A mentally ill man who thought he was meeting someone linked to the Taliban was arrested Friday morning after federal agents say he tried to detonate some sort of car-bomb at a Bank of America branch near Oakland's airport.
But the explosive was a fake, prosecutors said, adding that the FBI had been eyeing Matthew Aaron Llaneza, 28, of San Jose for a while during an undercover investigation monitored by the FBI's South Bay Joint Terrorism Task Force.
"He has stated that he supports the Taliban, wants to engage in violent jihad and wants to conduct a terrorist attack inside the United States," the FBI affadavit said.
LaRae Quy, a former FBI counterintelligence and undercover agent, said the FBI's ability to gain Llaneza's trust likely saved lives.
FBI Expert Terror Says Catch Saved Lives
"The undercover agent was able to establish a rapport and real trust so this individual was able to feel comfortable with trusting him with this bigger plan, and even involved him in it," Quy said. "If that bomb hadn’t been assembled with the FBI's assistance, it would have gone off and it would have possibly killed someone.”
However, the FBI documents also provide no evidence that Llaneza could have pulled off the operation without the undercover agents, had ties to other terrorists or had any bomb making materials in his possession. Separate court documents filed in Santa Clara County show Llaneza is mentally ill.
One civil rights expert, Zahra Billoo, executive director of the Council on American Islamic Relations in Santa Clara, indicated that this smells of entrapment.
Alleged Terrorist Had History of Mental Illness
"Did the FBI take a [mentally ill] aspirational terrorist, make him an operational terrorist and then thwart their own plot?" Billoo asked. "CAIR has been saying this for years now: It's the FBI's job to stop operational terrorists. It's not the FBI's job to enable aspirational ones."
- Read Matthew Llaneza Criminal Complaint (pdf)
- Court Docs Show Suspect Suffered from Mental Illness
- Read Probation Report on Llaneza (pdf)
Llaneza was released from state prison in November 2011, the FBI affadavit states (PDF), after serving a one-year sentence for transporting an AK-47. Efforts to immediately reach Llaneza or his supporters were not immediately successful. NBC Bay Area knocked on a door of a home where records show Llaneza once lived, or still lives, but no one answered the door.
His attorney, Oakland-based Asst. Federal Public Defender Jerome Matthews, declined on Friday to comment about the case.
Probation records obtained by NBC Bay Area show that Llaneza suffered from mental illness and had already served 186 days in county jail for the gun charge.
He was formally charged in Oakland on Friday before U.S. magistrate Donna M. Ryu on a charge of attempted use of a weapon of mass destruction, which is punishable with life in prison.
According to the federal affidavit, Llaneza met with a man on Nov. 30 who led him to believe he was connected with the Taliban and the mujahidin in Afghanistan. The man was really an undercover FBI agent.
At the meeting, Llaneza proposed conducting a car-bomb attack against a bank in the San Francisco Bay Area, the complaint alleges. He proposed structuring the attack to make it appear that the responsible party was an umbrella organization for a loose collection of anti-government militias and their sympathizers, according to prosecutors.
Llaneza’s stated goal was to trigger a governmental crackdown, prosecutors said, which he expected would trigger a right-wing counter-response against the government followed by, he hoped, civil war.
Llaneza identified the Federal Reserve Bank in San Francisco as a good target, the affadavit states, or a local bank as good targets for the attack.
After figuring the Federal Reserve would have "too much security," on Dec. 7, Llaneza ended up choosing the Bank of America branch at 303 Hegenberger Road in Oakland as the target for the attack, the complaint states. That bank is near the city's airport.
A week later, Llaneza found a spot next to a support column of the bank building as a good location for the bomb, expressed a desire for the bomb to bring down the entire bank building, and offered to drive the car bomb to the bank at the time of the attack, prosecutors alleged in a statement.
According to the complaint, in January and February, Llaneza and the undercover agent constructed the fake explosive device inside an SUV parked inside a storage facility in Hayward.
As part of the process of assembling the device, Llaneza allegedly bought two cell phones to be used in creating and operating the trigger device for the car bomb. One of these cell phones was incorporated into the trigger device itself. The other was reserved for use on the night of the attack.
The criminal complaint alleges that on Thursday evening, Llaneza drove the SUV containing the purported explosive device to the target bank branch in Oakland.
He parked the SUV beneath an overhang of the bank building where he armed the trigger device, according to the complaint.
He then allegedly proceeded on foot to a nearby location a safe distance from the bank building, where he met the undercover agent. Once there, prosecutors Llaneza allegedly attempted to detonate the bomb by using the second cell phone he had purchased to place two calls to the trigger device attached to the car bomb, according to prosecutors.
That's when the FBI placed him under arrest.
NBC Bay Area's Arturo Santiago and Stephanie Chuang contributed to this report.