FBI nabs man, thwarts attack on Cleveland


cleveland.com

CLEVELAND

For the second time in six years, the FBI reported having prevented a home-grown terrorist from carrying out an attack designed to cause wide-scale death and destruction in Northeast Ohio.

At a Monday news conference, the FBI in Cleveland and the Joint Terrorism Task Force announced they had arrested a Maple Heights man who was plotting to help al-Qaida detonate a bomb in downtown Cleveland on the Fourth of July.

Demetrius N. Pitts, 48, a Muslim who the FBI reported had been radicalized in the United States, was charged with attempting to “provide material support or resources to a foreign terrorist organization.”

The investigation of Pitts has similarities to the FBI’s 2012 investigation that foiled a bridge-bombing plot. In both cases, the FBI used undercover investigators posing as would-be accomplices and promising to provide the explosives.

The FBI learned about Pitts’ disdain for America on Dec. 31, 2015, after discovering suspicious Facebook activity under the name Abdur Raheem Rafeeq, later determined to be Pitts, according to an affidavit filed in federal court.

In 2017, Pitts “expressed a desire to recruit people to kill Americans that were against Muslims and also stated he would have no remorse if he killed in the name of religion,” according to the affidavit.

Further investigation of Pitts by the FBI lead to his meeting on June 15, 2018, in Willoughby with an undercover FBI employee posing as an al-Qaida “brother,” and eventually to Pitts scouting downtown Cleveland for a location where al-Qaida could detonate a bomb on the Fourth of July when people gathered for fireworks.

FBI Special Agent in Charge Stephen Anthony said Pitts had the “desire and intent” to commit the act, although he declined to say whether Pitts could actually have made or acquired a bomb himself.

“Law enforcement cannot sit back and wait for Mr. Pitts to commit a violent attack,” Anthony said during the news conference. “We don’t have the luxury of hoping an individual decides not to harm someone or get others to act, especially when his continued, repeated intentions were to do exactly that.”

Cleveland Police Calvin Williams said the city already planned stepped-up security on the Fourth as a matter of course, and that additional officers won’t necessarily be deployed. He said police will be on a heightened state of alert and that the public needs to be vigilant.

In recent weeks, Pitts also talked about wanting to travel to Philadelphia, and on Sunday he told the undercover agent he wanted to conduct reconnaissance for an attack using a truck packed with explosives, similar to the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, authorities said in the complaint.

Pitts told the agent that Philadelphia would be the “big target” and that the attack “will be done” on Labor Day, according to an affidavit. Pitts also pointed to possible targets, including Philadelphia’s City Hall and a federal building, the court document said.

In Washington, White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders said that “President Trump commends the work of the DOJ and the FBI in helping stop this would-be attacker.”

Within hours of the news conference, praise for the FBI investigation poured in from Ohio politicians in Cleveland and in Washington.

“This plot underscores the threat we continue to face from home-grown terrorism,” U.S. Sen. Rob Portman said in a statement.

U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions and FBI Director Christopher Wray also praised the work of federal agents in a statement Monday.

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