COLUMBIA, Mo. (KFVS) - A Missouri man pleaded guilty to trying to provide material support to people he believed were members of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham.
They were actually undercover law enforcement.
Robert Lorenzo Hester, Jr., 28, pleaded guilty on Monday, September 23.
Hester has been in federal custody since his arrest in February 2017. He is a U.S. citizen and was enlisted in the U.S. Army for less than a year, receiving a general discharge from service in mid-2013.
By pleading guilty, Hester admitted that from October 2016 to February 2017, he tried to provide material support to ISIS, knowing that it was a designated foreign terrorist organization that engages in terrorist activity.
According to the plea agreement, multiple confidential sources reported to the FBI that Hester had posted a variety of material on multiple social media accounts. He said he had converted to Islam, expressed animus toward the United States and posted photos of weapons and the ISIS flag, among other material.
In order to assess whether Hester was a security threat, the FBI began investigating, starting with an examination of whether and to what extent he would engage directly online with confidential sources working for the FBI, and later with FBI employees working undercover.
FBI employees working undercover communicated with Hester via social media, texting and personal meetings on several occasions.
They say he would say the U.S. government should be “overthrown” and he suggested “hitting” the government “hard,” while noting that it would not be “a one man job.”
Hester identified categories of potential targets for attack, including “oil production,” “military bases,” “federal places,” “government officials” and “Wall Street.”
He specified that “[a]ny government building in DC would get attention of everyone.” He said he wanted a “global jihad."
Citing his brief enlistment in the Army, Hester also claimed proficiency with “assault weapons” and said that his favorite firearm was the AK-47 rifle. He talked about the perceived ease in which one could gain access to a military base.
According to investigators, Hester had a willingness to act on the statements he made online. An undercover FBI employee talking to him offered an in-person meeting with a like-minded “brother.” Hester agreed to meet and did meet on several occasions with a person who was described as, and Hester believed was, a terrorist operative. In reality, the person was an undercover employee of the FBI.
In the meetings, the FBI undercover made clear to Hester that the undercover was representing a foreign terrorist organization, ISIS, and that the undercover was planning an attack that would involve multiple operatives, deploy bombs and guns and result in mass casualties.
Hester indicated through his statements and actions that he was ready and willing to participate and assist in the “plot.”
At the undercover FBI’s request, Hester collected items he was told would be used as bomb components, including boxes of roofing nails. The undercover made clear to Hester that the nails’ purpose was to maximize the number of casualties.
In addition, investigators say Hester did not hesitate when the undercover showed him a cache of three machine guns and two handguns that would be used in the “attack," and two pipes that would be used to make the “bombs.” In the days after seeing the items, which were in the rear compartment of the undercover’s SUV, investigators say Hester gave information on storage units that could be used to hold the weapons and agreed to get more supplies.
Under the terms of the plea agreement, Hester could face a sentence of 20 years in federal prison, which is the maximum penalty. He may not seek a sentence below 15 years’ imprisonment.
A sentencing hearing will be scheduled after a presentence investigation is completed by the United States Probation Office.
This case is being prosecuted by Assistant U.S. Attorneys Brian P. Casey and David Raskin and Trial Attorney Jennifer Levy of the National Security Division’s Counterterrorism Section. It was investigated by the FBI.