Feds: U.S. Soldier Conspired to Plot Attacks on 9/11 Memorial, Maximize Lethality on Troops

Authorities allege Cole James Bridges was communicating online with someone he thought was in ISIS; he allegedly provided that agent with tips on how to hit potential targets in the U.S. and fend off a retaliation attack

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What to Know

  • A 20-year-old U.S. soldier stationed out of Georgia allegedly conspired with someone he thought was in ISIS to attack U.S. landmarks, including the 9/11 Memorial in New York City
  • Cole James Bridges allegedly started to research online propaganda promoting jihadists and their ideology in September 2019; a criminal complaint says he later gave tactical military advice and other tips
  • Bridges is charged with attempted material support for terror and attempting to kill U.S. soldiers; each count carries a maximum prison sentence of 20 years; attorney information for him wasn't clear

A U.S. soldier is facing charges he communicated with someone he thought was a member of ISIS to plan attacks on New York City landmarks -- including the 9/11 Memorial in Manhattan -- and provide tactical military advice to terrorists, federal officials said Tuesday.

Cole James Bridges, 20, of Stow, Ohio, is charged with attempted material support for terror and attempting to kill U.S. soldiers. He allegedly engaged in those efforts from August 2020 through this month.

Bridges, a private first class with the Third Infantry Division out of Fort Stewart, Georgia, allegedly spoke in an online forum about wanting to help ISIS strike the 9/11 Memorial and target American soldiers in the Middle East. His contact in the online forum was actually an FBI undercover agent.

Bridges was allegedly radicalized by online videos and offered to provide Army training materials and tactics to ISIS to "facilitate the efforts of ISIS fighters to repel U.S. Special Forces and kill American soldiers," the criminal complaint says.

Bridges allegedly started to research and consume online propaganda promoting jihadists and their ideology in September 2019; he also allegedly expressed his support for ISIS and jihad on social media around that time, the complaint says.

It wasn't until October of last year that Bridges allegedly began communicating with the FBI undercover agent he thought was affiliated with ISIS. During those communications, which were done using an encrypted messaging app, he allegedly expressed frustration with the U.S. military and his desire to help ISIS take out American soldiers. The criminal complaint alleges he went on to provide advice to "purported ISIS fighters" planning attacks, including as it related to potential targets in New York City. He allegedly offered up parts of a U.S. Army training manual and guidance about military tactics as well.

On Oct. 16, 2020, Bridges is accused of sending a warning to the purported ISIS fighter on planning any operation. That message, according to the complaint, stated in part, "They need to be extremely careful and not to discuss plans over the phone or through messages. Sadly I can’t participate. But the only involvement I can do is advice [stet] and training techniques . . . your brother can
feel free to contact me anytime."

When he was asked later that month about the most effective way to conduct an attack, Bridges allegedly responded, "Striking the heart of the enemy, and setting a statement and a clear message to the leaders.”

Later in the exchange, Bridges offered to come to New York to meet with the ISIS fighter with whom he thought he had been in contact. At that point, the conversation steered to potential targets in New York City, officials say.

In mid-November, the undercover agent sent Bridges photos of federal, local and foreign government buildings in and around the New York City area. That agent claimed "everything is so heavily guarded, I don't know that it's even possible to do an operation in NYC."

Bridges, who was also known as Cole Gonzales, allegedly advised the agent "choose your targets wisely" and inquired about other potential targets under consideration. It wasn't immediately clear which government buildings were the follow-up topic of conversation, but Bridges allegedly said there was "not enough firepower" for those. That was when the subject of the 9/11 Memorial was broached, the criminal complaint says.

After news of the planned attacks came out, the head of the 9/11 Memorial and Museum sent a memo to employees ensuring that they and the facility are "well protected at all times," and that the threat "was not credible, and our first-class security team is in constant contact with our law enforcement partners."

In December, Bridges allegedly began to supply the "ISIS" agent with instructions on how ISIS fighters could attack U.S. forces in the Middle East. Among other efforts, he is accused of diagramming specific military maneuvers and commenting on satellite images to help those fighters maximize the lethality of any attacks on U.S. troops. ISIS positioning and weaponry were also discussed.

Bridges also advised on the best way to fortify an ISIS encampment against a U.S. attack, including by wiring certain buildings with explosives intended to kill U.S. troops, the complaint alleges. This month, he went so far as to allegedly provide a video of himself in body armor standing before an ISIS flag and made a symbolic gesture of support for ISIS in that clip, according to the criminal complaint.

On Jan. 12, Bridges allegedly sent a second video in which he narrated a propaganda speech in support of an anticipated ISIS attack on U.S. troops using a voice manipulator at the undercover agent's request, federal officials allege.

Searches of key words like "us soldier shooting" and "badass jihadi" found on his computer via warrant date back to Dec. 25, 2019, according to the complaint. He allegedly updated his Facebook profile and background to reflect his views this past August. Images of the changes were included in the complaint (see below).

Bridges faces up to 20 years in prison on each the attempted material support and attempt to murder members of the U.S. military counts. He is expected to appear in federal court in Georgia on Thursday, officials said.

Attempts to reach a possible attorney for Bridges were unsuccessful as of early Tuesday afternoon.

Manhattan U.S. Attorney Audrey Strauss accused Bridges in a statement of betraying the oath he swore to defend the United States by allegedly trying to provide ISIS with tactical advice to ambush and kill fellow service members.

“Our troops risk their lives for our country, but they should never face such peril at the hands of one of their own," Strauss said. "Today, thanks to the efforts of the agents and detectives of the JTTF, and our partners in the Department of Defense, Bridges is in custody and facing federal terrorism charges for his alleged crimes.”

FBI Assistant Director William Sweeney Jr. also called Bridges out for his alleged betrayal, saying he "plotted with someone he believed was an ISIS sympathizer to help ISIS attack and kill U.S. soldiers in the Middle East."

"Fortunately, the person with whom he communicated was an FBI employee, and we were able to prevent his evil desires from coming to fruition," Sweeney's statement continued. "Bridges could have chosen a life of honorable service, but instead he traded it for the possibility of a lengthy prison sentence. This case should serve as a reminder that the FBI’s New York JTTF will never quit in its commitment to protect our nation from all those who seek to do it harm.”

“Our troops risk their lives for our country, but they should never face such peril at the hands of one of their own,” U.S. Attorney Audrey Strauss said.

Bridges was scheduled to make an initial appearance in federal court in Augusta, Georgia, on Thursday.

It was not immediately clear who would represent him.

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