WASHINGTON: A Maryland man inspired by a 2016 terrorist attack in Nice, France, has been detained for allegedly plotting to drive a stolen truck into pedestrians at a busy shopping and entertainment complex alongside the Potomac River in hopes of creating “panic and chaos,” the US Justice Department said on Monday.
The US Attorney’s Office for the District of Maryland said it charged 28-year-old Rondell Henry of Germantown, Maryland, with interstate commerce transportation of a stolen vehicle.
It said the government has since petitioned a federal court to detain Henry pending trial after learning more about his motives.
“I was just going to keep driving and driving and driving. I wasn’t going to stop,” the government quotes Henry as saying in its motion seeking detention pending trial.
A detention hearing is scheduled for Tuesday in US District Court in Greenbelt, Maryland, before US Magistrate Judge Thomas M. DiGirolamo.
Henry’s public defender, Michael Citaramanis, declined to comment.
In its criminal complaint, the government said that on March 26, the Alexandria Police Department in Virginia received a report about a leased U-Haul truck that was stolen from a nearby mall.
The driver who rented the truck initially reported seeing a man in a blue BMW follow the U-Haul off Interstate 395 and park in a space near the U-Haul at the mall. When police arrived at the mall, they found the BMW still parked there and discovered it was registered to Henry.
A day later, the stolen U-Haul was found in National Harbor, a bustling development along the Potomac in Maryland across from Alexandria, Virginia, that features bars and restaurants, shops, a Ferris wheel, a luxury hotel and residential apartments.
Video surveillance showed Henry parking and getting out of the truck. He was arrested the next day.
Prosecutors say that Henry has harboured “hatred” for those who do not practice the Muslim faith and was allegedly inspired by videos he watched of foreign terrorists.
Specifically, they said he was inspired by the 2016 terrorist attack in Nice, France, in which a man drove a truck at high speed into crowds, killing 86 people, and for which Islamic State claimed responsibility.
Henry “walked off his job in Germantown, Maryland, in the middle of the day, determined to walk down the extremist path,” the government alleged in court papers.
“Recognising that his older four-door sedan would not cause the catastrophic damage that he desired, the defendant drove around the Washington, DC, metropolitan area looking for a larger vehicle to steal.”
According to a posting on the Montgomery County Police Department, Henry was reported missing and was last seen by his co-workers on March 26.
The Justice Department said that before setting his sights on National Harbor, Henry wanted to try driving the truck into pedestrians at Dulles International Airport in Virginia.
He arrived at the airport around 5 a.m. on March 27, but the airport “lacked the large number of unloading pedestrians the defendant hoped to find,” the court filing says. He also tried to find a way through security at the airport, but struck out multiple times.
Henry then made his way to National Harbour, arriving around 10am that same day. He later told police he wanted to create “panic and chaos,” just like “what happened in France,” prosecutors said.
Henry still did not find a large crowd, however, so he decided to wait. He broke into a boat and hid there overnight, the government said.
The next day, police had tracked down the stolen truck and were there waiting. After Henry jumped over a security fence, the government said, he was arrested.