Web searches, undercover FBI employee helped build case against Army private accused of supporting ISIS

The FBI said Cole James Bridges used the name "Cole Gonzales" in communicating with an agent online.


By AMANDA GARRETT | Akron Beacon Journal | Published: January 23, 2021

AKRON, Ohio (Tribune News Service) — Cole Bridges said his family worried when they saw him posting ISIS propaganda on one of his social media sites, court records show.

“(N)obody knew I had contacts besides my family but it was never confirmed,” Bridges told an FBI employee posing online as a female ISIS sympathizer. “They were suspicious.”

It’s not clear when the 20-year-old U.S. Army private — who lived with part of his family in Stow for a couple of months after he graduated from high school in another state —may have been radicalized.

But last fall, federal investigators say Bridges discussed targets for potential terror attacks in the United States, included the 9/11 memorial in New York City, and shared instructions for killing American troops in the Middle East.

When the U.S. Justice Department announced Bridges had been arrested and that he was from Stow, many longtime residents of this Akron suburb were puzzled because they didn’t know who Bridges was and figured out quickly that he had not attended local schools.

But Bridges apparently calls Stow his hometown after his mother and two little brothers moved there a couple of years ago from Clarksville, Tennessee, because Bridges’ stepfather wanted to live near his young daughter from a previous marriage.

A friend of the family said that Bridges — who also lived at times with his father in Georgia — spent only a couple of months in Stow living at his mother’s and stepfather’s and working at a local Papa John’s pizza shop.

No one answered the door a the family's home this week when an Akron Beacon Journal reporter and photographer knocked.

But the family friend said Bridges — who sometimes used his mother's maiden name, Gonzales — was considered a polite, responsible and trustworthy teen.

In September of 2019, Bridges followed in the steps of both his father and stepfather by enlisting in the Army. At least some extended family were unaware of Bridges’ apparent conversion to Islam and stunned by allegations he would support ISIS.

A Georgia attorney representing Bridges could not be reached this week.

Court documents show investigators have gathered information about Bridges for a little more than a year.

The record begins on Christmas Day 2019 when Bridges searched the internet for “us soldier shooting,” “ak 47 downsight,” and “badass jihadi,” court records said.

In coming months, court records show Bridges also searched for “Suicide in Islam,” “Green Beret Ambush,” and posted images of ISIS propaganda and of himself on social media wearing a ghutra and egal — a traditional red, plaid head scarf worn by many Arab men that’s held in place by two black, rope-like cords.

In October, court records show that an FBI employee posing as an ISIS sympathizer, began communicating with Bridges on social media, asking why he deleted someone from his contact list.

Bridges said because the person made it sound easy to get out of the military, but “once someone signs that contract they basically signed their life away for the amount of years because they couldn’t find anything else in the civilian world,” court records said.

“I used to have connections with people in Hamas and Isis, and my family found out and the government could have arrested me,” Bridges continued. “So I needed to prove to them I wasn’t what they thought I was, and I needed the government to get off my back.”

A couple days later, the undercover FBI employee asked Bridges what he would do if his Army unit was confronted in combat by ISIS fighters.

“I would probably go with the brothers,” Bridges replied, referring to the ISIS fighters, court records said.

A few days later, Bridges told the undercover FBI employee he has “skills not everyone else has.”

When asked if he had thought about sharing those skills with the “brothers,” the complaint said Bridges responded by saying, “Of course I have . . . I can teach them ways of fighting, combat techniques, movements, formations, etc.”

As their conversations evolved, the FBI employee raised possible terror targets in the U.S., including the 9/11 memorial in New York City.

The FBI employee told Bridges her brother was a military vet who lived in New York and wanted to train for an operation.

“Sadly, I can’t participate,” Bridges said, but offered to help with training and his military expertise, court documents said.

In later conversations, Bridges said he didn’t agree with everything ISIS did, saying “they did too much innocent killing” and disagreed with suicide attacks, court documents said.

Later, in November, Bridges also told the undercover FBI employee that he thought it was inappropriate to attack in the U.S. because he considered that “offensive” jihad. He did, however, think it was “appropriate” to attack U.S. troops outside the U.S. because that was “defensive” jihad, court documents said.

Bridges then created and provided diagrams showing “specific tactical maneuvers and strategies that ISIS should employ against U.S. forces, including rigging a compound with explosives for detonating when U.S. soldiers entered,” court document said.

In December, after Bridges’ Army unit returned to Georgia, Bridges continued to communicate with the undercover FBI employee.

When the undercover FBI employee told Bridges to stay safe and avoid being “compromised” on Dec. 27, he responded by saying he’d “either become a martyr or somehow escape the country” if that happened, court records said.

Instead, less than a month later, he was under arrest.

Bridges faces two federal charges: Attempting to provide material support to ISIS and the attempted murder of U.S. military service members.

FBI Assistant Director William F. Sweeney Jr. this week said federal authorities prevented Bridges’ “evil desires from coming to fruition.”

“Bridges could have chosen a life of honorable service, but instead he traded it for the possibility of a lengthy prison sentence,” Sweeney Jr. said.

If convicted of both charges, Bridges faces a maximum prison sentence of 40 years in prison, twice as many years as Bridges has lived.

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