Online plot raised real fear, agent testifies

He testified at the Scranton trial of a man who says his talk of bombings was a ruse.

Posted: July 10, 2007

SCRANTON - A Montana FBI agent testified Tuesday that the bureau had become "very concerned" about Michael Curtis Reynolds, a Wilkes-Barre man who went on the Internet and talked with someone he thought was from al-Qaeda about using trucks filled with propane to blow up energy pipelines in late 2005.

"We determined this person may be a threat," special agent Mark Seyler testified. "We wanted to bring the situation to a conclusion as fast as we could."

Reynolds was arrested by the FBI at a snow-covered highway rest stop in Idaho on Dec. 5, 2005, according to the federal government, after going to the spot to pick up $40,000 he believed was payment from al-Qaeda.

Reynolds' arrival at the scene and the first moments of the arrest were captured on FBI videotape, which was played Tuesday afternoon in the federal trial of Reynolds, 49. He is charged with attempting to provide material support to a terrorist organization and soliciting to commit a crime of violence.

Reynolds has maintained that he was not a terrorist but, rather, was pretending to be one online to capture jihadists determined to attack America.

In October 2005, Reynolds first caught the attention of Shannen Rossmiller, a former Montana judge who hunts and ensnares extremists on the Internet. Rossmiller testified Monday that Reynolds had solicited help from al-Qaeda on the Web to carry out a plan to crash the American energy infrastructure. In online correspondence with her, he said that this destruction would hasten an end to the Iraq war, she testified, and cause domestic chaos that would lead to President Bush's removal.

As outlandish as the plot sounded, it seemed very real to the FBI, Seyler testified. He explained that the bureau learned of Reynolds from Rossmiller, whom he characterized as a "formal FBI source," who has regularly been providing information about extremist plots to the FBI.

"I met Shannen Rossmiller for lunch in Great Falls [Mont.], and she said she'd identified this individual who was offering his services to commit a terrorist act against the United States," Seyler testified. "I told Shannen she was to communicate with the individual, observe him, but not to tell him to commit the act."

Seyler said Rossmiller learned more about Reynolds and his intentions through their online communications. He added that he forwarded those e-mail messages and other documents to the FBI office in Philadelphia in mid-November 2005.

By December 2005, Seyler testified, he had taken over for Rossmiller, keeping up communications with Reynolds as though he was the same al-Qaeda operative whom Rossmiller had invented.

Seyler testified that Reynolds sent him a list of materials al-Qaeda cell members in the United States could purchase at Wal-Marts and Kmarts to take out the first target: an oil refinery in Opal, Wyo.

"The plan is to make homemade claymore mines," Reynolds wrote to Seyler. "And propane reinforces the effect."

Throughout the online communications, Reynolds "believed he was in contact with al-Qaeda," Seyler testified.

In his defense, Reynolds told the FBI agents who arrested him that he was not a terrorist, but a private citizen trying to gain information about al-Qaeda, which he would turn over to a paramilitary group.

He told the FBI that he did not trust law enforcement, and so had informed no one of his plans, Seyler testified.

"We told him his story didn't make sense," Seyler testified.

Reynolds' lawyer, Joseph O'Brien, tried to show through questioning that the FBI was mistaken to believe that Reynolds was bent on terrorism.

"Isn't it conceivable a person could bump up against you" on the Internet? O'Brien asked. His point was that Reynolds was a private citizen, like Rossmiller, out to fight terrorists.

Earlier in the day, Rossmiller completed her trial testimony by crossing swords with O'Brien.

O'Brien began questioning whether Rossmiller had been "investigated" for an unidentified alleged infraction.

Becoming agitated, Rossmiller raised her right index finger and said: "That's an unfair characterization."

After a hastily called sidebar conference, Assistant U.S. Attorney John C. Gurganus Jr. told the jury that an investigation about an unidentified matter had been conducted, and "Ms. Rossmiller was cleared of any wrongdoing."

Neither attorney would comment further.


Contact staff writer Alfred Lubrano at 215-854-4969 or alubrano@phillynews.com.

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