The First “Terror Arrest” Under the New Administration

Instead of going after corporate crime, the FBI spends time on sting operations against unwell people.

The Department of Justice proudly announced the first FBI terror arrest of the Trump administration on Tuesday: an elaborate sting operation that snared a 25-year-old Missouri man who had no terrorism contacts besides the two undercover FBI agents who paid him to buy hardware supplies they said was for a bomb and who at one point pulled a knife on him and threatened his family.

Robert Lorenzo Hester of Columbia, Missouri, didn’t have the $20 he needed to buy the 9-volt batteries, duct tape, and roofing nails his new FBI friends wanted him to get, so they gave him the money. The agents noted in a criminal complaint that Hester, who at one point brought his two small children to a meeting because he didn’t have child care, continued smoking marijuana despite professing to be a devout Muslim.

One of the social media posts that initially caught the FBI’s attention referred to a group called “The Lion Guard.” Hester told one of the undercover agents the name came from “a cartoon my children watch.”
But according to the DOJ press release, Hester had plans to conduct an “ISIS-sponsored terrorist attack” on President’s Day that would have resulted in mass casualties had it succeeded.

News reports breathlessly echoed the government’s depiction of Hester as a foiled would-be terrorist. But the only contact Hester had with ISIS was with the two undercover agents who suggested to him that they had connections with the group. The agents, who were in contact with him for five months, provided him with money and rides home from work as he dealt with the personal fallout of an unrelated arrest stemming from an altercation at a local grocery store.
Hester later complained to the first undercover agent that the second agent had threatened to harm him if he “talked about any plans” or “planned without letting him know.” According to the complaint, Hester told the first agent that it was wrong for the second agent to threaten his family.

On January 31, the second agent met Hester and gave him a list of items to buy, including 9-volt batteries, duct tape, copper wire, and roofing nails, telling Hester that these would be used to build an explosive. According to the criminal complaint, the agent gave him $20 to buy the items after confirming that “HESTER could not get the money.” Hester agreed to repay the money when he could.

The next day the agent came to Hester’s house, where Hester gave him the requested items, except the copper wire, which he had been unable to find. The agent said he was planning to conduct a violent terrorist attack for the Islamic State and asked if Hester was willing to take part. Hester replied, “I’m down.” The agent then opened the trunk of his car to display several assault rifles and bomb components, all of which had been rendered inoperable by the FBI.

While Hester clearly appears to be a troubled and volatile individual, as evidenced by the incident at the grocery store parking lot, there appears to be little to suggest that he had the wherewithal or capacity to carry out a terrorist attack without the guidance and assistance provided by the two agents. His case is similar to many others in which individuals in financial, legal, or psychological distress have been befriended by undercover FBI agents or government informants and coaxed into developing a terrorist plot.

Hester agreed to go along with the agents’ plans, even when they described to him in detail their violent intentions. But that and buying the hardware supplies requested by the agents appears to be all he did. There is no evidence that he had ever been in touch with actual terrorists or had developed a plot of his own. Some of what he agreed to go along with in this case also came after an undercover agent had pulled out a knife and threatened to kill him and his family.

Regardless, Hester is now in federal custody on charges of attempting to provide material support to a terrorist organization. If convicted on the charges, he faces up to 20 years in prison.