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FBI: Ohio man charged with supporting Al-Qaeda wanted to attack Cleveland

By Kate Snyder • Jul 3, 2018 at 3:00 PM

CLEVELAND — The FBI says he wanted to recruit people to kill Americans.

He's accused of telling an undercover agent he would have no remorse if he took lives in the name of religion.

And on Wednesday — according to a criminal complaint filed in federal court — he wanted to use remote-controlled toy cars to set off multiple bombs in an attack designed to terrorize Cleveland as the city celebrated Independence Day.

"They kill one of us, we kill ten thousand of them," Demetrius Nathaniel Pitts, 48, said in a video FBI agents found on his phone. "They kill two of us, we kill the whole city."

Now Pitts, who grew up in Philadelphia and was living in Maple Heights, Ohio, faces federal terrorism charges and accusations of plotting a terrorism attack during the Fourth of July parade in Cleveland.

Federal agents arrested the man Sunday and charged him in U.S. District Court with attempting to provide material support to al-Qaeda. For years, through various social media accounts, Pitts has expressed a desire to kill Americans, according to an FBI affidavit filed in the case.

News of the arrest comes as cities across the country, including Toledo, prepare for Fourth of July celebrations.

Capt. Kevin Braun, with the Toledo Police Department, said local law enforcement agencies were planning on a heavy police presence during the holiday even before news of the thwarted attack in Cleveland.

"We're going to have well over 100 uniformed officers downtown on the Fourth of July between us and the Lucas County Sheriff's office, so anybody who's coming down can expect to see a lot of police," Captain Braun said.

Justin Herdman, U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Ohio, said Pitts wanted to target the country's ideals, which was why he planned to strike on the Fourth of July.

"He wanted us to be afraid to speak our minds, but also to be afraid to gather in public spaces," Mr. Herdman said. "So I ask people this week to continue to gather, continue to celebrate America, continue to engage in the push and pull of ideas that a democracy requires of us, continue to have your barbecues this week, continue to go watch the fireworks."

The FBI affidavit details conversations Pitts had with an undercover agent who he believed was an al-Qaeda "brother" helping him carry out the attack.

Pitts is accused of taking photos and videos of potential targets in downtown Cleveland, including the U.S Coast Guard station, Celebrezze Federal Building, and St. John's Cathedral. He then passed the photos and videos to the agent, who he believed was connected to a network of "brothers," one of whom would be building a bomb into a remote-controlled toy car, the affidavit states.

The agent, in turn, gave Pitts "updates" about the progress of the bomb-building.

WATCH: Federal agents arrested a man for attempting to provide support to Al-Qaeda

Pitts met with the agent on June 15; one of several meetings between the pair throughout June, the affidavit stated. Pitts told the agent Washington would be too difficult a target because of all the security, and he ultimately decided to attack the Fourth of July parade in Cleveland.

"What would hit them in the core?" he said. "... have a bomb to blow up at the 4th of July parade."

The plan was to have the car -- decorated in American flags so no one would be suspicious -- come down the street and explode in the middle of the parade, the affidavit stated. Later, Pitts changed his mind and wanted to park a van full of explosives near Voinovich Park, where the fireworks were set to be launched. Then, he further amended his plan to use the toy car as a diversion and then blow up the van.

At one point he suggested they could give the remote-controlled toy cars packed with explosives to children of service members, so the children could take the cars home and then accidentally blow up their own houses, the affidavit stated.

Pitts also wanted to plan an attack on Philadelphia, his hometown, on Labor Day, the affidavit stated.

Assistant Special Agent in Charge Jeffrey Fortunato, with the FBI Cleveland Division, encouraged people to live their lives normally and not let terror change the way they behave. But he also said people who see something suspicious should notify the authorities.

"People who live in an area know what's [normal] for that area," he said. "It was a member of the public that got us started looking at Mr. Pitts."

On Dec. 31, 2015, under the name Abdur Raheem Rafeeq, Pitts sent a Facebook message to a political commentary show about how the United States will be destroyed, the affidavit stated. In January, he used that account to comment on photos believed to be from a jihad training camp. The FBI Cincinnati Division reviewed Pitts' Facebook account from February, 2017, until April, 2018, when he moved from Cincinnati to Cleveland.

Agent Fortunato said law enforcement is investigating Pitts' relationships and contacts, and Pitts appears to be an isolated case. He could not say if more charges would be filed.

In a similar case in Toledo recently, two brothers in April pleaded guilty in federal court to charges related to providing money to a known terrorist.

Sultane Roome Salim and Asif Ahmed Salim each face up to eight years for concealment of financing of terrorism.

In 2009, the two gave money to a former Toledo man, Ibrahim Zubair Mohammad, which ultimately was delivered to Anwar al-Awlaki in Yemen. Al-Awlaki was a key leader of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula who was killed by a U.S. drone in 2011.

Staff writer Adelaide Feibel contributed to this report.

Contact Kate Snyder at [email protected], 419-724-6282 or on Twitter @KL_Snyder.

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