TOPEKA — Dark-skinned with a think Arab accent, a man calling himself Ahmed introduced himself to John Booker Jr. in early March 2015.
Ahmed told Booker he was a high-ranking sheik planning terrorist attacks in the United States, and Booker believed him. In reality Ahmed was, like Omar, an FBI informant.
Inspired by Moner Mohammad Abusalha, the Syria bomber he called Jihadi Joe, Booker told Ahmed he wanted to provoke the U.S. military into invading Iraq again and believed the best way to do so was a terrorist attack. Booker said he wanted to detonate a vehicle, just as Jihadi Joe did. His target: the sprawling Army installation at Fort Riley.
Three days later, the three men traveled to Freedom Park, a steep hill overlooking the fort. There, Ahmed filmed Booker delivering a message on behalf of IS. The young man, once a quiet JROTC graduate with genuine military aspirations, pledged his allegiance to Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and encouraged Muslims the world over to support IS.
“To all the mothers, daughters, fathers, brothers, sisters and friends or loved ones of … any soldier in the United States military: get your kids out,” Booker told the camera. “Get your loved ones out of the military. Because (IS) is coming for them. From inside, whether it be in their homes, whether it be on a base like this, whether it be in the recruiting stations, whether it be in the streets … we are coming for them and we seek their blood because their blood is halal for us to kill them.”
When Booker picked up the phone to call his friend and fellow Muslim convert Alex Blair on March 17, he was less confident. In fact, he was in a jam. Omar and Ahmed were pressing him to rent a storage facility, and Booker was broke.
“How much money do you have on you?” he asked Blair, who he had met just two months before.
“I got a hundred bucks,” Blair responded.
“Alright. Alright. Save that because we’re gonna start … you’re gonna start spending in the sake of Allah,” Booker said. “And I’m gonna need you — a little help on this. But it’s for the sake of Allah and I can prove to you where it is going if you wanna come with me.”
During the phone call, which was recorded by the FBI, Booker said he would need Blair’s money the next day. Ahmed’s orders were exacting.
“Tomorrow, I may need a little bit of money, and it’s not gonna be more than over a hundred dollars,” Booker told Blair. “But I’m gonna spend some. I don’t have that much. But the thing is, listen. We need to … he wants me, he’s very — orders are getting stricter, OK?”
All Blair could say in response was, “OK.” His social isolation had waned, and his new friend was in a tight spot. Blair determined he would help him.
Thomas Blair, Alex’s father, met Booker only once, when his son brought the young man to their house. The elder Blair wasn’t impressed.
“Booker did all the talking and, excuse my words here, Alex seemed to be his (expletive),” Thomas Blair said. “He didn’t let Alex talk and tried to control his speaking and actions. I thought Alex would get tired of this and move on from Booker.
“I never thought in my wildest dreams that Alex would meet someone like Booker in Topeka, Kan.,” Thomas Blair said. “I’m sure Alex didn’t either.”
Booker wanted Blair to pledge allegiance to al-Baghdadi, the IS leader, but Blair wouldn’t, telling the young man he would only pledge allegiance to Allah. At Booker’s urging, Blair watched “The Flames of War,” an IS propaganda film, but he told Booker he didn’t like it.
The federal agents who were listening to Booker and Blair considered the latter to be a moderating influence on Booker, according to Anthony Mattivi, the assistant U.S. attorney who led the prosecution of both men. Booker was mercurial and unpredictable, according to the FBI, but his spontaneous, manic behavior tapered off when he was around Blair.
During another phone call, Booker said he was worried about Ahmed’s health.
“This is what his order was tonight: Start getting the ball rolling,” he told Blair over the phone. “We want to do it. We need to get this going, you know? And he seemed very frantic. I don’t know. I hope he’s alright. But he seemed like he was trying to tell me, ‘Look, we need to get … this going.’ He sounded like he was a hundred percent sure. Um, so, we need to get this going.”
The next day, Booker rented a storage unit, 10 feet tall and 20 feet wide, in Topeka using Blair’s money, further implicating his friend. Ahmed promised to pay Booker back, and Booker promised to pay Blair back.
Three months before, Alexander Blair had lived a quiet, socially isolated Midwestern life. By mid-March, he was ensnared in a terrorism plot he had little interest in being a part of.
• • •
On April 5, 2015, John Booker Jr. stepped out of his apartment wearing a white robe and wielding a foot-long knife. It was Easter Sunday, and he was headed toward crowded Christian churches.
The FBI agents tracking Booker grew uneasy. Their suspect was on the move, armed and unpredictable. Later that week, they expected him to drive a bomb-laden vehicle to Fort Riley and attempt to detonate it. No one knew if he would act sooner.
But Booker’s motives that Sunday morning were benign. He walked into two Catholic churches and one Lutheran church, met with friendly parishioners and told them of his faith. When a woman at Most Pure Heart of Mary Catholic Church attempted to hand Booker a number he could call to speak to a priest, he refused to accept it, adhering to a strict Muslim tradition. A man handed it to him instead.
“I attended Christian services to spread the Islam before my departure,” Booker said in a letter from Leavenworth.
By all accounts, Booker’s visits were innocuous. His unusual dress and behavior garnered attention, but no one reported feeling threatened. Booker and the Christians he spoke to viewed his visits as an opportunity to spread their respective faiths. Paul Tessaro, a pastor at Faith Lutheran Church, debated theology with him for five minutes. He didn’t notice Booker’s blade until the young man was walking away.
That week, Omar told Booker he had been selected to accompany him on a suicide mission to Fort Riley. Together, they purchased components for an improvised explosive device and stockpiled them in the storage facility. Booker paid for some, and Omar paid for others. Booker told Omar he wanted to push the detonator himself.
Booker says he wasn’t suicidal, or even depressed, during the spring of 2015.
“I wanted to die for Allah and have many blessings,” he said. “I wanted to get to paradise. Dying a martyr is the highest reward. You get 72 virgins, you get so many blessings.”
On April 8, Booker and Omar moved the supposed bomb-making materials out of their storage facility and into a second one, rented by Ahmed. Given a map by the informants, Booker circled three buildings he would target at Fort Riley and drew arrows showing how he and Omar would enter. In front of a stack of what he believed were explosive materials, Booker made a second video.
“This message is to you America,” he said. “You sit in your homes and you think that this war is just over in Iraq … today we will bring the Islamic State straight to your doorstep. You think this is just a game … when this bomb blows up and kills as many kuffar as possible, maybe then you’ll realize it.”
When Booker told Ahmed he was working to pay off his debts before dying, Ahmed gave him one last chance to walk away from the bomb plot. According to the FBI, Booker cut him off mid-sentence.
“No. I still want to do this,” Booker said. “It’s not like I am trying to get out of this … it doesn’t matter, debts or not, I am going to do this Friday.”
Ahmed’s question wasn’t a coincidence or small talk. During undercover FBI investigations involving terrorism, informants often will give suspects an opportunity to walk away. It’s one reason why no terrorism case since 2001 has been dropped because of entrapment.
On April 9, Booker walked into his job at Walmart for the final time and told management he was quitting. He didn’t tell them why.
“I quit so I could go die the next day,” he said. “Once I decided to do the mission, there was no doubt in my heart. I was 100 percent sure.”
Booker was arrested by FBI agents outside Fort Riley without incident April 10, 2015, as he attempted to arm the IED, which was inert. He recalls feeling deep disappointment he still was alive and a stark sense of betrayal at the hands of Omar and Ahmed, whom he had trusted.
“The reason why I trusted them was because I accept all my Muslim brothers immediately with open arms, and they took advantage of that,” he wrote in a letter from Leavenworth. “They are not Muslims but munafiqeen (or hypocrites), the worst of creatures.”
One hundred miles east, the news of Booker’s arrest was delivered to news media by U.S. Attorney Barry Grissom, who credited law enforcement with disrupting the threat Booker posed.
On Facebook, Booker’s former classmates peppered Capital-Journal comment sections with their reactions.
“Went to high school with him and he acted the same way in high school,” one wrote.
“Wow, went to school with this kid and I can’t say I’m surprised,” another said.
“I remember him saying some crazy (expletive) … like all who don’t pledge to Allah will pay,” added another.
Other reactions ranged from “everybody saw this coming” to “he was showing all the signs” to “I even heard him say once that he actually agreed with Osama (bin Laden).”
Blair was asleep at his parents’ house when FBI agents arrived to question him about his knowledge of Booker’s bomb plot. The interview, which lasted four hours, was recorded. In it, FBI agents suggested Blair needed to confess to save lives. They didn’t tell him Booker had been arrested and the bomb was a dud.
“Yes, I did give him a hundred dollars for a storage unit,” Blair told them. “I ain’t gonna lie. I, uh, it, it’s self-incriminating, I know, but —”
“But you’re just being honest,” interjected Barry Berglund, an FBI task force officer.
“Yes. Did I know what it was for? Yes, I did,” Blair said.
Blair recounted his phone call with Booker the month before, which the FBI was well aware of.
“He was like, ‘Brother, I’m kinda in a hard spot. I have something to do and I need your help,’ ” Blair said.
Blair went on to describe the pressure Booker was under from Omar and Ahmed.
“This is what his handlers told him to do, get something close to his place,” Blair said. “He wanted me to go with him. I told him ‘no.’ I didn’t want to join the jihad.”
When a second FBI agent asked Blair if he believed Booker would bomb Fort Riley, Blair explained how the young Topeka man had convinced him.
“At first, no, I’m like, OK, he’s just full of (expletive),” Blair said. “But then once he started talking on a second phone and he started asking me for things, it’s just like, OK, you know. Then he was asking me for a gun, then he’s revealing to me his part about being captured by the FBI, then it was just like, OK.”
Blair came to believe Booker was part of a series of terrorist attacks across the United States. The “scariest part,” he said, is Booker was using a thousand pounds of ammonium nitrate.
Blair told the agents, “I don’t know if you’re (expletive) yourself, but I know I am,” at the thought of such an explosion.
Blair rebuffed Booker on a few occasions, according to the FBI. When Booker asked Blair to get him a gun, Blair said he didn’t feel comfortable doing that. Blair told Booker he would be “pissed” if Booker bombed a civilian target, such as the Manhattan college district Aggieville.
According to Mattivi, Blair was told Booker’s plan would have resulted in the deaths of American military members and Blair coldly responded, “But again, that’s what they signed (up) for.” This quote doesn’t appear in Blair’s version of events, and Blair’s interview with the FBI is a sealed document, available only to attorneys.
When asked by the FBI why he didn’t report Booker’s plot to police, Blair’s answer was more accurate than he could have known: “I thought I was being followed so I figured you guys would know something of it.”
• • •
Facing life in prison, Booker opted for an agreement instead.
He pleaded guilty Feb. 3 to attempting to use a weapon of mass destruction and attempting to destroy government property by fire or explosion. Under the agreement, Booker will spend 30 years in federal prison. He since has been appointed a new attorney and hopes to rescind the agreement, which he believes to be unfairly harsh.
“But I know I’m not innocent,” he said. “I’m not claiming innocence.”
Blair was charged with misprision of a felony and pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy May 23 as part of a plea agreement. He was sentenced Oct. 18 to 15 months in prison by U.S. District Court Judge Daniel Crabtree, who called Blair’s case “one of the most unique, nuanced” cases he has decided.
Rexford McCommon, an associate pastor at the west Topeka church Blair attended before being sent to prison, was one of a dozen people who wrote letters to Crabtree, asking the judge to sentence Blair to probation rather than a prison term. McCommon said society deserves some of the blame for his crime.
“Though he is an adult and ultimately responsible for his actions, there is evidence of negligence of the collective ‘we’ of society that let him down,” McCommon wrote. “It saddens me that we did not sufficiently love and educate him, allowing him to fill the void with negative ideology.”
Blair says he would like to get married to a woman who “would keep me on the straight and narrow.” He lost three jobs between the time of his arrest and his sentence, in each case, his mother says, because employers learned of the charges against him. His experience with Islam, which began as an attempt to further understand the religion, has led him to avoid contact with all Muslims.
“This whole experience has been a tremendous life experience, which I plan on taking with me wherever I go,” he wrote in a letter in August.
In phone calls and letters he sends from his cell in CCA Leavenworth, Booker freely discusses a wide range of topics. One of the few he will not breach is Blair, his only friend. He was outraged when told Blair had signed a plea agreement, despite the fact he had done the same.
“That means he talked about me,” Booker said. “I didn’t tell on him.”
An unwavering believer in divine pre-ordainment, Booker says he is alive because Allah wants him to be alive. Though he once believed Allah wanted him to bomb Fort Riley, he now knows that to be untrue. If Allah wanted it done, it would have happened, he said.
“I don’t believe I’m a terrorist,” Booker said. “I just don’t consider myself that word — ‘terrorist.’ ”
Furthermore, Booker said, he does not subscribe to any radical beliefs, despite his strict adherence to some Muslim practices. He believes moderates are the true radicals.
“I’m not a radical Muslim, just a Muslim,” Booker said. “Following the rules is not extreme. Women who wear veils are not extremists, other women are the extremists.”
Omar Hazim, imam at the Topeka Islamic Center, the man once tasked with moderating Booker’s religious views, is ambivalent about the FBI operation.
“I believe if they had encouraged him, through the FBI, to do otherwise, maybe he wouldn’t have done it,” Hazim said.
After agents became convinced of Booker’s desire to do harm, they were right to follow through, Hazim said.
“I really felt the FBI did the right thing because they had that information,” he said.
Much of Booker’s first year at CCA Leavenworth was spent in solitary confinement, 304 days by his count. He has filed several complaints with a warden at the maximum-security prison, claiming he has been forced to remove his kufi cap and religious garments. He objects to contact with female guards and a female nurse, believing they violate his religious liberty.
“I stay on my religion,” Booker said. “I’m still a Muslim in here, which means no gambling, no playing around. In here, I only care for my Muslim brothers. I care for myself and my brothers. All that jailhouse stuff doesn’t matter to me.”
Booker is writing a three-part autobiography about his life, which is less than a quarter-century long. In a preface for the first book, which centers on his time in CCA Leavenworth, he calls himself a prisoner of war in IS’s fight against the United States. He often argues with corrections officers — many of whom are veterans — as well as fellow inmates, he wrote.
• • •
This April, on his last day in office, Grissom, the U.S. attorney, sat in the same conference room where he announced the young man’s arrest in April of 2015.
After a deep sigh, he spoke about Booker and Terry Lee Loewen, a self-radicalized middle-age man arrested in 2013 for an attempted suicide bombing at Wichita Mid-Continental Airport. Like Booker, Loewen was in contact with undercover FBI agents.
“They were radicalized in their basements watching the internet,” Grissom said. “They were as far removed from the teachings of Islam as you could possibly be. They were using it as a cover for their own perverted reasons, much like Frasier Glenn Miller perverted the teachings of Christianity as a white supremacist when he killed those three wonderful people out at the Jewish Community Center.”
Grissom said it was frustrating to see a man so young spend much of his life in prison. He praised imams who alert law enforcement about radicals in their mosque and credited outreach efforts by the FBI and Department of Justice.
Then he leaned back in his chair, shook his head, shrugged his shoulders and said, “We’re trying to let young people know that this isn’t some great crusade, some great adventure.”