Spy Suspect Was Devoted to God, Guns
Ryan Gilbert Anderson liked to shoot things. He shot coyotes for neighbors. While at college, he picked off birds from his apartment window. Mostly, he liked the weapons themselves -- the feel of them, their heft and design.
He was clean-cut, well-liked, devout first as a Lutheran and then later as a Muslim. But Anderson, the 26-year-old National Guardsman who stands accused of trying to help Al Qaeda, had alarmed authorities before.
It was May 22, 1998, the day after a 15-year-old Oregon boy named Kipland P. Kinkel went on a killing rampage at his home and school. That afternoon, Anderson -- home from college and staying with his parents in this working-class town north of Seattle -- was seen carrying a rifle near an elementary school.
“It appeared he was walking toward the school. Whether that was his destination, we don’t know,” said Jan Jorgensen, a spokeswoman for the Snohomish County Sheriff’s Department.
Sheriff’s deputies swarmed in and ordered Anderson to the ground.
Anderson later explained that he had just acquired the rifle, which had a 2-foot-long bayonet, and was walking to a friend’s house to show it off. Police released him.
The FBI has requested a copy of the incident report, trying to glean clues from Anderson’s past. The information contained in papers when he was charged Feb. 12 and interviews with people who knew the suspect paint a partial picture of the young man.
Anderson -- a member of the National Guard’s 81st Armor Brigade -- is sitting in a military prison at Ft. Lewis, Wash., held on three counts of trying to pass information to Al Qaeda.
He was arrested Feb. 12, just weeks before his unit was to leave for Iraq, by federal agents posing as Al Qaeda operatives.
The charges carry the death penalty, but experts in military justice say capital punishment isn’t likely in this case. The information allegedly offered was easily accessible on the Internet or television.
The most serious charge, attempting to aid the enemy, alleges that Anderson, a tank crewman, delivered sketches of two types of Army tanks. He’s also accused of offering information on troop tactics and weapons systems.
“He had secrets to share, but they didn’t appear to be serious secrets,” said John Paul Jones, a military law professor at the University of Richmond in Virginia. “I don’t think Mr. Anderson had anything that anybody actually wanted.”
Anderson grew up in the modest rambler still occupied by his father and stepmother. On the side of the two-car garage, a U.S. flag hangs a few feet from a basketball hoop.
Bruce Anderson once taught English at nearby Cascade High School, which his son graduated from in 1995. Friends from that time remembered Ryan Anderson as a good-spirited, if unremarkable, student. He was vice president of Junior Statesmen of America, a school club for kids interested in political issues and debate.
“He never did the drinking or the drugs. He was a good boy,” said Jennifer Seratte, who was in the same class. “He tried to get me to quit partying.”
Seratte had personal problems throughout high school, and Anderson, whose family was Lutheran, was constantly trying to lift her spirits, she said. He would talk to her about God, and “how if you serve Him, He’ll serve you.”
Anderson’s passions seemed to be God and guns. One classmate, who did not want to be named, said Anderson signed his yearbook with a sketch of a machine gun and the words, “Let’s overthrow the government!”
At Washington State University in Pullman, he studied history with an emphasis on the Middle East. Before he graduated in 2002, Anderson left behind a voluminous record of postings on Internet user groups, revealing something of his shifting views.
Investigators cite Anderson’s Internet postings in charging papers.
He had various user names -- including Gunfighter, Wensler, Turkey and, after he converted to Islam, Amir Abdul Rashid. He spent much of 1995 and early 1996 soliciting online help in trying to join a local militia.
“I am a die-hard Christian, and I do believe in America,” he wrote to one militia group. “I believe a great deal of what I have been told the Militias are defending against.... I have three rifles, I can supply all my own equipment and ammo.”
Anderson seemed aware that authorities may have been monitoring his Internet activity, writing in one posting, “I have a feeling the FBI is watching us.... I just love feeling like a suspect, don’t you?”
He was right -- he was being watched.
Mark Pitcavage, an online researcher in charge of tracking extremist groups for the Anti-Defamation League, came across Anderson’s postings. Pitcavage said the young man struck him as “a seeker personality type -- someone trying to fill a psychological, ideological or spiritual void.”
Late in 1996, Anderson’s postings indicated that he had abandoned his search for a militia and instead was seeking out Islamic contacts. In a letter with the subject line, “Help! I am looking to convert, but I don’t know where to start!” Anderson wrote:
“I am a 19-year-old Army Officer Cadet/college student of German/Irish descent who was raised in ‘zombie Lutheran’ home.... Since beginning my Arab History 272 class a number of months ago, Islam has almost literally called to me.”
One constant, however, seemed to be Anderson’s interest in weapons. He wrote often about various rifles, their makes and models and histories. This was something his friend Steve Lincoln, a college classmate, remembered well.
In one conversation, Lincoln said, Anderson described in detail how he shot at a quail from his apartment window, grazing it. Another college acquaintance said Anderson often shot at birds.
The manager of the apartment, who didn’t want to be named, said Anderson also shot coyotes for nearby landowners.
“Should any law be passed,” Anderson wrote in a 1999 letter to the Herald newspaper in Everett, “which allows anyone to come and ... take my arms, I and every other lawfully armed American citizen has a right to resist that degradation with every means possible.”
After graduation, Anderson joined the National Guard. He and his new wife, Erin, moved to an apartment in Lynnwood, about 50 miles north of Ft. Lewis, where his unit would begin training for deployment.
According to his own postings, investigators said, he converted to Islam two years before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
In a November 2002 letter to the Herald, Anderson wrote: “As an observant Muslim, I’ve encountered nothing but kindness, patience, courtesy and understanding from [Muslims]. On the other hand, I have experienced bigotry, hatred and mindless rage from so-called ‘educated thinkers’ here in the U.S.”
Around this time, Anderson joined a local Islamic Internet chat room, and offered to teach Muslims how to shoot, said Aziz Junejo, a Muslim community leader and a member of the chat room. “He was very bold,” said Junejo, who told the young man that such activity “was not part of the religion.” Anderson eventually left the chat room.
Investigators would not disclose how Anderson came to their attention. But it was partly through the Internet that undercover agents this year made contact with him.
According to charging papers, Anderson told agents posing as Al Qaeda operatives, “I wish to meet with you. I share your cause. I wish to continue contact through conversations and personal meetings.”
Between Jan. 17 and Feb. 10, Anderson allegedly passed information on security weaknesses, weapons systems and, according to the charges, “methods and means of killing U.S. Army personnel.”
The sting was a joint operation between the FBI, the Army and the Justice Department. The day Anderson was arrested at Ft. Lewis, agents raided his Lynnwood apartment.
Don Simmons, an upstairs neighbor, said he saw agents take Erin Anderson to a car for about two hours while the apartment was searched. A cellphone and computer, among other things, were confiscated. She was released a short time later.
“She was just devastated,” Simmons said.
Anderson’s family released a statement shortly after his arrest describing their shock and asking to be left alone.