As Lubbock FBI Agent Michael Orndorff approaches retirement, he’s looking back on one of the most significant cases in his career.
Eight years ago, the FBI arrested a student for attempting to build a weapon of mass destruction in his apartment, just steps away from the Texas Tech campus. The investigation went all the way to the top, with agents briefing then-FBI Director Robert Mueller.
It all started with a tip about a suspicious package.
“The investigation started when I got a call from the Lubbock Police Department,” Agent Orndorff said. “They had been contacted by Conway Freight.”
The trucking company noticed something unusual about the box, calling police and sending it back to the chemical company, Carolina Biological. Within 30 minutes, Carolina Biological had notified the FBI as well.
“Basically if you see something say something,” Orndorff said. “The Trip Wire program, with the chemical company and the trucking company, was vital to this investigation.”
The box was addressed to chemical engineering student Khalid Aldawsari. He had come from Saudi Arabia on a scholarship, starting at Texas Tech but eventually transferring to South Plains College.
“His grades in high school were all A’s,” Orndorff said. “I mean, only a hundred people get that scholarship, and he was one of them. He was a very bright person.”
Aldawsari kept a blog, detailing his activities and life in Lubbock. Orndorff said his writings began to show a slow downward spiral as he became radicalized.
“He started not attending classes,” Orndorff said. “One of his journal entries was, ‘I am not studying like I did back home because I want to concentrate on jihad.'”
The box contained a chemical called Phenol, commonly used in cleaning supplies. Aldawsari told the chemical company he was experimenting with cleaning products, when in reality, he was searching for ways to create picric acid.
Orndorff explained picric acid was “used by the Japanese in World War II in their bombs.”
The FBI decided to get a closer look inside the student’s apartment. They reached out to Andy Clayton, who managed the property where Aldawsari was living, off of Glena Goodacre Boulevard.
“I got a phone call from my assistant, saying the FBI was here and they needed to talk to me,” Clayton said. “I didn’t give it much thought.”
He remembers his staff saying Aldawsari recevied a lot of packages, but other than that, there were no red flags.
They came up with a plan, outfitting Agent Orndorff with a maintenance uniform. He and one of the maintenance employees then changed the air conditioning filters down the entire hallway, in order to get into Aldawsari’s apartment without alerting him to their investigation.
“He was giving us the eye, looking at us hard,” Orndorff said.
They could not see any chemicals sitting out, but did notice lots of damage to the apartment. Clayton said, it was “obvious the guy had a temper,” and that later on, after his arrest, they had to do major repairs to all the doors and cabinents.
The FBI began their surveilance, listening to Aldawsari in his apartment and tracking his location.
“Aldawsari would visit numerous websites that had American soldiers being killed in Iraq and Afghanistan,” Orndorff said. “He had 8 or 9 email addresses. He would do research and then email himself, ‘great way to make a bomb.'”
He slept on the living room floor and stored hazardous materials in his bedroom.
“We found out he already had nitric acid, already had sulphuric acid, and a fairly good hazmat suit. He had all these different things he needed to make the bomb. Alarms clocks in disasembled states and cell phones, too.” Orndorff went on, “He was well on his way to acheiving his goals. His direction was in causing chaos to the American public.”
He kept a list of targets: dams, power plants, George Bush’s Texas home. The night before his arrest, the FBI said he searched, “Can I take a backpack into a nightclub?”
He said this prompted the FBI experts at Quantico to test the same amount of chemicals they believed Aldawsari was capable of obtaining. They placed the amounts in backpacks and placed the backpacks in cars, before setting them off.
“It threw the largest chunks of metal about this big about 165 feet away. That was just in a backpack, so you can imagine if you put ball bearing or screws in that and took it into a night club, or even just left it someplace, what kind of damage that could do,” Orndorff said. “It was a very eye-opening thing for all of us to see.”
Once they determined Aldawsari was working alone, and not a part of a larger terror cell, the FBI decided it was time to take him down.
February 23, 2011, Aldawsari was running late for a test. As he headed through the parking garage, four FBI agents were waiting.
Orndorff said when they placed Aldawsari under arrest, “his demeanor was initially was one of defeat, but then he quickly bowed up. He didn’t fight back, but he bowed up.”
Aldawsari pleaded not guilty and was sentenced to life in prison. Right now, he’s being held in a federal prison in Atlanta.
Orndorff said, even years later, the case remains as important as ever.
“He was days away once he got the chemical from being able to make a bomb,” he said. “Online radicalization is a real issue. They can access almost anything on the internet. He was able to constantly reinforce these thoughts because he was watching them over and over again.”
He said it took everyone’s cooperation to make the arrest, from the private companies who reported the package to all the FBI agents and resources.
“We were all there for one common goal: to make sure nothing happened to the public.”
Orndorff said he wants the public to remember, officials rely on our help to help keep our communities safe.
“You can prevent something that hurts or kills tens hundred of people. It very well could be yourself, your neighbor or your family member you are helping to protect,” Orndorff said. “We all run in different circles with different friends, and if something seems out of whack, if something doesn’t seem normal for this person or the way they are acting, that might be a reason to contact authorities.”