The Department of Justice proudly announced the first FBI terror arrest of the the Trump administration on Tuesday: An elaborate sting operation that snared a 25-year old Missouri man who had no terrorism contacts besides the two undercover FBI agents who paid him to buy hardware supplies they said was for a bomb — and who at one point pulled a knife on him and threatened his family.
Robert Lorenzo Hester of Columbia, Missouri, didn’t have the $20 he needed to buy the 9-volt batteries, duct tape, and roofing nails his new FBI friends wanted him to get, so they gave him the money. The agents noted in a criminal complaint that Hester, who at one point brought his two small children to a meeting because he didn’t have child care, continued smoking marijuana despite professing to be a devout Muslim.
One of the social media posts that initially caught the FBI’s attention referred to a group called “The Lion Guard”. Hester told one of the undercover agents the name came from “a cartoon my children watch.”
But according to the DOJ press release, Hester had plans to conduct an “ISIS-sponsored terrorist attack” on President’s Day that would have resulted in mass casualties had it succeeded.
News reports breathlessly echoed the government’s depiction of Hester as a foiled would-be terrorist. But the only contact Hester had with ISIS was with the two undercover agents who suggested to him that they had connections with the group. The agents, who were in contact with him for five months, provided him with money and rides home from work as he dealt with the personal fallout of an unrelated arrest stemming from an altercation at a local grocery store.
Hester, who had briefly enlisted in the U.S. Army before being discharged in 2013, had posted images of weapons and a flag sometimes associated with terrorist groups on a social media platform. He had also written “Burn in hell FBI” and “Brothers in AmurdiKKKa we need to get something going here all those rednecks have their little militias why shouldn’t we do the same.” In another post, he asserted that ISIS was created as part of a conspiracy by the United States and Israel.
Hester was arrested by local police in October after getting into a dispute with his wife in the parking lot of a grocery store, allegedly damaging store property. The FBI complaint says that when store employees confronted Hester “he assumed an aggressive stance, forcefully placed his hand into the diaper bag he was carrying, in a manner that appeared to be reaching for a weapon.” Police, they said, later recovered a 9-millimeter handgun from the diaper bag.
Hester was taken into custody and released 10 days later, placed under electronic monitoring and subject to drug testing until his court appearance.
According to the complaint, the FBI undercover agent began communicating with him a day before he was arrested, and continued after Hester left jail — commenting on Hester’s anti-government social media posts (which included news articles about a U.S. military strike in Yemen) and offering to help Hester with his expressed desire of “hitting [the government] hard”. The agent told Hester that he knew some individuals he had met recently who shared these ideas.
In subsequent private messaging conversations, Hester told the agent that he wanted to do something to hurt the U.S. economy, adding that “we need some big help.” The agent offered to introduce Hester to “some brothers” who could assist.
The agent also “raised the subject of firearms,” sending Hester pictures of assault rifles that “the brothers” had transported for someone else recently.
The complaint reports that a few weeks later, the first agent set up a meeting for Hester with a second agent, who posed as someone with direct terrorist connections. The meeting was in an FBI car. Hester brought his two young children, which he said “could not be avoided, given his child care responsibilities that day.”
“I don’t like America, like for my kids,” Hester said, according to a recording.
On November 30, the second undercover agent gave Hester a ride home from his job and gave him $100, telling him that “this is one job that one brother is supposed to do to another….it’s my duty to make sure that the brother is okay.” Two days later, the agent gave him a ride home from work again. Hester said he “was thinking about oil lines, hitting oil pipelines and oil markets,” or targeting “computer systems and stuff.” He also said he would be willing to help train others in the tactics that he had learned during his short stint in the Army.
The agent cautioned Hester that once he decided to proceed there was “no turning back.” He also told Hester that under no circumstances was he to do conduct any sort of operation on his own. The agent, referred to in the complaint as UC-2, then “threatened to come back and find HESTER if he learned that HESTER reneged on the promise. For emphasis, and for the purpose of mitigating the security threat posed by HESTER, UC-2 displayed a knife and reminded HESTER that UC-2 knew where HESTER and his family lived, among other forceful words.”
Hester later complained to the first undercover agent that the second agent had threatened to harm him if he “talked about any plans” or “planned without letting him know.” According to the complaint, Hester told the first agent that it was wrong for the second agent to threaten his family.
During December, the second agent continued giving Hester rides home. He gave Hester a new cellphone and free minutes.
Meanwhile, a warrant was issued for Hester after he violated the terms of his bond by testing positive for marijuana. He pled guilty in January to charges stemming from the incident in the grocery store parking lot.
On January 31, the second agent met Hester and gave him a list of items to buy, including 9-volt batteries, duct tape, copper wire, and roofing nails, telling Hester that these would used to build an explosive. According to the criminal complaint, the agent gave him $20 to buy the items, after they had “confirmed that HESTER could not get the money.” Hester agreed to repay the money when he could.
The next day the agent came to Hester’s house, where Hester gave him the requested items, except the copper wire which he had been unable to find. The agent said he was planning to conduct a violent terrorist attack for the Islamic State and asked if Hester was willing to take part. Hester replied “I’m down.” The agent then opened the trunk of his car to display several assault rifles and bomb components, all of which had been rendered inoperable by the FBI.
Hester promised that he would help buy ammunition for the weapons once he had received the money from his tax refund.
Over the next few weeks, Hester also continued communicating with the first undercover agent, messaging to say that he was “happy to be part” of the coming attack. The first agent told Hester the attack would take place on President’s Day – Feb. 20 – “and that the targets of the operation would include buses, trains and a train station in Kansas City, Missouri.”
Hester “expressed approval,” according to the complaint, and asked if supplies were needed. The first agent said they needed shrapnel, including nails and screws.
When the second agent picked Hester up at his house on Feb. 17, Hester had some roofing nails. The two then drove to a nearby storage facility where Hester was arrested.
While Hester clearly appears to be a troubled and volatile individual, as evidenced by the incident at the grocery store parking lot, there appears to be little to suggest that he had the wherewithal or capacity to carry out a terrorist attack without the guidance and assistance provided by the two agents. His case is similar to many others in which individuals in financial, legal or psychological distress have been befriended by undercover FBI agents or government informants and coaxed into developing a terrorist plot.
Hester agreed to go along with the agents’ plans, even when they described to him in detail their violent intentions. But that – and buying the hardware supplies requested by the agents – appears to be all he did. There is no evidence that he had ever been in touch with actual terrorists or had developed a plot of his own. Some of what he agreed to go along with in this case also came after an undercover agent had pulled out a knife and threatened to kill him and his family.
Regardless, Hester is now in federal custody on charges of attempting to provide material support to a terrorist organization. If convicted on the charges, he faces up to 20 years in prison.