Updated: 4 p.m.
A former Philadelphia resident was arrested in Cleveland Sunday for allegedly planning a terrorist attack in the city.
During a press conference Monday at the FBI’s headquarters in Cleveland, authorities said Demetrius Nathaniel Pitts told an undercover officer on Sunday morning that he wanted to set off bombs in downtown Cleveland on July 4. Later in that same conversation, Pitts allegedly said he was planning a future attack in Philadelphia at a date to be determined.
Pitts, who is also known as Abdur Raheem Rafeeq, was then arrested for “attempted material support of a foreign terrorist organization,” according to FBI agent Stephen Anthony.
As part of a year-long investigation, the FBI used an undercover agent to investigate Pitts. The agent met with Pitts several times including just last week when Pitts discussed an alleged plan for a future attack in the U.S.
William McSwain, U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, said Monday that his office is working with Philadelphia’s FBI Field Office and city police in connection with the ongoing investigation in Cleveland.
During Pitts’ last meeting with the undercover agent on Sunday, Pitts also discussed his interest in planning a future attack in Philadelphia, where he once lived. His last known address in the region was in Roxborough in 2011.
He was charged in an assault and robbery case in Philadelphia in 2016, but was never convicted.
Pitts was arrested Sunday morning at the conclusion of his final meeting with the undercover agent. Anthony said that during the meeting, Pitts once again “expressed his allegiance to al-Qaida,” his desire to conduct a terror attack on Wednesday in Cleveland, an interest in killing military personnel and their families, and his desire to commit a future attack in Philadelphia.
“Pitts suggested words to the effect, ‘I did tell myself that their holiday is coming up, 4th of July … What would hit them in the core? … Have a bomb blow up at the 4th of July parade,’” said Anthony, reading Pitt’s alleged conversation with an undercover agent.
Pitts will appear in court on Monday.
‘We gonna hit … the bicentennial city’
A 31-page criminal complaint details the FBI’s investigation into Pitts. In 2017, Anthony said the FBI received information that Pitts had made statements in support of al-Qaida, and also violent statements against the military.
On June 15, the undercover agent first met with Pitts in Willoughby, Ohio, to discuss his desire to target U.S. military personnel who had killed Muslims overseas. Pitts believed the undercover agent was an al-Qaida brother. It’s unclear if Pitts ever had any direct contact with al-Qaida.
Court documents detail Pitts’ plans for the Philadelphia attack. In text messages sent to the undercover agent on June 26, Pitts stated his intention to visit Philadelphia to conduct reconnaissance.
In a phone conversation with the undercover agent, the agent asks if the “al-Qaida brothers” should continue constructing the bombs for the Cleveland attack if Pitts planned to visit Philadelphia. Pitts told the agent to “keep building.”
“We gonna hit the … bicentennial city … Philadelphia,” Pitts allegedly said. “Now that’ll really open their eyes.”
On June 27, the agent met with Pitts in Maple Heights, Ohio, and then drove to downtown Cleveland to discuss Pitts’ reconnaissance he had done the day before in Cleveland.
During their conversation, Pitts discussed how easy it would be to conduct an attack in Philadelphia.
“That one ain’t gonna be hard,” Pitts allegedly said. “’Cuz guess what, ain’t nobody ever tried to do nothin’ like that.”
On the evening of June 27, Pitts texted the undercover agent to express concerns over a high police presence around the areas he planned on conducting his Cleveland attack. He said there were dogs sniffing everywhere downtown, and to “cancel the party for now.”
He then said that if he couldn’t be in Cleveland, he would start planning for his attack on Philadelphia. Pitts said he wanted to attack the city on his own since he knows its so well.
“All I need from the brother. Is some chicken eggs that go (emojis inserted that appear to be explosions). I will put my life on the line,” he texted the agent, court documents show. Pitts also added that the Philadelphia attack would occur on Labor Day in September.
On Saturday, the agent called Pitts and told him the July 4 attack in Cleveland was a “go” and that al-Qaida brothers were happy with his plan. Later in the call, Pitts told the agent he needed to meet in person to get a new phone so he could travel to Philadelphia to continue planning for September attack.
Pitts added that he had a location in mind in Philadelphia, but would not disclose over the phone.
The agent and Pitts met Sunday in Garfield Heights, Ohio, to discuss the Philadelphia plan in more detail. During this meeting, he showed the agent a map of the city with possible targets for the attack, including the William J. Green Federal Building at Sixth and Arch streets and City Hall.
Pitts suggested that a truck bomb, like the one used during the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995, would cause the most damage.
“Pitts’ statements of violent intentions continued to cause concern during the investigation as he expressed a willingness to conduct a U.S.-based attack and also his desire and wanting to join a foreign terrorist organization,” FBI agent Stephen Anthony said Monday. “His Facebook posts, quite frankly, were disturbing.”
“They included verbiage that had words to the affect, ‘We, as Muslims, need to start training like this everyday. We need to know how to shoot guns, throw hand grenades, hand-to-hand combat,” he added.
At the start of the investigation, Pitts was living in southern Ohio. In May, he moved to the Cleveland area.
He allegedly looked at a park and U.S. Coast Guard base in Cleveland as potential locations for his attack. He sought locations where he could park a van full of explosives, said U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Ohio Justin Herdman.
If convicted, Pitts could serve a maximum of 20 years in prison.