He left the Army in 2013. Three years later, feds say, he plotted to help the Islamic State
By CLEVE R. WOOTSON JR. | The Washington Post | Published: February 23, 2017
Robert Hester's time in the Army was short and tumultuous. He joined in 2012 and faced one disciplinary issue after another, court documents say. By 2013, after a general discharge, he was back home in Missouri, well below the government's radar.
He resurfaced three years later a different man. He had converted to Islam and changed his name, at least on the social-media platform where he posted antigovernment messages.
And, investigators believe, he had a new desire to murder his former military comrades and civilians on behalf of the Islamic State.
The U.S. Army veteran was charged last week with trying to support the Islamic State as part of what he thought was a coordinated attack against civilian targets and military installations, authorities say.
Agents swooped in during a meeting with a man Hester believed was an Islamic State contact, according to an affidavit filed in U.S. District Court in Missouri. But the man was actually an undercover FBI agent who had been building a case against the 25-year-old father of two.
Hester joins a growing list of more than 100 people in the United States arrested in connection with the Islamic State. But he's one of just a handful with a military connection.
The United States designated the Islamic State a terrorist organization in 2014 and marshaled resources to fight the group at home and abroad. One target: people radicalized online to carry out homegrown, lone-wolf terrorist attacks.
At one point, the FBI made an arrest almost every week in connection with the group, The Washington Post reported.
Court documents don't detail how investigators believe Hester was radicalized. He was born and raised in Missouri, and he enlisted in the Army in 2012, receiving weapons training and learning small-unit combat tactics.
He "was cited for numerous violations of U.S. Army regulations" and received a general discharge in 2013, the affidavit says.
In 2016, confidential sources alerted authorities about Hester's posts on social media under the alias "Rabbani Junaid Muhammad," and FBI agents launched an investigation, the affidavit says.
On his profile, he described himself as "Zionist Jew Pig Redneck Hunting Super Assassin," according to court documents. Two of his profile pictures were of the Black Flag of Tawhid, which has regularly been featured in Islamic State propaganda videos.
On July 4, he posted that "Isis [was] created by U.S. And Israeli government," the affidavit says. A true Muslim would never commit a suicide bombing during Ramadan."
A month later, he wrote "Burn in hell FBI" and alerted his followers that an encrypted messaging application was "no longer safe," court documents say. In September, under another alias, he wrote "Brothers in AmurdiKKKa we need to get something going here all those rednecks have their little militias why shouldn't we do the same."
That same month he began to refer to a group he wanted to start called "The Lion Guard."
"It started as a cartoon my children watch but i would like to take in a new direction a group of lions to guard the ummah," he wrote, referring to the Arabic word meaning the entire Muslim community, the court documents say. "We need people to come together though to make things happen."
Underscoring his point was another post from that day - of a loaded gun.
Two days later, Hester was arrested during an incident involving an actual gun. Hester and his wife were arguing in the parking lot of a Missouri grocery store when Hester threw a folded pocket knife through a plate-glass window.
When employees confronted him he "placed his hand into the diaper bag he was carrying and yelled that he would "(expletive) do it."
Responding police officers recovered a gun in the diaper bag that resembled the one in a picture on Hester's social-media page.
He spent 10 days in jail and was released on bail, court documents say. To get out, he agreed to wear an electronic monitor around his ankle so authorities could track him.
Authorities say he continued to make attack plans as his case wound its way through court.
Around that time, investigators say, Hester became friends with an FBI agent posing as an Islamic State supporter.
It didn't take long for Hester to open up to his new friend, who introduced the veteran to another man purportedly connected to the Islamic State, investigators said.
Over the next few months, they talked plans - where to hit, which types of attacks would have the most impact, court documents say. Hester told the agents he could train others on "everything I was taught in the Army . . . everything about weapons" and "how they move." Sometimes, Hester brought his children to the meetings.
During a meeting in late January, one of the agents posing as an Islamic State supporter gave Hester a list of things that could be used to make bombs: 9-volt batteries, duct tape, copper wire and roofing nails, according to court documents. He told the veteran to bring the items to a future meeting, saying their plan was "going to bring them to their knees, and then they gonna know to fear Allah."
Hester replied: "I can't wait. I can't wait."
During a subsequent meeting, Hester handed over the bag of bomb supplies and the undercover agent showed him two handguns and an AK-47 that would be used in the attack. They had guns, the agent said, but they needed more ammunition. Hester said he didn't have money for bullets but could buy some in a couple weeks when he got his tax return.
They cemented their plans throughout February. As far as Hester knew, the attack would take place on Presidents' Day.
"We need to hit hard where it counts i was thinking oil production and federal places," Hester wrote, according to the court documents.
Their last meetings were late last week. Hester brought boxes of roofing nails - shrapnel for the bombs - and told the agent Friday that it felt "good to help strike at the true terrorist."
He was arrested a short time later.