WICHITA, Kan.—For months, authorities allege, a 58-year-old avionics technician named Terry Lee Loewen — driven by radical ideas and prepared to die in a suicide attack — moved forward with a plot to detonate explosives at Wichita Mid-Continent Airport.
The planned attack was designed to inflict the maximum number of deaths at an airport in the nation’s midsection before Christmas, says a detailed criminal complaint filed Friday.
The plot got as far as a gate to the airport shortly before 6 a.m. Friday, when authorities arrested Loewen without incident. What he didn’t know until his arrest is that the people he had been conspiring with all along were FBI agents, U.S. Attorney Barry Grissom announced Friday, stressing that the public and passengers were never in danger.
Loewen now faces three federal charges filed in Wichita: one count of trying to use a weapon of mass destruction, one count of attempting to damage property and one count of attempting to provide material support to a designated foreign terrorist organization that Loewen thought was al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, based in Yemen.
On the afternoon of the day he had allegedly arranged for himself to die, he appeared instead in U.S. District Court in Wichita to hear himself accused of terrorism charges.
When Magistrate Karen Humphreys asked Loewen, “Do you understand your rights?” he replied, “Yes, ma’am” in a steady voice.
Loewen is being held in the Sedgwick County Jail.
Loewen worked as an avionics technician at the Hawker Beechcraft Services facility at the airport. The company said it suspended his employment after learning of the arrest.
He is alleged to have spent months developing a plan to use his access card to airport grounds to drive a van loaded with explosives to the terminal.
Authorities said he planned to pull the trigger on the explosives himself and to die in the explosion.
Grissom and FBI Special Agent in Charge Mike Kaste stressed that there was no indication Loewen was involved with or working with any religious community in Wichita and that his alleged actions in no way should reflect on any religious group.
Hussam Madi, spokesman for the Islamic Society of Wichita, said Friday: “We don’t even know who he is at all. We haven’t seen him here. This is the first time that we’ve heard of him.”
Madi said the society checked with mosques around the city and none of them knew of Loewen.
“We haven’t had any backlash,” as a result of Loewen’s alleged attempt at terrorism. “Hopefully, we don’t.”
No flights were delayed or canceled because of the incident, said Victor White, director of airports with the Wichita Airport Authority.
General aviation business also took place as usual, White said. Loewen was arrested at one of the gates and never got onto the airfield, White said.
Sedgwick County District Attorney’s Office spokesman Dan Dillon said his office could find no evidence of a criminal history for Loewen in Sedgwick County.
Officials with the U.S. Attorney’s Office and FBI announced Loewen’s arrest at a news conference Friday afternoon in downtown Wichita that was attended by Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback and area law enforcement officials.
Agents arrested Loewen about 5:40 a.m. Friday after they say he attempted to enter the airport tarmac and deliver a vehicle loaded with what he believed to be high explosives. Loewen was taken into custody when he tried to open a security access gate.
Members of the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force took Loewen into custody without incident.
“There was no breach of Mid-Continent Airport’s security,” said Grissom. “At no time was the safety of travelers or members of the public placed in jeopardy.”
Loewen has been under investigation by the Wichita Joint Terrorism Task Force since early summer 2013, Grissom said. Loewen didn’t realize he was having an online conversation with an FBI employee in which Loewen expressed “desire to engage in violent jihad on behalf of al-Qaida,” the criminal complaint said.
Over a period of months, Grissom said, Loewen took a series of steps to act on the plot, as part of the jihad, or “holy war.”
According to an affidavit, Loewen:
—Studied the layout of the airport and took photographs of access points.
—Researched flight schedules.
—Assisted in acquiring components for the car bomb.
—Talked about his commitment to trigger the device and martyr himself.
The 21-page criminal complaint details the development of the alleged plot and extensively quotes Loewen’s communication with the FBI employees.
There is an Aug. 5 communication in which he told an FBI employee, “As time goes on I care less and less about what other people think of me, or my views on Islam. I have been studying subjects like jihad, martyrdom operations, and Shariah Law.” He was also quoted as saying, “I believe the Muslim who is labeled ‘a radical fundamentalist’ is closer to Allah … than the ones labeled ‘moderates.’ Just my opinion; if I’m off base, please set me straight.”
Three days later, on Aug. 8, after the FBI employee offered to introduce him to someone who could help him wage violence, the complaint says, Loewen wrote: “Brothers like Osama bin Laden … are a great inspiration to me, but I must be willing to give up everything (like they did) to truly feel like a obedient slave of Allah.”
Around Aug. 21, he sent a message saying, “I have numerous ideas of ways I could perform jihad,” and he said he had been sending money to the “Revolution Muslim website,” the complaint said.
Around Aug. 26, he talked to the FBI employee about giving a “tour” of Mid-Continent Airport, according to the complaint. About a day later, Loewen allegedly said: “I guess I look at myself as the ‘access’ guy at this point — just need more details at this point … are we talking explosives, because I know nothing about that? It’s all very surreal at this point, exciting, yet scary.”
He said he could escort someone onto the tarmac that leads to airliners and the control tower, and that he could gain access to bring a vehicle onto the tarmac, the complaint said.
Around Sept. 17, Loewen relayed photos of what looked like fighter jet trainers outside his hangar, the complaint said. The planes had apparently stopped for fuel. He talked of many “Apatche’s” staying overnight. And this, the complaint said:
“It would have been possible today for me to have walked over there, shot both pilots (I don’t know if they are armed or not), slapped some C4 on both fuel trucks and set them off before anyone even called TSA. Talks REAL cheap, however, so what I think I can do and what I actually can do are probably two different things.”
The complaint also gave this account: By early October, the FBI employee was telling Loewen that he had just come back from overseas and that “brothers” were excited about his airport access. When Loewen was asked if he could scout out targets and security and be willing to plant a device, he allegedly said, “I still need time to think about it, but I can’t imagine anything short of arrest stopping me.”
He also expressed some concern to the person he was dealing with, saying, “I’m sorry I can’t say I trust you 100 percent; my greatest fear is not being able to complete an operation because I was set up. I hate this government so much for they have done to our brothers and sisters, that to spent (sic) the rest of my life in prison without having taken a good slice out of the serpents head is unacceptable to me.”
Loewen also allegedly told the person posing as a conspirator that he wouldn’t have vehicle access to a ramp until after the first of the year, “so driving on to airport property with a van full of C4 is out of the question – after the first of the year, we could drive a city bus out there.”
Loewen was told he could “back out at any time,” the complaint said. Loewen responded in part by saying, “I can’t see myself doing anything that involves killing children, unless I know everything is being done to minimize that.”
On Oct. 7, Loewen sent a number of photographs, showing his airport access badge, tarmac gates and gate devices.
By Oct. 11, Loewen told the FBI employee “he was prepared to go forward,” the complaint said. “Count me in for the duration,” he said. He talked of using a vehicle with a company logo.
By Oct. 18, he was talking of bringing a weapon, “if advisable,” to begin shooting if law enforcement arrived. In 2009, Loewen had a concealed-carry violation at the airport, according to Wichita police.
Things moved forward, according to the timeline: On Oct. 25, Loewen met with a second FBI employee, posing as a “brother” with al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula. During the meeting with the second FBI employee, Loewen repeated “his desire to help FBI Employee 2 with a mission to blow up a plane with numerous people on board,” the complaint said.
During a second meeting on Nov. 8, Loewen allegedly indicated he was willing to die, and become a martyr, in the attack.
The planning involved talk of moving an explosives-laden vehicle “to the terminal near a number of passenger planes,” and “Loewen suggested that another individual could come in to the terminal with a suicide vest and detonate that to coincide” with the explosives outside, according to the complaint.
The second FBI employee and Loewen “discussed executing this plan just prior to Christmas which would cause the greatest impact physically and economically,” the complaint said.
They had code words: “rental property.”
Loewen said he used Google maps to check out some areas of the airport.
In a Nov. 13 communication, Loewen brought up the need to stay below the radar. “Did you notice the brother who got busted trying to fly to Syria to aid al-Qaida in fighting the taghoot government — guess he posted a large amount of radical information on Facebook and the FBI set him up. I keep a pretty low profile on Facebook anymore — I have more important things to attend to.”
In a meeting about a week later, on Nov. 19, Loewen again sounded committed to dying in the operation, the complaint said. The second FBI employee suggested that Loewen could be the “navigator” by giving directions on where the device could be exploded.
Loewen provided “research that he had conducted on the best time to execute the attack based upon the number of people who would be boarding aircraft and the number of people who would be in the terminal,” the complaint said. “Loewen further expressed his desire to kill as many people as possible, and he explained where to park a vehicle full of explosive to accomplish that goal.” He included a diagram of the terminal and tarmac.
He agreed to buy a device to set off the explosive, the document said. Loewen allegedly volunteered to wire the explosive device, “since he does wiring as part of his employment.”
The final plan: When Loewen got access, they would drive to the terminal early in the morning, exploding the device “between the terminals for maximum casualties,” the complaint said. Both Loewen and the second FBI employee would die in the blast.
According to the narrative, on Nov. 21, Loewen met with his supposed co-conspirator and brought components he got from his workplace. Around Dec. 3, Loewen provided containers for the explosives. Loewen marked an “X” on a diagram for the place to park the vehicle that would cause the most damage. Based on departure schedules Loewen offered, early morning was the ideal time.
On Dec. 6, Loewen renewed his badge and now supposedly had access to a gate to the tarmac.
On Dec. 9, this past Monday, he verified that the badge would work. In a meeting Wednesday, Loewen wired the detonator and helped the FBI employee build the rest of the bomb, the complaint said.
They decided to mount the operation on Friday, Dec. 13, and “Loewen stated that he was happy that this was going to happen soon.” He didn’t go to work Wednesday and wrote letters to his family.
At 4:45 a.m. Friday, the supposed co-conspirator picked up Loewen at a local hotel. They drove to a spot where the bomb was stored, and Loewen completed the wiring, the complaint said. Then, according to the authorities’ account:
At 5:19, they headed to the airport. At 5:40, Loewen tried to use his badge at the gate, where he had tested it two days earlier. But now it had been disabled.
After two tries at opening the gate, authorities arrested Loewen.
Grissom said FBI Evidence Response Teams are processing multiple locations but that no other arrests are expected.
At his court appearance Friday afternoon, Humphreys, the federal magistrate, told Loewen she was scheduling him for a preliminary hearing and a detention hearing for Dec. 20. Federal prosecutors told her in the courtroom that a grand jury would meet Wednesday to consider an indictment.
Humphreys told prosecutors from the bench to make sure Loewen gets the several medications she had heard he needed.
When he was escorted into the courtroom, he walked with short steps, his legs, hands and waist all linked with chains and handcuffs. He appeared calm and swiveled gently in his chair in the minutes he and assistant public defender John Henderson waited for the judge to enter the courtroom.
Just before Humphreys arrived, men from the U.S. Marshals Service unhooked all of the restraints. They dropped the chains with a heavy, clunking sound a few feet from the table where Loewen then sat down beside his public defender.
In the courtroom seats behind Loewen sat his wife, identified in mortgage records with the Sedgwick County Register of Deeds’ office as Deborah Loewen.
Humphreys read him his rights and then the charges. “Do you understand counts one, two and three filed against you?” Humphreys asked. “Yes, ma’am, I do,” he replied.
She asked about his finances and noted that in the hours he’d spent under arrest he’d already filled out a financial affidavit. She asked him if he wanted a public defender. “Yes, ma’am,” he replied. She noted that he had told officials already that he didn’t know a lot about his own finances because his wife handles the family finances.
Loewen said that is true.
Humphreys nodded. “Well, I don’t think that’s all that unusual,” she said.
Henderson said federal authorities had assured him they’d acquired several medications that he said Loewen needs. Loewen has several stents in blood vessels in his chest and needs at least one of the medications — a blood thinner — every day. “If he goes without that medication for 24 hours, there could be severe consequences to him,” Henderson said.
Humphreys then addressed Loewen’s wife. “I know all of this must be upsetting,” the judge said. She asked whether she’d helped federal marshals make sure they understood all his medication needs. Deborah Loewen rose from her seat. “Yes,” she said. “I wrote it out on my car for them this morning.”
After that, Terry Lee Loewen was led from the courtroom.
(Amy Renee Leiker, Stan Finger, Deb Gruver, Roy Wenzl, Molly McMillin, Bill Wilson, Joshua Wood, Tom Shine, John Boogert and Dan Voorhis of the Eagle contributed to this story.)