The young father stashed circuitry components, a soldering iron and wireless remotes in his west Houston apartment with plans to detonate homemade bombs in local shopping malls, according to court documents.
He trained with an AK-47 on a farm outside Houston, swore an oath to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, and wanted to become a martyr, a federal investigator testified in court.
"I will make a widow of you," he told his wife in a conversation intercepted by federal authorities. "You will get a phone call with news of my death."
The federal investigation of Omar Faraj Saeed Al Hardan - one of two unrelated terrorism cases filed in Houston - is part of a broad new effort by federal law enforcement across the country to root out low-level, home-hatched terror plots before they move "from flash to bang," as one anti-terrorism expert said.
Today, federal prosecutors are charging individual suspects more quickly with providing material support to a terrorist organization, instead of trying to link the suspects to a broader network. And they have expanded use of existing laws to include threats spread over the internet and social media.
Since the Islamic State declared itself a global caliphate in 2014 - demanding the world's attention with beheading videos and calls to followers to join the cause - the U.S. Department of Justice has filed charges against 107 people across the country for supporting the group, with more than 50 convictions.
Potential terror threats are under investigation in all 50 states and charges have been brought in 26, with at least five recent cases in Texas, according to anti-terrorism experts.
"Finding those needles in the haystack - in fact, finding those pieces of hay that might become a needle and trying to disrupt them - is at the center of the FBI's work 24/7," FBI Director James Comey Jr. explained last month at a Senate hearing on homeland security.
Critics, however, say the government may be going too far, too fast in its effort to stop terrorism.
David Adler, Al Hardan's attorney, declined to comment about the pending local case, but he has argued in court that the government is drawing unfair conclusions from innocuous details of a man's personal life.
Since the start of the Syrian revolution in March 2011, five men have been indicted in federal court in Texas for alleged terrorist activities, four of which involved the Islamic State, also known as ISIL and ISIS.
Omar Faraj Saeed Al Hardan: 24, of Houston, is charged with providing material support to ISIS and lying during the application process for citizenship by saying he was not affiliated with a terrorist organization and had not received weapons training from a military or paramilitary group. Al Hardan, a Palestinian national who was born in Iraq, came to the U.S. in 2009 as a refugee. He is set to stand trial in Houston starting Nov. 8.
Asher Abid Khan: 22, of Spring, is accused of trying to join jihadis in Syria in a trip that was interrupted by what he thought was a family emergency in Houston. Khan, a U.S. citizen, is currently out on bail and studying mechanical engineering at the University of Houston. He is set to stand trial Dec. 5 on charges he provided material support to ISIS.
Rahatul Ashikim Khan: 24, of Round Rock, pleaded guilty to providing material support to a foreign terrorist organization, al-Shabab, from 2011 to 2012. Khan, a U.S. citizen born in Bangladesh, is serving a 10-year federal sentence that will be followed by 10 years of supervised release. Khan led a group of recruits who had pledged support to the late mujahadeen commander, Mullah Omar.
Michael Todd Wolfe: also known as Faruk, 25, a Houston native living in Austin, was one of Rahatul Khan's recruits and pleaded guilty to providing material support to a terrorist group. Wolfe, a U.S. citizen, was sentenced to 82 months in federal prison, followed by five years of supervised release. He originally wanted to join Al-Qaida forces in Syria through the Nusrah Front but later opted for ISIS. Authorities stopped him at George H.W. Bush International Airport in June 2015 as he was ready to board a flight to Toronto en route to Syria, under the guise that he would be attending a concert in Europe.
Bilal Abood: 38, of Mesquite, pleaded guilty to attempting to travel to Syria to fight the regime of President Bashar al-Assad. Abood, a U.S. citizen originally from Iraq, had served as a translator for the U.S. military. He was sentenced to four years in prison followed by three years of supervised release. FBI investigators found evidence on his Twitter account he had pledged allegiance to the caliphate and its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
Faiza Patel, co-director at the Brennan Center for Justice's Liberty and National Security Program in New York, says the government's aggressive new approach may trample on personal freedoms.
"They are going after low-hanging fruit," Patel said. "It may be because that's all there is."
'Most are clear-eyed'
Homegrown ISIS sympathizers generally fall into two categories, those accused of plotting or attempting violent acts on U.S. soil and those who want to leave the country and join Islamic State insurgents overseas, said Seamus Hughes, who meticulously tracks ISIS cases in the U.S. as deputy director of the Program on Extremism at George Washington University.
The average age of a domestic ISIS recruit is 26, and the vast majority of self-radicalized recruits are male, according to data collected by Hughes.
Nearly 90 percent are U.S. citizens or permanent residents, but there's no typical profile for income, marital status or country of origin. Only a few defendants show signs of mental illness, Hughes said.
"Most are clear-eyed," he said. "They're making a decision of their own volition."
The largest cluster of criminal cases nationwide is in the Twin Cities area of Minnesota, considered a U.S. hub for recruiting potential jihadis to Syria. More than a dozen members of the Somali community there have been charged with supporting ISIS in Syria.
Federal authorities also have charged a young married couple at Mississippi State University, the son of an imam and the daughter of a local cop, who admitted to a judge they planned to travel to Syria pretending to be newlyweds to enlist with jihadis.
Others charged with trying to join ISIS or ISIL abroad include a Washington, D.C., Metro policeman; a U.S. Air Force veteran from Neptune, N.J.; two national guardsmen in Illinois and Virginia; and a Dallas man who worked as a translator for the U.S. military.
The number of travel-abroad cases appears to be waning, however, as it becomes more difficult to travel to the Syrian front, Comey said. The FBI tracked about 8-10 attempted trips to Syria each month in the summer of 2015; that number had dropped to just one case or fewer per month a year later.
Plots for attacks on U.S. soil make up nearly 30 percent of the federal indictments. They include a Key West man who allegedly planned to bomb a busy beach on the Fourth of July, a Topeka man charged with plotting to drive a car bomb onto a Kansas military installation and an Ohio man who allegedly intended to bomb the U.S. Capitol during the 2015 State of the Union.
Some self-radicalized assailants - like the couple who gunned down county employees in San Bernardino, Calif., and the man who opened fire in a gay nightclub in Orlando - were killed while executing their plans.
The vast majority, however, like the Houston suspects, were arrested before carrying out any plans. Most appear to lack the training and sophistication to execute their visions, said David Schanzer, an associate professor and director of the Triangle Center on Terrorism and Homeland Security at Duke University.
And actual attacks in the U.S. remain a drop in the bucket compared to incidents by radical groups in the 1970s, according to the Global Terrorism Database at the University of Maryland.
'I am against America'
Al Hardan was arrested earlier this year on charges he provided material support to ISIS and lied to authorities during his application for U.S. citizenship.
He is a Palestinian national, though he was born in Baghdad and lived for some time in Jordan before coming to the U.S. as a refugee in 2009, according to court documents.
In Houston, he worked as a limo driver and cared for his disabled parents. He, his wife and parents became permanent U.S. residents, and he applied for full citizenship. But federal authorities say he lied during the application process when he said under oath that he was not affiliated with a foreign terrorist group and had not received weapons training from a military or paramilitary group.
Al Hardan, 24, said he wanted to travel to Iraq or Syria once he got his American passport, according to a transcript of an intercepted conversation that was read aloud in court by a Homeland Security investigator from the FBI's Joint Terrorism Task Force.
"I want to blow myself up," he said, according to the courtroom testimony. "I want to travel with the mujahideen. I want to travel to be with those who are against America. I am against America."
The Homeland Security officer testified that Al Hardan had watched instructional videos about building improvised bombs and purchased materials from eBay. Adler pointed out through questioning that the items purchased were legal and commonplace.
Al Hardan is set to stand trial beginning Nov. 8 before U.S. District Judge Lynn N. Hughes.
The second Houston-area case involves a Spring youth who is facing charges he tried to enlist with jihadis in Syria.
Asher Abid Khan, who was 19 at the time, was indicted in May 2015 for attempting to join ISIS with a friend from high school who attended the same local mosque.
According to court documents, Khan was living with relatives in Australia when he exchanged Facebook messages with the friend, Sixto Ramiro Garcia, a Muslim convert, discussing their faith in the caliphate and their desire to dedicate their lives to something bigger than themselves.
In early 2014, the indictment alleges, Khan suggested they head to Iraq or Syria.
Khan is accused of helping Garcia, who was using the name Abdullah Ali, arrange his flight out of Houston and connecting through Facebook to a man agents called "a foreign terrorist fighter facilitator" in Turkey. Khan flew from Australia, but his family persuaded him during a stopover to return to Houston with a lie that his mother had been hospitalized.
Homegrown terror charges of material support for ISIL
Khan helped Ali remotely to find their contact, Mohammad, near the Syrian border, and told him he'd come later, according to investigators.
Back in Spring, Khan continued to chat online with friends about his support for ISIS and his wish to die as a martyr, according to court testimony by an FBI agent.
Investigators believe Garcia went through ISIS boot camp. On Christmas Day 2014, the agent said, someone used Garcia's Facebook account to tell family members he had died for ISIS. Federal agents say they learned of Khan through Garcia's account.
Khan's attorney, Thomas Berg, said his client was a teenager with a stupid idea and didn't follow through. He says the government's case involves First Amendment issues rather than terrorist concerns.
"Mostly what the government's talked about are ideas, not actions," he said in court.
Khan, now 22, has pleaded not guilty to providing support for ISIS. He remains free on bail and is studying mechanical engineering at the University of Houston. He is set for trial Dec. 5, also before Hughes.
Plots on the decline
Terrorist plots involving large-scale, domestic attacks have decreased in recent years, allowing U.S. agencies to focus attention on the myriad threats from individuals scattered across the country, according to recent Capitol Hill testimony by Nicholas Rasmussen, director of the National Counterterrorism Center, an agency created after the 911 Commission recommended that more a dozen agencies pool their resources.
A key component to stamping out ISIS terror plots is prevention - going into Muslim communities and forging connections, counter-terrorism experts say.
Breaking down the terror charges of material support for ISIL
Hughes, with GWU, recalled visiting the mosque that the two Boston Marathon bombers had attended and talking with members of the congregation.
"You have these very awkward, important conversations about radicalization, recruitment and the role government should have in preventing Islamist-inspired terrorism," he said. "The point is to reach an individual before they cross a legal threshold."
More than half the ISIS-related cases involved informants or undercover investigators, Hughes said.
Mustafaa Carroll, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations in Houston, said the community wants to cooperate but also wants police to refrain from overreaching with people who may not be familiar with the law or the language.
Informants should be used judiciously, if at all, he said.
"The American Muslim community is not withholding its information about something bad that's going to happen," he said. "If we get wind that somebody is going to blow something up or kill somebody, it's our duty to tell. ... We want a real relationship."
Schanzer, the counterterrorism scholar at Duke, said homegrown terrorism will continue to be a problem in the U.S. for at least another decade.
But it's a "manageable threat," he said.
"We have no choice but to commit resources to mitigating the threat as much as possible," he said, "but we have to take care not to let it distort our decision-making, shake our commitment to pluralism or weaken our engagement with the broader world."