Informant role raises questions over thwarted Capitol Hill attack plot

Analysis: Christopher Cornell, 20, was in close contact with an FBI informant whose identity has not been disclosed

Christopher Lee Cornell, 20, is pictured in his booking photo on January 14, 2015 in Butler County, Ohio.
Butler County Sheriff's Office / Getty Images

A plot by an alleged Islamic State sympathizer to attack the U.S. Capitol with pipe bombs and automatic rifles may sound dramatic, but the FBI hastened to reassure the American public after the Jan. 14 arrest that it had never been in any real peril. That's because the FBI had been monitoring 20-year-old suspect Christopher Cornell from the very outset of the plot — a revelation designed to reassure anxious citizens, but which also raised the perennial question of entrapment that faces law enforcement when undercover personnel or informants become involved in a criminal conspiracy. 

Cornell's parents certainly believe their son was incapable of drawing up the attack plan and assembling the requisite logistics on his own; they allege their son had been set up by the FBI. 

The suspect's past certainly indicates a struggle with social and emotional issues. His mental state has come into question in 2013, when he protested at a 9/11 memorial with a sign that read, “The Freemasons were behind it. 9/11 was an inside job.”

A local from Cornell's home neighborhood of Green Township, Cincinnati, described him as the "loner" that has become something of an archetype in stories of contemporary American mass violence. “He walked the halls alone," reported WCPO9 Cincinnati. "He ate lunch alone.”

According to police reports, Cornell suffered from "oppositional defiance disorder" —a pattern of disobedient, hostile, and defiant behavior toward authority figures — and was once charged with domestic violence after a physical altercation with his parents.

Cornell’s parents believe the FBI drew their son into the plot, although the bureau — having been similarly criticized in previous arrest cases — took pains to show this was not the case.

Corner was arrested after purchasing two M-15 semi-automatic rifles and 600 rounds of ammunition at Point Blank Gun Store and Range on Jan. 14, where the FBI had tipped off the owner that Cornell would be stopping by to make a purchase. “If I hadn’t been given any kind of warning ahead of time, I probably would not have suspected he was up to, what he was doing,” gun shop owner John Dean told CNN.

John Cornell, Christopher’s father, told NBC News his son only had about $1,200 to his name, which would not be enough to pay for the two semi-automatic rifles and ammunition.

"I know for a fact he didn’t have (the money), because we counted his money just the other night," John Cornell said. "These guns cost almost $2,000. Where did that money come from? Well, it came from the FBI," he added. "They set him up."

In the criminal complaint, the FBI alleges that the 20-year-old “saved money to fund the attack.”

The informant

The confidential FBI informant, who met with Cornell on at least two separate occasions in the Fall of 2014, had his own personal interests in the case.

According to the FBI criminal complaint, the unnamed informant, “began cooperating with the FBI in order to obtain favorable treatment with respect to his criminal exposure on an unrelated case.” The complaint did not reveal what charges or potential sentence the informant is facing.

The informant allegedly “supplied information to the FBI about a person using the alias of Raheel Mahrus Ubaydah (Defendant CHRISTOPHER CORNELL) who posted comments and information supportive of ISIL through Twitter accounts.” The complaint says Cornell began using that Twitter account in the August 2014.

Cornell’s Twitter messages, and other online communications between with the informant are potentially incriminating evidence in the case, such as when he said he did not believe he would get specific authorization for an attack on the U.S. from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. “I believe that we should just wage jihad under our own orders and plan attacks and everything.”

However, at least one message that the FBI publicized reveals Cornell may have been delusional.

Cornell said told the informant, “We already got a thumbs up from the brothers over there and Anwar al Awlaki before his martyrdom and many others.”

Anwar al-Awlaki, who was an influential member of Al-Qaeda’s branch in Yemen, was killed in 2011 by a U.S. drone strike. Twenty-year-old Cornell only converted to Islam six months ago, according to his family, years after Awlaki was killed.

The process of his religious conversion is also something of a mystery. Members of Cincinnati-area mosques say they have never seen Cornell before, suggesting he had not become part of the local Muslim community.

The FBI has previously been criticized for sting operations in which informants were used to bait “home grown terrorists”. One of the most high-profile of these cases occurred in 2009, when four ex-convicts from Newburgh, NY, were arrested for allegedly planning to shoot down military airplanes and blow out a Bronx synagogue. The informant involved, Shahed Hussain, who agreed to work with the FBI to avoid deportation after being arrested for an unrelated crime, drove fancy cars and paid for the suspects’ rent, food and drugs — all on the government’s tab.

Hussain, who drew up the attack plans and provided the inert weaponry, posed as an intermediary with an armed group in Pakistan and offered James Cromitie, Onta Williams, David Williams, and Laguerre Payen financial incentives — $250,000, a free vacation and a car to one suspect — for help with the attack. All of the “Newburgh Four” are serving a 25-year sentence for a terrorist plot that never existed before the informant became involved, and which never posed a real threat because the weapons involved were inert.

In 2007, the case of the Fort Dix Five involved a fake plan to attack a New Jersey military base. In that instance, the informant's criminal past included attempted murder, while another admitted in court at least two of the suspects — who are now serving life in prison — had no knowledge any plot.

Full details of the Cornell case, and of the role played by the informant, have yet to emerge. But as the FBI itself noted, "the public was not in danger during this investigation."

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