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The Case of the Homegrown Terrorist

Protecting America from Terrorist Attack:
The Case of the Homegrown Terrorist


FBI Counterterrorism Division sealThree years ago, a convict named Gale Nettles sketched out his deadly plan in the sands of a Mississippi prison yard. He was going to bomb the 28-story federal courthouse in Chicago after he got out of jail, he told a fellow inmate. He even pointed out where he was going to park the truck to bring down the building.

Nettles was angry at the federal government for putting him behind bars for counterfeiting. And he wanted revenge in a big way. He planned to use a fertilizer-based bomb more powerful than the one detonated by Timothy McVeigh in Oklahoma City eight years earlier.

The convict looking on sensed that Nettles meant what he said. So he reported the conversation to our office in Jackson, Mississippi, which notified our Joint Terrorism Task Force, or JTTF, in Chicago. The JTTF quickly concluded that Nettles posed a real threat and decided to keep an eye on Nettles after he was released from prison.

A good idea, because Nettles returned to Chicago after he got out of jail and soon began searching for ammonium nitrate to make a bomb. He contacted someone whose name and number had been provided by his prison contact. What he didn't know was that the supplier was an undercover FBI agent. It was a sting.

The undercover agent arranged to sell Nettles 2,000 pounds of fertilizera harmless substitute to the nitrate, of course. Nettles paid for it by making more counterfeit money and selling the bogus bills to yet another FBI informant.

Then Nettles came up with a second plan-a way to make money and attack other targets: he asked that informant to introduce him to someone in al Qaeda or another terrorist organization. Why? He had all the fertilizer he needed and figured these terrorists would pay top dollar to get their hands on explosives material that could be used elsewhere in the U.S.

So we set up another sting. This time, one of our agents played an international terrorist and handed over $10,000 for the fertilizer. At the meeting, Nettles went so far as to tell the "terrorist" how he planned to get maximum impact from his bomb. We arrested Nettles a short time later.

"He was a true killer with no conscience whatsoever," said Special Agent Sonjia Wing, who along with Supervisory Special Agent Joan Kvech O'Brien and Special Agent Jennifer Rettig, ran the case.

Nettles' arrest capped a 10-month investigation that included FBI agents from Jackson, Mississippi, and New Orleans. The Chicago Joint Terrorism Task Force, one of our more than 100 anti-terror squads nationwide, played a central role, calling on the expertise of more than 20 federal, state, and local agencies, including the U.S. Marshals and the Secret Service. Wing estimates that more than 200 law enforcement officers and agents supported the case.

In September 2005, Nettles was convicted on two counts of plotting to destroy a federal building and other charges. He will spend the rest of his life in prison.

"The best part of the case was knowing that we actually prevented a terrorist attack and saved lives in the process," said Wing.

Resources: FBI Counterterrorism operations