BOSTON -- A Muslim-American man admitted Friday that he plotted to use remote-controlled model planes packed with explosives to blow up the Pentagon and U.S. Capitol.
Rezwan Ferdaus, 26, pleaded guilty to attempting to provide material support to terrorists and attempting to damage and destroy federal buildings by means of an explosive.
Ferdaus, of Ashland, was arrested last year after federal employees posing as members of al-Qaida delivered materials he requested, including grenades, machine guns and plastic explosives.
Under a plea agreement, federal prosecutors agreed to drop four other charges. Prosecutors and Ferdaus' lawyers also agreed to jointly recommend a 17-year prison term. Sentencing is set for Nov. 1.
Ferdaus, who grew up in Massachusetts and has a physics degree from Boston's Northeastern University, smiled and greeted a large group of family and friends as he entered the courtroom.
After entering his guilty plea, Ferdaus tried to lean over to comfort his crying mother but was quickly pulled away by U.S. Marshals. She sobbed uncontrollably and had to be supported by family members as her son was led out of the courtroom.
Prosecutors said Ferdaus began planning jihad, or holy war, against the United States in 2010 after becoming convinced through jihadi websites and videos that America was evil. He later contacted a federal informant and began meeting to discuss the plot with undercover agents.
Authorities said the explosives were always under the control of federal agents and the public was never in danger. Counterterrorism experts and model-aircraft enthusiasts say it would be nearly impossible to inflict large-scale damage using model planes.
But both inside and outside court Friday, prosecutors described an elaborate plan they said Ferdaus was committed to carrying out.
Assistant District Attorney Stephanie Siegmann said that if the case had gone to trial, prosecutors would have used recordings on which Ferdaus is heard detailing the plot.
Siegmann said there were two main parts of his plan: to blow up the Pentagon and U.S. Capitol using remote-controlled planes and to kill American soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan using improvised explosive devices detonated by modified cellphones.
The planes, measuring 60 to 80 inches in length and capable of speeds greater than 100 mph, would be guided by GPS and packed with 5 pounds each of plastic explosives.
Siegmann said Ferdaus traveled to Washington, D.C., to scout out his targets and later gave the undercover agents surveillance photos and maps. She said Ferdaus told them his plan "ought to terrorize" and "ought to result in the downfall of this entire disgusting place."
Siegmann said Ferdaus modified 12 cellphones so they could act as an electrical switch for an IED.
After giving the first device to the undercover agents, the agents lied and told him it had been used in Iraq and killed three U.S. soldiers.
Siegmann said Ferdaus was "visibly excited" to learn his device had been used successfully and said, "That was exactly what I wanted."
Ferdaus told Judge Richard Stearns that he was being treated for mild depression and anxiety before he was arrested and is now taking anti-anxiety medication.
During an earlier court hearing, Ferdaus' lawyers suggested that the FBI ignored signs of mental illness in Ferdaus while investigating him. An FBI agent acknowledged that the FBI had received reports about bizarre behavior by Ferdaus, including a report to Hopkinton police about one incident in which authorities say he stood in the road not moving and appeared to have wet his pants.
When asked Friday whether Ferdaus' mental health was taken into account when making the 17-year sentencing recommendation, First Assistant U.S. Attorney Jack Pirozzolo cited Ferdaus' composed responses to the judge's questions and the judge's comment that Ferdaus is "obviously an intelligent and well-educated young man."
"He answered clearly; he was lucid," Pirozzolo said.
Siegmann said the defense didn't request a mental examination.