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AWOL soldier planned bombing to 'remind people' of Fort Hood case, agent testifies

By JEREMY SCHWARTZ | Austin American-Statesman | Published: May 23, 2012

WACO, Texas - AWOL soldier Pfc. Naser Abdo told investigators he came to Killeen, Texas, last year to "martyr himself" and "remind people" of Maj. Nidal Hasan, the Army psychiatrist accused in the 2009 mass shooting at Fort Hood, according to testimony Tuesday in Abdo's federal trial.

Austin-based FBI Special Agent Charles Michael Owens testified that Abdo told him he planned to disguise a bomb in a gift box and leave it at a Chinese restaurant popular with Fort Hood soldiers. He then planned to shoot the survivors, Owens testified.

Abdo, who was arrested July 27 in Killeen, faces life in prison on nine charges, including possession of a weapon of mass destruction and attempted murder.

Owens, who said he interrogated Abdo for about 11 hours over two days, testified that Abdo referred to potential civilian casualties in the planned attack as "collateral damage." The agent said Abdo told him he was carrying out the bombing for the people of Iraq and Afghanistan who had been wronged by American troops or suffered atrocities.

Federal prosecutor Gregg Sofer told jurors during opening statements that Abdo was "only hours away from finishing construction" of a homemade bomb when he was arrested. Sofer referred to the planned bomb as an improvised explosive device, or IED, employing language commonly used by the U.S. military to describe bombs used by insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan against American troops.

Abdo's attorney, Zachary Boyd of Copperas Cove, Texas, told jurors that his client never built a bomb. "What the evidence is going to show is that things were purchased, lawful things," he said during opening arguments. "There was no bomb. ... The government will not be able to get around that fact."

Police found pressure cookers, clocks and electrical wire in Abdo's backpack and room when he was arrested at a Killeen motel just outside Fort Hood, along with a bomb-building article from an al-Qaida magazine.

Abdo, 22, of Garland, Texas, had fled Fort Campbell in Kentucky a month before he arrived in Killeen in late July. He had been granted conscientious objector status based on his Muslim faith, but before he was to leave the Army he was charged with having child pornography on his computer, which he has claimed was retaliation for his bid to leave the Army.

According to Owens, Abdo initially planned to kidnap and murder a Fort Campbell soldier. But that plot may have been stymied after Abdo bungled the purchase of a high-capacity pistol. According to a clerk at Quantico Tactical, a weapons store outside Fort Campbell, Abdo never took his sunglasses off as he attempted to purchase the gun, a pattern of behavior he would repeat at a Killeen gun shop, where a clerk would make the call that eventually led police to Abdo.

After a verbal confrontation with the Kentucky clerk, he was asked to leave, but forgot his military orders on the counter, which allowed clerks to identify his unit, according to testimony.

After worried superiors ordered him back to the Army post on July 4, Abdo disappeared, according to an officer in his unit.

But before leaving Kentucky, Abdo dumped a number of suspicious items in a dumpster and abandoned his car at a restaurant, according to testimony. Police testified that in the trash bin and in his car, they found body bags, a shovel, hand cuffs and a cattle prong, along with a box filled with Abdo's personal documents, including his passport and birth certificate.

According to Owens, Abdo told him he stole his roommate's identification before he fled, and went to Nashville before going to Memphis for a couple of weeks. He then went to Dallas where he met with a pair of childhood friends. But when Abdo grew concerned that the friends would call police he left, the FBI agent said. Owens testified that Abdo told him he originally planned to hide out in Edinburg, near the Texas-Mexico border, before ultimately deciding to go to Killeen.

Dallas-area taxi driver Husam Al-Qaysi, a native of Iraq, testified that he drove Abdo to Wal-Mart two times on the night before he went to Killeen to buy a laptop and other items, including pressure cookers and clocks. He said Abdo paid him about $400 to drive him to Killeen, but said the Army town was not Abdo's first choice. "At first he said he wanted to go to Austin," Al-Qaysi testified. "Then he got a map and said, 'Hold on let me check.'"

Al-Qaysi, who had never met Abdo before, said the AWOL soldier told him he was a fellow Muslim and asked him for tips on reading the Quran.

When Abdo arrived in Killeen, he checked into America's Best Value Inn, where night clerk Aaron Bernardo said he was acting strangely. "He didn't seem right," he testified. "He couldn't sit still. He was jittery."

The next day, Abdo went to Guns Galore in Killeen, where he never took off his dark sunglasses, according to video of his visit to the store.

Store manager Cathy Cheadle said that as Abdo purchased six containers of gunpowder, he asked what it was used for. "I just had this feeling," she said. "We came to the conclusion that it was something we couldn't ignore. Something felt not right to us."

Guns Galore is the same store where Hasan bought the weapons used in the 2009 mass shooting at Fort Hood, according to testimony in that case.

After Abdo bought the gunpowder, a high-capacity magazine and shotgun shells, he left in a taxi, Cheadle testified.

Cheadle said that once the store closed, a fellow clerk called Killeen police, who arrived the next day. Armed with information from the store, police tracked Abdo down at his hotel later that afternoon, officials have said.