In Alaska, becoming the militants next door
A little more than a year ago, he was a weather forecaster at a remote outpost in King Salmon, Alaska, population 442. He and his wife — he with his close-trimmed red beard and shy smile, she with her rosebud cheeks and sweet English accent — lived in a two-story frame house strewn with toys. They were popular dinner companions and regulars at community theater productions.
Now Paul Rockwood Jr. is a convicted terrorist, serving eight years in a federal prison. His wife, Nadia, is exiled on probation in England after her own criminal conviction. Since their arrest in 2010 — accused by the FBI of drafting and delivering a list of targets for terrorist attacks — friends and neighbors have been left in confusion, wondering how the nice young couple could have turned into the terrorists next door.
The possible answer, provided in Rockwood’s first interview since his arrest, opens a window on one man’s uncertain spiritual journey and radicalization after the Sept. 11 attacks. It also offers a look at the government’s increasingly deep dragnet for suspected domestic terrorists.
To federal authorities, Rockwood, 36, is a man who turned from hard-partying bartender and ex-Navy seaman to Muslim militant committed to killing fellow Americans.
To Rockwood, the plot involving targeted assassinations and bombs was a “pure fantasy” created by a government agent he thought was his friend, a common refrain in the nation’s burgeoning number of “home-grown” terrorism plots prosecuted since the Sept. 11 attacks.
Rockwood concedes that he drew up a list of people. He thought they should be punished.
“But ... it was all talk,” Rockwood said in a small interview room at the correctional facility he has called home since July 2010.
By his account, the events of Sept. 11 stunned and repelled Rockwood and his wife, both raised Catholic. They were living in Virginia, and Rockwood had recently gotten a job as a contractor with the National Weather Service, hoping to eventually land a full civil service position and a more stable future.
“A week later, I was flying back from New Mexico and I was telling my co-workers, ‘I’m not getting on the plane if there’s Arab or Muslim people on the plane,’” he said. “But as time went on, I started needing to know why somebody would kill themselves, flying a plane into a building.”
Rockwood was taking medication for anxiety and Meniere’s disease, an affliction of the inner ear that causes vertigo, headaches and nausea. He was also trying to cut back on his partying and had taken a comparative religion class to try to quiet his mind.
He started studying Islam online.
“I was struck by how similar the beliefs in Islam were to Christianity, and at the same time, I guess also the differences made sense to me; it was a straighter path,” he said.
Rockwood said he also felt that he was beginning to understand what had driven the Sept. 11 hijackers. “These people felt that they had been under attack,” he said. “They kind of saw it as a self-defense response. It was like you’d be impressed if an American soldier jumps on a grenade to save his buddies; it takes a lot of courage to give up your life like that.”
In December, only three months after the attacks, Rockwood took the shehada, the Muslim affirmation of faith, and not long after began attending the radical Dar al-Arqam mosque in Falls Church, Va. That mosque had frequently served as a platform for Ali al-Timimi, a radical lecturer who would soon be convicted and sentenced to life in prison on charges of soliciting followers to join the Taliban in Afghanistan.
Here, Rockwood was exposed to the teachings of Anwar Awlaki, a Yemeni American engineer whose entreaties to U.S. Muslims to engage in holy war made him one of the most influential voices of violent, radical Islam in the West. Awlaki was killed in September in a U.S. missile strike in Yemen.
“I held beliefs that were similar to his beliefs,” Rockwood said. Among them were outrage over the deaths of innocents, fury over war crimes committed by U.S. troops and a conviction that the Iraq war had been started to lock up new oil supplies for the United States.
Nadia resented the way her husband’s newfound religion consumed him, and the couple separated for a time. Eventually, though, she converted to Islam. Not long after, the couple’s first child was born, and Rockwood took the job in King Salmon, his civil service entree to the weather service.
Nadia integrated easily into the close-knit social life in King Salmon, but it was harder for Rockwood. “Some of the best people I ever met lived in King Salmon. But it was hard for me not to have other Muslims,” he said.
Two years after arriving, and again in 2009, Rockwood traveled to Cairo, hoping to find a way that he and Nadia could move there and enroll their young son in an international madrasa. Nadia, though, didn’t want to live in Egypt. So Rockwood did his best to settle into life in King Salmon, relishing the occasional chance to debate politics and the war in Iraq, especially with his then-boss, whom he described as a devout Christian and a fellow military veteran.
His boss, he feels sure, noticed that he was listening to Awlaki sermons and using his personal laptop to visit websites such as Revolution Muslim, which praised Nidal Malik Hasan’s deadly 2009 shooting rampage at Ft. Hood, Texas, as a “preemptive attack.” It was his boss, he believes, who called him to the FBI’s attention, though the government has said its initial tip in the case came from outside Alaska.
By that time, Rockwood was back on prescription drugs to counter a flare-up of his Meniere’s disease. He was lonely and thinking again about moving to Egypt.
“I don’t know how to express it. I was depressed about everything. I was upset. I wanted to leave the country, but at the same time, I wanted to change the country. I was confused. I’m still confused. I guess to compare it, I’m kind of sympathetic about how the Japanese Americans must have felt in World War II,” he said.
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That was when one of the leaders at the mosque in Anchorage asked whether he wouldn’t like to meet a potential convert. The gentleman was a state trooper, he was told, and wanted to learn more about the religion. Would Rockwood talk about his own experience?
They met and became, Rockwood thought, fast friends. “Every time I came to Anchorage we would go to the mosque, go out to dinner, he’d ask me for help in how to recite the Koran, how to fast. He actually became a Muslim. He took the shehada. He said the words,” Rockwood said, a little incredulously.
“Our conversations for months and months had nothing to do with politics or jihad and the wars. But slowly over time, that was all he wanted to talk about,” Rockwood said. “He’d bring up certain things or ask me certain questions to try to get me riled up. Things like atrocities that were committed during the war: Abu Ghraib, the villages, the rapes. Basically, we’d both share our outrage and ask, what should be done about this? Who should be doing something about this?”
The discussions — often carried out at an expensive hotel where the trooper paid to put up Rockwood in a room — began to grow deadly serious.
“We decided to assassinate certain people. We had these conversations. I’m not going to deny it,” Rockwood said. “I told him that I’d kept news articles with the names of people that were involved in the atrocities and stuff. He said, ‘Great, get me a list of names.’ Part of it was a macho kind of thing…. Also, he was offering me money. He said he was going to give me $8,000" to get started on the plan.
Rockwood said the trooper bought cellphones and other electronic devices that purportedly were to be used as remote triggers for bombs.
But at the same time, Rockwood and his wife had been talking about moving to England. His Meniere’s disease had become devastating, and the National Health Service there would provide free treatment. He gave notice at work, and the couple had a garage sale to get rid of most of their possessions.
“I knew I was never going to do anything. I knew I was going to go to England and not come back. But I needed the money. It’s not a redeeming quality, but I was using him for my own purposes. I didn’t realize at the time that he was using me, too.”
It all came to a head on the eve of their intended departure when Rockwood talked on the phone with the trooper, who said from Anchorage that he needed the list of names. Nadia was going to Anchorage, so Rockwood gave her the list. When she arrived, she met the trooper at Wal-Mart and was filmed by the FBI handing over the envelope.
Rockwood shook his head. “If it was happening now, when I’m clear-headed, I definitely wouldn’t have gone along with it,” he said. “All it would have taken was a conversation to wake me up and snap me out of it.”
The Rockwoods boarded their flight from King Salmon to Boston, where they planned to visit family before heading to England, but they were stopped by the FBI when the plane landed in Anchorage. They were questioned, ostensibly for an investigation of the activities of the state trooper.
Soon, though, it became apparent that the authorities were interested in Rockwood, not the trooper. Though not under arrest, the couple weren’t allowed to leave the city. With Nadia pregnant and all their possessions down to a few suitcases, they stayed first in a nice hotel, then as their funds dwindled, a motel, and finally a homeless shelter.
“I had five cars following me around Anchorage,” he said. “I took my son to Chuck E. Cheese, I took him to a children’s museum, and they had people following me around with cameras. I can’t even tell you how much pressure I was under.”
Eventually, faced with the possibility of being charged with terrorism, the Rockwoods pleaded guilty to the only crimes they knew they had committed: making false statements to the FBI during a terrorism investigation. Rockwood said the key was a pledge that Nadia would not have to go to jail.
“I would have said I was the guy on the grassy knoll if it meant keeping her out of prison,” Rockwood said. “But I want people to know why I pled guilty. I want people to know what the government is doing, what lengths they’re going to, to get these terrorism cases.”
Prosecutors say there was plenty of evidence that Rockwood not only knew what he was getting into but took measurable steps to carry out the plan.
“The suggestion that this was planted in his mind is just false.... He researched the means to select targets, and his looking for people to kill and how to kill them was well before law enforcement got involved,” Karen Loeffler, U.S. attorney in Alaska, said in an interview.
Rockwood’s research on the intended victims also included names of family members and addresses, she said.
But Rockwood’s public defender, Sue Ellen Tatter, said she came to believe that her client was more lonely than scary.
“I think a lot of people didn’t pay attention to him in King Salmon. He wasn’t a hunter or a fisherman or an outdoors guy, and I think he wanted a friend,” she said. “What he found was a friend who wanted to talk about jihad. And the more he talked about jihad, the friendlier this guy got.”
After the charges came to light, King Salmon was in shock. Surely not Nadia and Paul, people said.
“It all seems very dubious to me, and very set up,” said Rebecca Hamon, a friend who occasionally hears from Nadia, who was denied permission to travel to New Jersey and introduce her husband to his baby daughter, now 1 year old.
“I feel like what Nadia and Paul signed was very much them being held over the barrel because ... their top priority was to get her to a place where she could safely have her baby, and not have their children taken from them,” Hamon said.
“I think they were put in a position where they would have signed just about anything.”