The case against two suspects in a foiled terror plot against a Seattle military facility is built on hundreds of hours of recordings that captured them shopping for weapons, casing targets for their attack and fretting over details.
They sat in a third-floor SeaTac apartment wondering if they had enough bullets.
Already they had purchased assault rifles and had talked about how to handle grenades. But the apartment’s tenant, their leader, 33-year-old Abu Khalid Abdul-Latif, feared they still lacked the firepower for a real massacre.
“We’re all going to look like fools if all we have is two clips apiece and we run out,” Abdul-Latif told his two colleagues Tuesday afternoon.
“We’re not only trying to kill people,” he continued. “We’re trying to get something that’s going to be on CNN and all over the world.”
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But Abdul-Latif’s secret plans to send a bloody message appear to have been sabotaged by another secret: One of the alleged co-conspirators secretly recorded their conversations for the FBI — and got paid for it.
Late Wednesday evening, federal agents acted on that informant’s work and arrested Abdul-Latif and a friend, 32-year-old Walli Mujahidh, of Los Angeles. The Justice Department alleges the pair had conspired to gun down military and government workers at a military recruit-processing station in Seattle in hopes of igniting an uprising of Muslims in the U.S.
The case is built almost entirely on information obtained by a confidential informant. It includes hundreds of hours of audio and video recordings, along with other surveillance data — including emails and text messages, according to a criminal complaint filed in U.S. District Court which quotes extensively from the recordings.
One clear purpose of recording everything is to build a case. But another may not be so obvious: to keep the informant honest.
“A paid informant has an incentive to produce results,” said Seattle criminal lawyer John Wolfe, who has an extensive practice in federal court. “If you don’t record everything they do, all the time, you have no way of knowing what that person might say or do that might lead to someone else crossing the line.”
Informants “are absolutely necessary,” added Mark Bartlett, a Seattle lawyer who spent 25 years as a federal prosecutor here. “But it is impossible to be too careful when using them.
“You have to remember that informants are turning on people who think they are their friends,” Bartlett said. “The best way to deal with this is to have physical corroboration of everything they do.”
The complaint makes a number of disclosures about the informant, including the fact that he is a five-time felon — although the case agent stated that none of those convictions involved “crimes of dishonesty.” While the complaint does not identify the informant, Abdul-Latif’s wife called him a friend her husband had met at the SeaTac mosque years before.
What is not clear from the charging papers is whether the informant asked police for money at the outset, or whether payments were in reward for coming forward.
It was on Memorial Day that Abdul-Latif, also known as Joseph Anthony Davis, first told his friend he wanted help killing soldiers, the complaint says. It would be another week before agents heard it themselves.
The informant had told the authorities that Abdul-Latif had asked for AK-47s, rocket-propelled grenades and bulletproof vests so he and a friend could shoot up Fort Lewis. And, the informant claimed, they wanted them soon. “The longer we wait, the more we’ll talk ourselves out of it,” the informant said Abdul-Latif told him, according to the criminal complaint.
On June 6, the informant visited Abdul-Latif’s home in building E of the tan and brown Hunt Club Apartments. This time he wore hidden recording equipment.
He told Abdul-Latif that M16 assault rifles would be easier to get. He could get three for $1,200. The two men called Mujahidh in Los Angeles while Abdul-Latif studied the guns online.
On the phone, the informant asked Mujahidh if he was actually committed, the complaint says.
“You don’t have to worry about me,” Mujahidh told him. He had nothing to lose, and “everything to gain.”
The plan was to bring Mujahidh to Washington. They would camp and practice their weaponry skills in Wenatchee, the complaint charges. Then Mujahidh would drive a “truck that looks like the Titanic” like a battering ram through the front gate at Fort Lewis. Abdul-Latif and the informant would burst inside with guns blazing. Mujahidh would join them minutes later.
Abdul-Latif made clear what kind of warrior he wanted Mujahidh to be: a “psychopath.”
But after the call, Abdul-Latif and the informant studied Fort Lewis on the Internet. Abdul-Latif devised a new plan. He had served in the U.S. Navy in the 1990s and now decided they should hit a military recruiting station downtown. That would give them a tactical edge
“It’s a confined space, not a lot of people carrying weapons, and we’d have an advantage,” Abdul-Latif said.
When Abdul-Latif and the informant met the next day, Abdul-Latif was rethinking again, the complaint charges. The downtown recruiting station was not right, he said. He suggested they hit the one on East Marginal Way South in South Seattle. But they’d need to know the layout.
“We need to get inside that building,” Abdul-Latif told the informant. “The idea I had was for you to kind of go undercover … go in there and see what the first floor looks like.”
Abdul-Latif said he’d never heard of a terrorist attack on a recruiting station.
“Imagine how many young Muslims, if we’re successful, will try to hit these kinds of centers,” he said. “Imagine how fearful America will be, and they’ll know they can’t push the Muslims around.”
First, though, they’d need the guns.
Recorded on video
They sat in the informant’s car a week later, June 14, as he reached into a duffel bag and pulled out a submachine gun. He handed the weapon to Abdul-Latif.
“Tell me about it,” Abdul-Latif said.
The duo had been busy for days, according to the complaint. They had scoped out the processing center, noting security cameras and an armed guard. (“We’ll just kill him right away … we can kill him first,” Abdul-Latif had said earlier.)
The pair had bought a bus ticket for Mujahidh to come to Seattle, leaving it under a password: “OBL,” for Osama bin Laden.
Now they were engaged in show and tell, so Abdul-Latif could examine weapons he could purchase from the informant’s “supplier.”
This time the men were being recorded on video, according to the complaint.
Federal agents had rendered the guns inoperable. Still, the informant described in great detail how to use them. The blizzard of information appeared to overwhelm his friend.
“We’re going to have to work on this a little bit,” Abdul-Latif said, according to the complaint.
Next the informant pulled out a fragmentation grenade.
“For real?” Abdul-Latif asked. “If you throw it, it will blow up?”
Abdul-Latif pulled out a map and began discussing their plans, debating where and how they’d use the weapons.
We “want to throw a grenade right here to prevent anybody from running after us,” he said. “We go over here, we can, we can either throw a grenade in the cafeteria, or we can throw a grenade in the corner.”
The informant told him a grenade would kill or maim anyone within 15 yards and asked if he really wanted five.
“I want to do what we can afford,” Abdul-Latif said.
In the end, Abdul-Latif told the informant to buy three assault rifles and six magazines. They would train with the M16s first and get the rest later.
“Let’s get proficient with this, because this is the most difficult piece of equipment,” he said.
Days later Abdul-Latif forked over $800 for the guns, even though he’d filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy a month earlier, claiming to have only $1 in his checking account.
Watched by agents
They finally met Mujahidh at the Seattle bus station this week — on Tuesday. They were watched by federal agents, who by then appeared to be watching locations they frequented, the complaint says.
James Dinwiddie, 20, a fellow resident of Hunt Club apartments, said he saw a mirrorlike box in the bushes near his home. He kicked it with his foot, wondering if it was surveillance equipment.
“Then someone came out of a car and said they were FBI — making sure there were no sex offenders here and no one selling drugs,” Dinwiddie said.
Dinwiddie said he was told to keep it a secret and not touch the cameras.
The men were recorded in a restaurant that afternoon, when Mujahidh confessed that he expected to die.
“That’s what it’s going to come down to, because if they surround the building, the only way out is through them … and guns blazing man, guns blazing,” he said. “We’re not walking out of there alive.”
They returned to Abdul-Latif’s apartment that afternoon and talked strategy. Mujahidh later described his own plans.
“This is what I’m going to do: I’m gonna post guard. I’m gonna come in, pop-pop the security guard. Run into the cafeteria, lay everybody down in there. Pop-pop-pop-pop. ‘Get on the ground, get on the ground, get on the ground!’ And these officers right here, pop-pop-pop-pop.”
When Abdul-Latif later outlined each man’s role — Mujahidh was to be the driver — Mujahidh replied, “My thing is, I want more of the action!”
Abdul-Latif also issued a warning: We “have to promise, if any of us gets caught or thrown in jail for any reason before this happens, if they offer you a deal to talk, don’t talk.”
They agreed to meet Wednesday evening at a Seattle warehouse. The informant had told Abdul-Latif and Mujahidh that the guns would be waiting. Federal agents had the building wired for audio and video.
During the drive over, Abdul-Latif appeared to get contemplative.
“I’m thinking, do we want to last for a while? Or do we want to go in there and just kill people and just run out and commit suicide?” he asked. “Or do we want to hold — control the building … control the building, hold it down for a while until we’re out of artillery?”
At the warehouse, both men handled the guns, according to the complaint. Then the informant put them back in a bag.
That’s when the FBI made the arrests.
Mujahidh was taken to a police interview room, where he spoke with agents for an hour. Then he was read his rights, which he waived.
He admitted he’d traveled from Los Angeles to kill military personnel. He detailed his role, and his plans to die a martyr.
Abdul-Latif made no significant statements.
Seattle Times staff reporter Christine Willmsen contributed to this story.
Craig Welch: 206-464-2093 or firstname.lastname@example.org