The suspect accused of planning an attack on Ft. Hood soldiers had holed up in a motel room in Killeen this week, authorities said, with a 40-caliber handgun, a cache of bomb-making ingredients and a plan to make this military city ache all over again.
Instead, Pfc. Naser Jason Abdo appeared Friday in U.S. District Court in Waco. There, the army private shouted his inspiration for what authorities say was a plot to set off two bombs at a popular restaurant outside the sprawling Ft. Hood military base.
“Nidal Hasan — Ft. Hood 2009!” he said, a defiant reference to the army major and psychiatrist and fellow Muslim who is charged with killing 13 people at the base nearly two years ago.
Killeen, an unassuming 128,000-person city north of Austin, was deeply wounded by the rampage. The military is its lifeblood. During lunch, McDonald’s and Whataburger are packed with men and women in fatigues. Military surplus stores are nearly as plentiful as hotels wrapped with “We Support Our Troops” banners.
On Friday, it was a city rattled by what-ifs and whys, but also a city relieved.
“Thank God nothing bad happened,” said Suraiya Rabbani, a school counselor who’s lived here for two decades. “Thank God no lives were lost.”
A Muslim on her way to Friday prayers, Rabbani had added reasons for relief. She recalled how the adults at her mosque had to soothe children who were taunted after the 2009 attack. She found herself explaining, repeatedly, that Islam was a religion of peace.
When she learned that Abdo claimed to share her faith, her stomach sank.
“He had to come here to Killeen to do this?” she said.
Like Hasan, Abdo was opposed to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan because he said they violated his Muslim beliefs. While stationed at Ft. Campbell, Ky., Abdo had even been approved as a conscientious objector for discharge from the army. But that discharge, granted earlier this year, was put on hold soon afterward when the 21-year-old was charged with possession of child pornography. He’d been absent without leave since early July.
This week, authorities said, he checked into an Americas Best Value Inn and Suites just outside Ft. Hood.
At the hotel, where an American flag billows in the parking lot, Abdo rattled employees by pacing in the lobby while waiting for a taxi, one worker said in an interview. Abdo wore tan hospital-type scrubs and sunglasses. No one had been inside Abdo’s room, the employee said, because he’d hung a do-not-disturb sign on the door.
When authorities arrested Abdo Wednesday at the motel, court papers said, they found smokeless gunpowder, shotgun shells and pellets, two clocks, two spools of auto wire, an electric drill and two pressure cookers. There was epoxy and glue, tape, gloves, a battery and Christmas lights, with some of the items in his backpack.
Abdo, court papers said, had saved an article titled, “Make a bomb in the kitchen of your mom.”
In interviews with authorities, court papers said, Abdo “admitted that he planned to assemble two bombs in the hotel room using gun powder and shrapnel packed into pressure cookers” to explode at an undisclosed restaurant popular with soldiers.
Abdo was charged Friday with possession of an unregistered destructive device. If convicted, he could face up to 10 years in prison and $250,000 in fines.
Around battle-scarred Killeen, there were sighs of resignation. Carroll Smith, a police spokeswoman and lifelong resident, recalled how, in 1991, a gunman killed 23 people at a Luby’s Cafeteria here before taking his own life.
“We learn from the last,” Smith said. “We’re always going to keep our guard up. Ft. Hood is the largest military base in the free world. People tend to target a place like that.”
At military surplus store Surplus City, amid rows of fatigues, clerk Ralf Payne grimaced at details of the latest plot.
Just as New Yorkers remember where they were on 9/11, Payne recalled freezing behind the store counter in 2009 when he heard that a gunman had sprayed bullets at Ft. Hood. Later, he met one customer who’d been shot and another who had slipped away from the carnage.
“And now that’s two incidents, ain’t it?” he said, shaking his head. “It’s going to go on and on. We have to be vigilant.”
Then he praised the folks at Guns Galore.
At that store, a short drive away, manager Cathy Cheadle recalled how Abdo had walked into the squat, white building where, in 2009, Hasan purchased a handgun that officials say he used in the deadly attack.
It was Tuesday afternoon, and Abdo wore a Texas Longhorns T-shirt and sunglasses he never took off.
He grabbed four canisters of smokeless gunpowder from the shelves. They were a mix of brands, which Cheadle found strange. “Then he asked what smokeless gunpowder was,” she said. “Well, if you’re buying it, you should know what it is.”
She answered his question. He fetched two more canisters. He added a handgun magazine and three boxes of ammunition, whose power Cheadle described as “pretty devastating.” His bill was slightly less than $250. He tossed that amount of cash on the counter and didn’t wait for his change or receipt.
“Have a nice day,” Cheadle said.
“Hope your afternoon is better than mine,” she recalled him replying.
Cheadle said she and part-time clerk Greg Ebert watched, via security video, as Abdo climbed into a taxi. Ebert, a retired policeman, later told authorities about the odd young man. They arrested Abdo the next day.
“I don’t think we could have taken another bad thing out of here,” Cheadle said with a sigh.
Instead, on Friday, she awoke to messages from residents grateful that their neighbors helped thwart another tragedy.
Times staff writer Stephen Ceasar in Los Angeles contributed to this report.