June 23, 2011
A Marine Corps reservist arrested in a security scare near the Pentagon last week was charged Thursday in a series of pre-dawn shootings at military buildings in the Washington area last year.
Federal prosecutors said in court documents that they found bomb-making materials in a backpack carried by 22-year-old Yonathan Melaku and found a list of suspicious items inside his home. They also said authorities discovered a video he took of himself firing shots outside one building last fall and repeatedly saying the Arabic words "Allahu Akbar," which means "God is Great."
He was detained early Friday for trespassing inside Arlington National Cemetery. Investigators said he was carrying a backpack with a quantity of ammonium nitrate, which is widely used in explosives and is available commercially as fertilizer; a spiral notebook containing references to al-Qaida and Osama bin Laden; spent 9 mm shell casings; and cans of spray paint.
The ammonium nitrate was contained in plastic bags marked "5 lbs" and "AN," though it was not clear from the court papers if he actually had five pounds of the substance. Authorities said the ammonium nitrate was inert.
Authorities also recovered a videotape from Melaku's bedroom that shows him firing shots out the passenger-side window of his car outside the National Museum of the Marine Corps.
"That's what they get. That's my target. That's the military building. It's going to be attacked," he said in the video, according to court papers.
Inside his home, authorities found a list of numbered items — including alkaline battery, battery connector for 9 volt, LED light, and epoxy or super glue — consistent with producing a bomb.
At a news conference Thursday, U.S. Attorney Neil MacBride said it was possible Melaku could face further charges. MacBride said that the evidence against Melaku was "very concerning" and that the investigation into him was ongoing.
Melaku was "not on our radar prior to Friday's events," said James McJunkin, the assistant director in charge of the FBI Washington field office. It appears Melaku had intended to carry out some sort of vandalism in the cemetery, McJunkin said.
Melaku had been scheduled to appear in court Thursday on unrelated larceny charges, but that hearing was canceled. He was charged Thursday with two counts each of damaging federal property with a gun and discharging a firearm during a crime of violence. He was not expected to make an initial court appearance Thursday on the new charges, said Peter Carr, a spokesman for the U.S. Attorney in the Eastern District of Virginia.
Investigators say forensic evidence links Melaku to five shootings last October and November, including at a U.S. Coast Guard recruiting office, a Marine Corps recruiting sub-station and near the Pentagon. He was charged in two of the shootings, outside the Pentagon and the National Museum of the Marine Corps.
The FBI said at the time that the shooter was likely someone with a gripe against the military. The Marine Corps said this week that it was in the process of trying to remove Melaku from the service because of his arrest several weeks ago on the unrelated larceny charges.
An official has said Melaku has no known ties to al-Qaida or any other terrorist organization.