WICHITA, KANSAS – An American avionics technician who prosecutors say sympathized with violent terrorists was arrested Friday as part of an FBI sting after he drove a vehicle loaded with what he thought were explosives to a Wichita airport.
Authorities said the planned assault by Terry Lee Loewen at Wichita’s Mid-Continent Regional airport was aimed at supporting al-Qaida.
Loewen, 58, who worked at the airport for Hawker Beechcraft, was arrested before dawn as he tried to drive into the tarmac. The materials in the car were inert, and no one at the airport was in any immediate danger, authorities said.
Loewen, who lives in Wichita, had been under investigation for about six months after making online statements about wanting to commit “violent jihad” against the United States, U.S. Attorney Barry Grissom said. Eventually, an undercover FBI agent befriended Loewen, striking up conversations about terrorism and Loewen’s admiration for those who plotted violence against American interests.
Authorities said Loewen spent months studying the layout of the airport, its flight patterns and other details to maximize fatalities and damage in an attack. During that time, he developed a plan with other conspirators to use his employee access card to pull off the attack. The conspirators were actually undercover FBI agents.
Loewen planned to die in the explosion, a fate that he said was inevitable in his quest to become a martyr in a jihad against America, according to court documents.
Authorities said they believe Loewen acted alone. No other arrests were expected.
Loewen made an initial court appearance Friday afternoon, answering “yes” in a strong voice to various procedural questions. A U.S. magistrate ordered that Loewen remain jailed at least until a hearing next Friday after prosecutors said he was a flight risk and a danger to the community.
His wife and attorney declined comment after the hearing.
The case appears to be similar to a string of cases in the law enforcement world since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Wide use of FBI sting operations has prompted frequent controversy over balancing the needs of law enforcement and civil liberties. One involved an undercover agent pretending to be a terrorist who provided a teenager with a phony car bomb, watched him plant the bomb in downtown Chicago and press a trigger.
Critics of the tactics — defense attorneys and civil liberties groups — say the FBI is engaging in systematic violations of peoples’ constitutional rights by luring targets into committing crimes. The FBI, in turn, says the stings are a vital law enforcement tool that has averted potentially deadly terrorist attacks.
In Loewen’s case, court documents that he talked about downloading documents about jihad, martyrdom and an al-Qaida “manual” during his online conversations.
Investigators said he also frequently expressed admiration for Anwar al-Awlaki, the American-born al-Qaida leader who was killed in a 2011 drone strike in Yemen. Al-Awlaki emerged as an influential preacher among militants living in the West, with his English language Internet sermons calling for jihad, or holy war, against the U.S.
In August, an undercover agent offered to introduce Loewen to someone who could help him engage in jihad. A few days later, he mentioned providing a “tour” of the airport for one of the undercover agents.
In September, the undercover agent told Loewen he had returned from overseas after meeting with individuals connected with al-Qaida. The agent told him the “brothers” were excited to hear about his access to the airport and asked Loewen if he would be willing to plant some type of device, according to court documents.
“Wow! That’s some heavy stuff you just laid down. Am I interested? Yes. I still need time to think about it, but I can’t imagine anything short of arrest stopping me,” Loewen told the agent, adding that he needed to let Allah guide him.
The documents allege that he also asked for reassurances that he wasn’t being set up, saying his greatest fear was not completing the operation.
The criminal complaint also details a meeting in November with other undercover agents in which they discussed executing the plan prior to Christmas in order to cause the greatest physical and economic damage. He also provided components from his employer that the agents requested to wire the fake explosive device, according to court documents.
On Wednesday, Loewen met with another undercover agent and helped assemble the false bomb, court documents allege.
Loewen was charged with attempting to use a weapon of mass destruction, attempting to damage property and attempting to provide support to terrorist group al-Qaida.
Hawker Beechcraft spokeswoman Nicole Alexander confirmed Friday that Loewen worked at the company’s aircraft maintenance facility at the airport, but she said he has been suspended amid the investigation.