The FBI claimed Monday it thwarted an al-Qaeda-backed plot to bomb the Fourth of July parade in downtown Cleveland, Ohio using cars laden with explosives designed specifically to kill members of the armed forces and their families.
FBI Special Agent in Charge Stephen Anthony said authorities arrested Demetrius Nathaniel Pitts, an American also known as Abdur Raheem Rafeeq, 48, on charges of conspiring to provide material support to a foreign terrorist organization.
Pitts, who moved to Cleveland in May, had reportedly scouted locations for his Independence Day attack. Among them were Voinovich Park, considered a prime spot for firework viewing and on July 4 is usually bustling with families enjoying the national holiday, and the U.S. Coast Guard Station, also located in downtown Cleveland.
“Pitts, a U.S. citizen living in Ohio, pledged his allegiance to al-Qaeda, a foreign terrorist organization, and was planning to conduct an attack in Cleveland on Independence Day, the very day we celebrate the freedoms we have in this country,” Anthony said, in a statement.
According to the federal complaint, Pitts, who was using his alias Abdur Raheem Rafeeq, first came to the FBI’s attention on Dec. 31, 2015, after he sent a private Facebook message to a page linked to “The Craig Sewing Show,” a political commentary program based in California, saying “Fuck America and their arm forces. The USA will be destroy. Allahu Akbar.”
In Jan. 2017, the FBI noticed that Pitts began commenting on pictures “believed to be from a jihad training camp.” “We as Muslim need to start. Training like this everyday. We need to know how to shoot guns. Throw hand grenades hand to hand combat,” Pitts wrote in one comment. “If you fear death. Then don't say you love Islam.”
After conducting a review of his Facebook page, investigators encountered more threats of violence, which continued to escalate over the course of the year. By Feb. 2018, Pitts was expressing interest in joining al Qaeda, training overseas, and then returning back to the U.S. to carry out an attack.
An undercover FBI agent met with Pitts in Willoughby, Ohio, just 20 miles from Cleveland, on June 15.
“What would hit them in the core,” Pitts told the agent, according to a transcript of their conversation. “Have a bomb to blow up at the 4th of July parade.”
He also discussed his plans to use remote control cars as explosive devices, and drive them towards service members’ families.
In addition to conducting reconnaissance in downtown Cleveland, which he did alongside the undercover agent, Pitts planned to travel to Philadelphia, his hometown, to scout for further attack locations.
Pitts has a criminal record, including domestic violence, felonious assault and aggravated robbery, authorities said. He’s scheduled to appear in front of the U.S. Magistrate later on Monday, and is facing a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison.
Cover image: The FBI headquarters is seen on February 2, 2018 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)