FBI agent who he believed had also been radicalized, according to court documents.
The undercover agent and Mr. Pitts met June 22 in a Cleveland suburb, according to an affidavit filed in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Ohio. During the meeting, Mr. Pitts told the undercover agent that he wanted to attack Cleveland’s Fourth of July celebration, the affidavit said.
“What would hit them at their core?” Mr. Pitts is quoted as saying in the affidavit. “Blow up in the, have a bomb blow up the Fourth of July parade.
FBI agent Stephen Anthony did not saying during a Monday press conference whether Mr. Pitts could make or had access to an explosive. But he did say he had the “desire and intent” to conduct the attack.
Mr. Pitts had scouted locations for the attack before settling on Voinovich Park in downtown Cleveland, where the parade and fireworks celebration would take place. He told the undercover agent that he liked that the location is near a U.S. Coast Guard station and a federal building, the affidavit says.
Mr. Pitts planned to conduct more reconnaissance of the park, including a tour of the Coast Guard station, the affidavit says. After completing the reconnaissance, he reported back to the undercover agent that he wanted to “destroy the government,” according to court documents.
The undercover agent met with Mr. Pitts one last time so he could receive a cellphone and give its contents to their “al Qaeda brothers,” the affidavit says. Two videos in which Mr. Pitts pledged allegiance to al Qaeda and other messages expressing support for the Islamist terrorist group were included on the phone.
“His Facebook posts were, quite frankly, disturbing,” Mr. Anthony said. “They included words to the effect that ‘we as Muslims need to start training like this every day. We need to know how to shoot guns throw hand grenades and hand-to-hand combat.’ “
Mr. Pitts met with the undercover agent one last time before his arrest Sunday. He told the agent that he planned to travel back to Philadelphia so he could conduct reconnaissance for a terrorist attack on a federal building, similar to the one in Oklahoma City in 1995, authorities said. The goal of that attack, he told the officer, would be to “hit ‘em in the gut.”
When the agent told Mr. Pitts that people would die in the attack, he responded, “I don’t care,” and indicated that he would “still be able to sleep,” according to the affidavit.
Mr. Pitts is charged with one count of attempting to provide material support to a designated foreign terrorist organization. If convicted, he could face up to 20 years in a federal prison, Mr. Herdman said Monday.
Authorities said Mr. Pitts has a lengthy criminal background, including charges of felonious assault, domestic violence and aggravated robbery.
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