He was the local weatherman of a remote community of 442 full-time residents in King Salmon, Alaska. She was a stay-at-home mom who drove their 4-year-old to preschool, sang in the town choir and picked berries with her girlfriends.
Now, Paul Rockwood Jr., 36, is a convicted terrorist, serving eight years in a federal prison. His wife, Nadia, is exiled on probation in England after her own criminal conviction. Since their arrest in 2010 – accused by the FBI of drafting and delivering a list of targets for terrorist attacks – friends and neighbors have been left in confusion, wondering how the nice young couple could have turned into the terrorists next door.
Unbeknown to most of their friends, Rockwood had become a radicalized Muslim following the September 11 attacks. When referring to the 9/11 hijackers, Rockwood said in his first interview following his arrest in 2010, “These people felt that they had been under attack,” he said. “They kind of saw it as a self-defense response. It was like you”d be impressed if an American soldier jumps on a grenade to save his buddies – it takes a lot of courage to give up your life like that.”
In December, only three months after the attacks, Rockwood took the shehada, the Muslim affirmation of faith, and not long after began attending the radical Dar al-Arqam mosque in Falls Church, Va.
Rockwood also spent time at work trawling jihadist websites such as Revolution Muslim, which praised Nidal Malik Hasan”s deadly 2009 shooting rampage at Fort Hood, Texas, as a “pre-emptive attack” and listening to sermons by radical Muslim, Anwar Al-Awlaki.
It was his boss, he believes, that called him to the FBI”s attention – though the government has said its initial tip in the case came from outside Alaska. By that time, Rockwood was back on prescription medication to counter a flare-up of his Meniere”s disease, an affliction of the inner ear that causes vertigo, headaches and nausea. He was lonely and thinking again about moving to Egypt. “I don”t know how to express it. I was depressed about everything. I was upset. I wanted to leave the country, but at the same time, I wanted to change the country. I was confused. I”m still confused.”
That was when one of the leaders at the mosque in Anchorage asked if he wouldn”t like to meet a potential convert. The gentleman was a state trooper, he was told, and wanted to learn more about the religion. Would Rockwood talk about his own experience? They met and became, Rockwood thought, fast friends. “Our conversations for months and months had nothing to do with politics or jihad and the wars. But slowly over time, that was all he wanted to talk about,” Rockwood said.
The “state trooper” was in fact, an FBI agent and after months of developing his relationship with Rockwood until eventually, the conversations between them turned deadly serious.
“We decided to assassinate certain people. We had these conversations. I”m not going to deny it,” Rockwood said. “I told him that I”d kept news articles with the names of people that were involved in the atrocities and stuff. He said, “Great, get me a list of names.” Also, he was offering me money. He said he was going to give me $8,000 (to get started on the plan).” Rockwood said the trooper bought cellphones and other electronic devices that purportedly were to be used as remote triggers for bombs.
At the same time, Rockwood and his wife had been talking about moving to England – his Meniere”s disease had become devastating, and the National Health Service there would provide free treatment. He gave notice at work, and the couple held a garage sale to get rid of most of their possessions. “I knew I was never going to do anything. I knew I was going to go to England and not come back. But I needed the money. It”s not a redeeming quality, but I was using him for my own purposes. I didn”t realize at the time that he was using me, too.” It all came to a head on the eve of their intended departure when Rockwood talked on the phone with the trooper, who said from Anchorage that he needed the list of names. Nadia was going to Anchorage, so Rockwood gave her the list. When she arrived, she met the trooper at Wal-Mart – and was filmed by the FBI handing over the envelope.
Shortly after, the Rockwoods boarded their flight from King Salmon to Boston, where they planned to visit family before heading to England, but they were stopped by the FBI when the plane landed in Anchorage. They were questioned, ostensibly for an investigation into the activities of the state trooper. Soon, though, it became apparent that the authorities were interested in Rockwood, not the trooper. Though not arrested, the couple weren”t allowed to leave. With Nadia pregnant with their second child, and all their possessions down to a few suitcases, the couple”s finances soon dwindled.
Eventually, faced with the possibility of being charged with terrorism, the Rockwoods pleaded guilty to the only crimes they knew they had committed – making false statements to the FBI during a terrorism investigation. Rockwood said the key was a pledge that Nadia would not have to go to jail.
Prosecutors say there was plenty of evidence that Rockwood not only knew what he was getting into but also took measurable steps to carry out the plan. “The suggestion that this was planted in his mind is just false. … He researched the means to select targets, and his looking for people to kill and how to kill them was well before law enforcement got involved,” Karen Loeffler, U.S. attorney in Alaska, said in an interview.
But Rockwood”s public defender, Sue Ellen Tatter, said she came to believe that her client was more lonely than scary. “I think a lot of people didn”t pay attention to him in King Salmon. He wasn”t a hunter or a fisherman or an outdoors guy, and I think he wanted a friend,” she said. “What he found was a friend who wanted to talk about jihad. And the more he talked about jihad, the friendlier this guy got.”
Nadia Rockwood, who was recently denied a visa to visit her husband in prison so he could see their now one year old daughter, remains in exile in the UK.