WICHITA, Kan. – A Kansas man who prosecutors say sympathized with violent terrorists was arrested Friday as part of an FBI sting after he drove a vehicle loaded with what he thought were explosives to a Wichita airport.
Investigators allege that Terry Lee Loewen planned to attack Wichita Mid-Continent Airport in a plot aimed at supporting al-Qaida.
Loewen, a 58-year-old avionics technician who worked at the airport for Hawker Beechcraft, was arrested before dawn as he tried to drive onto the tarmac. The materials in the car were inert, and no one at the airport was in any immediate danger, authorities said.
Loewen, who lives in Wichita, had been under investigation for about six months after making online statements about wanting to commit “violent jihad” against the United States, U.S. Attorney Barry Grissom said. An undercover FBI agent befriended Loewen, striking up conversations about terrorism and Loewen’s admiration for those who plotted against American interests.
Authorities said Loewen spent months studying the layout of the airport, its flight patterns and other details to maximize fatalities and damage in an attack. During that time, he developed a plan with other conspirators to use his employee access card to pull off the attack. The conspirators were actually undercover FBI agents.
Loewen planned to die in the explosion, a fate that he said was inevitable in his quest to become a martyr in a jihad against America, according to court documents.
“Since early summer, he was resolved to take an act of violent jihad against U.S.,” Grissom said.
Authorities said they believe Loewen acted alone. No other arrests were expected.
Loewen made an initial court appearance Friday afternoon, answering “yes” in a strong voice to procedural questions. A U.S. magistrate ordered that he remain jailed at least until a hearing next Friday after prosecutors said he was a flight risk and a danger to the community.
His wife and attorney declined comment after the hearing.
His brother-in-law, David Reddig, described Loewen as a “good guy.” He said Loewen helped him pay off the debt on his truck and took care of his home and chickens after an eye injury kept him from working.
“He is a hard worker and all that stuff,” Reddig said.
But he said Loewen kept details of his life away from his relatives.
The case appears to be similar to a string of investigations conducted by the FBI since the Sept. 11, 2001, attack. The FBI sting operations have prompted controversy over whether the law enforcement tactics involved entrapment of suspects and intruded on civil liberties. One involved an undercover agent who pretended to be a terrorist, provided a teenager with a phony car bomb, then watched him plant it in downtown Chicago.
But the FBI has argued that the stings are a vital law tool for averting potentially deadly terrorist attacks. And juries have returned tough sentences.
In Loewen’s case, court documents allege that he talked about downloading documents about jihad, martyrdom and an al-Qaida “manual” during his online conversations.
Investigators said he also frequently expressed admiration for Anwar Al-Awlaki, the American-born al-Qaida leader who was killed in a 2011 drone strike in Yemen. Al-Awlaki emerged as an influential preacher among militants living in the West, with his English language Internet sermons calling for jihad, or holy war, against the U.S.