AMARILLO, Texas — Jury selection began Thursday for the trial of a Saudi man accused of gathering bomb components with the intention of targeting sites across the United States, including the home of former President George W. Bush.
Khalid Ali-M Aldawsari's attorney, Dan Cogdell, asked potential jurors if they would have any issue with Aldawsari's Muslim faith or Saudi citizenship. Cogdell also asked if they would "think kind of hard about" sitting next to a Saudi citizen on an airplane.
Aldawsari, 22, has pleaded not guilty to a charge of attempted use of a weapon of mass destruction. The former Texas Tech University chemical engineering student faces up to life in prison if convicted.
U.S. District Judge Donald E. Walter, presiding over the trial in the West Texas city of Amarillo, questioned more than 40 potential jurors for about 90 minutes, followed by prosecutors and Cogdell. A jury is expected to be selected Thursday afternoon, clearing the way for opening statements Friday.
Aldawsari sat next to his attorneys in federal court in Amarillo wearing a suit jacket and tie, and sporting hair that was shorter than during his previous court appearances.
Federal agents secretly searched Aldawsari's apartment in Lubbock, Texas, twice in the days leading up to his arrest in February last year. They say they found almost everything needed to build a bomb, including chemicals, beakers, flasks, wiring, a hazmat suit and clocks, which he had bought online in the previous months.
He had researched targets — including dams, nuclear plants and Bush's Dallas home — and how to place bomb material inside dolls and baby carriages, court records show.
Attorneys plan to use an insanity defense, court records show.
During their investigation, authorities discovered Aldawsari's journal, handwritten in Arabic, in which he said he had been planning a terror attack in the U.S. for years, even before he came to the country on a scholarship, and that it was "time for jihad," or holy war, court documents show. He bemoaned the plight of Muslims and said he was influenced by Osama bin Laden's speeches.
Walter ruled last week that prosecutors can use footage from videos found on Aldawsari's computer, including one in which Ayman al-Zawahri, al-Qaida's current leader, praises as martyrs two unspecified individuals killed by "American Crusaders." Two instructional videos that he also allowed show how to prepare the explosive picric acid and how to use a cellphone as a remote detonator.
TNP, the chemical explosive Aldawsari was suspected of trying to make, has about the same destructive power as TNT. FBI bomb experts said the amounts in the Aldawsari case would have yielded almost 15 pounds of explosive — about the same amount used per bomb in the London subway attacks that killed scores of people in July 2005.
Authorities say they were tipped to Aldawsari's online purchases by chemical company Carolina Biological Supply of Burlington, N.C., and shipping company Con-way Freight on Feb. 1, 2011. The chemical company reported a $435 suspicious purchase to the FBI, while the shipping company notified Lubbock police and the FBI because it appeared the order wasn't intended for commercial use.
Within weeks, federal agents had traced other online purchases by Aldawsari, discovered extremist posts he had made on the Internet and secretly searched his off-campus apartment, computer and email accounts, and read his diary, according to court records.
Aldawsari came to the U.S. in October 2008 from Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, to study chemical engineering at Texas Tech. He transferred in early 2011 to nearby South Plains College, where he was studying business. A Saudi industrial company, which was not identified in court documents, was paying his tuition and living expenses.