22-year-old Christopher Lee Cornell shouted, “Allah is in control, not this judge!” as he was led from U.S. District Judge Sandra Beckwith’s courtroom on Monday to begin serving his 30-year prison sentence for a plot to attack the U.S. Capitol in the name of the Islamic State.
Cornell was arrested in January 2015 for planning to shoot up the Capitol building during President Obama’s State of the Union address. The FBI moved in after he purchased two semi-automatic rifles and 600 rounds of ammunition at a Cincinnati gun shop. He was also planning to use pipe bombs for his Islamic State-inspired attack.
His attorneys argued that he has turned his back on jihad, as summarized by the Associated Press:
Cornell’s attorneys argued for a shorter sentence, saying he has rejected “radical Islamic propaganda” while embracing peaceful Islamic religious philosophy. They said he wants to be a productive citizen.
They described Cornell as a lonely, depressed youth who became self-radicalized, living “a fantasy life behind a computer screen.” They say he was steered by a paid FBI confidential informant.
The attorneys also said Cornell’s plot was infeasible and likely reflected a mental condition that distorted reality. They said Cornell told the informant he planned to wear a turban, black camouflage and sandals, enter the Capitol building through the front door and take aim at Obama while he spoke.
The Cincinnati Enquirer quotes from a letter Cornell wrote to his family from jail in March 2016: “I hope they can soon see the change in me, understand me, give me the help I need and allow me to get a second chance. I’m not a terrorist, a criminal or a bad person, I’m just a kid who suffered from problems, that made some bad decisions and stupid mistakes.”
In other letters from prison, Cornell said the terrorist “way of life” was “not fun nor is it cool, but it is stressful and humiliating,” and declared, “those stupid terrorist[s] and their ideologies are twisted,” because “they are out killing innocent people and ruining families.”
Cornell reportedly remains committed to Islam. In a January 2015 Washington Post report on his arrest, his father complained that people mistreated him after he grew a long beard and began wearing a traditional Muslim headdress. Although very few current major media reports mention it, Cornell posted online under the Muslim name Raheel Mahrus Ubaydah.
In the same article, Cornell’s father accused the FBI of setting his son up: “I think that was the FBI that he had been corresponding with all the time. I think they could have arrested him then. If he was making plots or whatever, I think they should have arrested him then. I’m surprised they didn’t kill him.”
His attorneys conceded that he supported ISIS on social media, encouraged lone-wolf jihad attacks, celebrated terrorism, and plotted with an FBI informant to carry out his attack on the State of the Union address, but argued that all of this was essentially role-playing.
“His ideas were not rationally possible or remotely realistic. Chris created a character, with a different name, in a fantasy where this character was somebody in the world,” his defense team argued to the court.
A psychologist diagnosed him with schizotypal personality disorder and said he had the “maturity level of a teenager.” His parents described him as a “momma’s boy” and said, “his best friend is his kitty cat.”
However, prosecutors noted that Cornell continued his calls for “violent jihad” from prison, even bypassing the security on a computer terminal at the jail so he could make Internet posts about his plans to attack the Capitol.
As WLWT News notes, Cornell might have had unrealistic visions of carving out a caliphate in North America, but his plan to attack the Capitol was detailed, lucid, and quite plausible.
The court watched a hidden-camera video of Cornell explaining his plan to the undercover informant. “I say as soon as we get ready to attack we set the explosives off at a specific time, like five minutes beforehand, so it goes bang, bang, bang, and then we go straight in,” he said, explaining that he learned how to make bombs by reading al-Qaeda’s magazine Inspire, and could obtain all of the components from Home Depot.
“He picked the gun store. He picked the guns. By the end of the night, who knows where it would have gone?” the prosecution asked.
During an interview from jail three months after his arrest, Cornell said he was “with the Islamic State,” insisted on the use of his Muslim name, and declared he was “very dedicated to establish the sharia in America, to wage war on the kafr [unbelievers], and raise the word of Allah above all. I’m so dedicated that I risked my whole life.”
In that interview, he described his planned attack on the Capitol as “a reaction to the continued American aggression, injustice, and oppression against our people.” He claimed he had received specific orders from “my brothers over there in Syria and Iraq,” although no hard evidence of such orders has ever been reported.
“Yes, they might say I’m a terrorist, but we see the American troops as terrorists as well, coming to our lands, invading, stealing our resources and killing our people, raping our women,” he said. “Have you seen the photos and videos of the innocent children being killed, bodies upon bodies, stacked inside the back of a truck? You know, that’s what’s happening to our kids. America is funding and giving weapons to Israel. Israel is using these weapons to kill our children in Palestine every single day,” he declared, adding that he would have liked to attack the Israeli embassy after his killing spree at the Capitol was complete.
It is also noteworthy that Cornell was the latest in a long series of jihad recruits to cite deceased cleric Anwar al-Awlaki as an inspiration. While his radicalization was portrayed by defense attorneys as a sudden bolt from the blue, the Cincinnati Enquirer reported that he was arrested at a 2013 memorial ceremony for 9/11 victims, for holding a sign that read “9/11 Was an Inside Job.” He was considered a person of interest in several acts of graffiti vandalism but no charges were ever filed.