An Ashland man who holds a physics degree from Northeastern University was charged yesterday with an Al Qaeda-inspired plot to send a remote-controlled aircraft carrying explosives into the Pentagon and the US Capitol “to kill as many people as possible,’’ according to a complaint filed in federal court.
Rezwan Ferdaus, 26, a US citizen whose only known previous crime was vandalism, told FBI agents working undercover as Al Qaeda members that he wanted to “change the world,’’ according to the complaint.
“I just can’t stop; there is no other choice for me,’’ he told the agents, according to an affidavit written by FBI Special Agent Gary S. Cacace.
“This is what we have to do. This is the righteous way . . . to terrorize enemies of Allah,’’ he said, calling for the deaths of any kafir, the Arabic term for nonbeliever.
Federal officials said that at no point did Ferdaus have sole control of explosive materials, such as C-4, or guns and that he was closely monitored by the FBI during his alleged plotting in the past year. But they also say that he was repeatedly questioned about his plans and that he was committed to carrying out the attacks.
“Our top priority is to protect our nation from terrorism and national security threats,’’ US Attorney Carmen M. Ortiz said in a statement.
“The conduct alleged today shows that Mr. Ferdaus had long planned to commit violent acts against our country, including attacks on the Pentagon and our nation’s Capitol.’’
She and Richard DesLauriers, special agent in charge of the FBI’s Boston division, said the arrest should not reflect on the larger Muslim community.
Prosecutors say that Ferdaus modified mobile phones to act as electrical switches for improvised explosive devices and that he gave eight of them to the FBI undercover agents, who he thought were Al Qaeda recruiters. According to the affidavit, when told that one of the devices had killed three US soldiers and injured at least four others in Iraq, he exclaimed, “That was exactly what I wanted.’’
Also, prosecutors said that Ferdaus had already hatched a plan to attack federal buildings before he met the undercover agents this year. He traveled to Washington, D.C., and took pictures of the Pentagon and the Capitol.
He subsequently received at least $7,000 from the agents to purchase one of the remote-controlled planes, which was the size of a human body. The agents also delivered 25 pounds of C-4 explosives, three grenades, and six AK-47 assault rifles to Ferdaus. He planned to recruit other men to shoot at people fleeing the Pentagon, prosecutors said.
Ferdaus obtained the first plane in August. He then had the undercover agents deliver the explosive materials and guns yesterday to a storage facility in Framingham that he had rented to plan his attacks. Once he took possession of the materials, he was arrested.
After making an initial appearance in US District Court in Worcester, Ferdaus was ordered held without bail until a dangerousness hearing can be held at 3 p.m. Monday.
Ferdaus lived with his parents and has a younger brother. The family was well known in the neighborhood, “nice people in our community,’’ said Ashland Police Chief Scott Rohmer.
Ferdaus plays the drums and played in local bands, including Goosepimp Orchestra, a psychedelic Latin/funk band, and Silk Road, which promoted its songs as sounding like “a six-pack of Pabst and a mechanical bull,’’ according to websites.
Some neighbors said he tended to seclude himself from neighborhood parties. “He had no interest in socializing,’’ said Brenda Macmillan, who lives across the street.
In 2003, Ferdaus was charged along with two Ashland High School classmates for overnight vandalism in which concrete was poured in front of 10 school doors.
The students, however, denied in letters to classmates that they burned an American flag that had been found flying upside-down in front of the school that morning. Ferdaus was placed on probation and ordered to pay $406 in restitution, according to local reports.
Ferdaus went on to graduate from Northeastern University in 2008 with a bachelor of science degree in physics, the university confirmed.
According to the affidavit, Ferdaus told the undercover FBI agents that he started thinking about violent jihad against the United States after seeing videos and reading materials promoted by Al Qaeda. It was then that he realized “how evil America is and that jihad is the solution,’’ according to the affidavit.
“As a result, he decided to, in his own words, ‘terrorize’ the United States by attacking Washington, D.C.,’’ the affidavit said.
Ferdaus first started talking of his plans earlier this year to a witness who was working with the FBI. The witness has his own criminal record and was working as an informant.
But the witness later introduced Ferdaus to two undercover FBI agents, and Ferdaus went on to tell them of his plans, according to court records.
He allegedly provided them with computer thumb drives detailing the types of planes he would use - more than 5 feet long, with a wing span of more than 4 feet and able to carry about 10 to 12 pounds each. He preferred the F-4 Phantom and the F-86 Sabre, small-scale versions of US military fighter jets, and would launch them from Eastern Potomac Park. He referred to them as “detonators,’’ and would fly them using a global positioning satellite.
“This is realistic. . . . I can make these things happen,’’ he reportedly said. “What I envision is that it’s going to . . . essentially decapitate the entire empire.’’
DesLauriers said: “A committed individual, even one with no direct connections to, or formal training from, an international terrorist organization, can pose a danger to the community.’’
Ferdaus became the third US citizen with Massachusetts ties to be charged in a terrorism-related plot since 2007, when Daniel Maldonado, who had connections to Methuen and Lowell, was charged with supporting terrorists in Somalia. He was convicted and sentenced to 10 years in prison.
In 2008, Sudbury resident Tarek Mehanna was arrested on charges of lying to FBI agents in a terrorism investigation. He was later charged with conspiring to provide material support to terrorists and is slated to go to trial Oct. 24.
US Representative William Keating of Massachusetts, the state’s only member of the House Homeland Security Committee, said yesterday that the arrest of Ferdaus is a textbook example of the dangers the United States faces from homegrown extremists, and that national security officials have been warning of their growth. They may follow Al Qaeda propaganda through videos and texts, and are then incited to carry out attacks without the scrutiny that a foreigner may receive.
“There’s a new kind of threat, a new strain of threat, and we have to be aware of it,’’ Keating said, adding that it was the first lesson he learned when he took office earlier this year. “If people need to get a clearer message of what we’re hearing [of the growing threat], these events should make people even more aware of that. It can be someone inside the US presenting the danger. Those things are real.’’
Brian MacQuarrie and Martin Finucane of the Globe staff and Globe correspondent Jaclyn Reiss contributed to this report.
Brian MacQuarrie and Martin Finucane of the Globe Staff and Globe correspondent Jaclyn Reiss contributed to this report.Milton J. Valencia can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @miltonvalencia.