WASHINGTON/CLEVELAND (Reuters) - Authorities arrested five self-described anarchists in the Cleveland area for allegedly plotting to blow up a four-lane highway bridge, but they were caught by an FBI undercover sting and had no ties to foreign terrorism, the U.S. Justice Department said on Tuesday.
The suspects, ranging in ages from 20 to 37, placed what they believed were bombs on the bridge last night and tried to detonate them by calling and sending text messages to cell phones attached to the explosives, authorities said. The suspects were quickly arrested by the FBI and have been charged with conspiracy and attempting to use explosive materials.
The FBI said the five arrested suspects, identified as Douglas Wright, Brandon Baxter, Anthony Hayne, Connor Stevens and Joshua Stafford, were under continuous watch as part of an undercover operation and that the explosives, supplied by an undercover FBI agent, were inert.
“I want to stress ... at no time during this investigation was the public in danger,” FBI agent Stephen Anthony told reporters in Cleveland. The bridge is about 15 miles south of Cleveland in an area popular with hikers and joggers.
The group had no ties to foreign militant organizations and the plot was not connected to the anniversary of the death of al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, who was killed in a raid by U.S. forces a year ago in Pakistan, said a U.S. Justice Department official who declined to be further identified.
The five men appeared in federal court on Tuesday where Magistrate Judge Greg White assigned them attorneys, informed them of the charges and asked if they understood their rights. If convicted of the charges, they could face up to 40 years in prison.
The father of Stevens, visibly upset, shouted as the proceeding concluded, “We love you Connor.”
The case began to develop when the FBI learned that some self-described anarchists planned to attend an October 21, 2011, Occupy Cleveland protest, according to court documents and members of the organization.
An FBI informant saw four of the men going through the crowd expressing displeasure at demonstrators’ unwillingness to engage in violent acts. The men wore masks and carried walkie-talkies, according to the FBI affidavit filed with the court.
Authorities have kept a close eye on the Occupy protests across the country that have sought to draw attention to economic inequities in the United States. Civil liberties groups have argued the surveillance violated constitutional rights to free speech.
The Occupy Cleveland group acknowledged in a statement posted on Facebook that the men arrested were associated with the movement. “They were in no way representing or acting on behalf of Occupy Cleveland,” the organization said, adding the group was committed to non-violent protest.
“These were self-described anarchists who formed their own group,” said one U.S. law enforcement official. “During the investigation, several of them repeatedly complained that the Occupy movement was too peaceful and would not endorse their violent activities.”
Over the next several months, the five men considered a variety of targets for attacks, including this month’s Group of 8 leaders’ meeting, originally scheduled for Chicago, and this summer’s Republican National Convention in Tampa, Florida, according to the FBI affidavit.
Wright allegedly told the FBI informant that he and others recruited had discussed violent attacks “to send a message to corporations and the United States government,” the FBI affidavit said.
The suspects also considered igniting smoke grenades off one bridge while they tried to knock large bank signs off the top of big office buildings in downtown Cleveland and even setting off a car bomb outside the Federal Reserve Bank there, the court papers said.
Late last month, the group settled on trying to blow up the four-lane Brecksville-Northfield High Level Bridge that crosses the Cuyahoga Valley National Park by placing explosives on some of the columns in hopes of the entire bridge collapsing, the court papers added.
Wright told a confidential source working with the FBI that “as long as stuff ‘gets f--ked up’ he’ll be happy with the action,” the FBI said in its affidavit filed with the court.
At one point, Wright expressed concern that the undercover FBI agent who sold them what they believed to be powerful C-4 explosives for $900 was a police officer, the affidavit added.
The undercover operation is the latest sting conducted by the FBI and Justice Department in an effort to head off attacks by alleged domestic and foreign militants.
The FBI has used undercover agents to thwart alleged plots like that of four Georgia men accused of wanted to make the deadly toxin ricin and attack government officials, as well as foreign-born individuals who allegedly tried to detonate bombs at an Oregon holiday celebration in 2010 and at the U.S. Capitol in Washington last February.
Editing by Bill Trott and Peter Cooney