TYLER, TX. — A virtually unnoticed federal arrest here this Spring of a well-educated Pakistani man caught trying to buy illegal silencers, firearms and C-4 explosives has set off a nationwide FBI counterterrorism investigation.
The investigation centers on whether Osama Haroon Satti, 35, came to Tyler on behalf of a terrorist cell hoping to arm for a plot to rob and murder wealthy Jews and other non-Muslims on the West Coast.
Satti is currently in federal custody on charges of buying an illegal silencer and handgun.
Federal prosecutors connected to the case have declined to comment.
Satti has remained tight-lipped so far with investigators who, sources tell CBS-11, are urgently seeking answers about his stated plans to buy explosives along with up to 20 more silencers capable of firing 100 bullets each before wearing out.
Satti, who currently lives in the Washington, D.C. suburb of Falls Church, Va., did not respond to a CBS-11 request for comment as he was being led away in chains after a recent court appearance in Tyler.
His public defender, Greg Waldron, declined interview requests, in deference to the continuing FBI investigation. He noted only that his client has pleaded not guilty.
The FBI’s investigation searching for any possible ties between Satti and foreign terror groups has expanded nationwide since a federal sting ensnared him March 8 inside a Tyler Hampton Inn Hotel room for buying an illegal handgun and silencer, CBS-11 News has learned.
Current and former FBI agents tell CBS-11 that the arrest of Satti justifies the aggressive national investigation based, at least in part, on the fact that Satti is so well-educated and from a country on the State Department’s terrorist watch list.
“You’re not dealing with some deadhead. You’re dealing with an educated individual who’s on the same playing field as the investigators,” said Tino Perez, who recently retired as a supervisor of the Dallas FBI’s International Terrorism squad. Perez has no direct knowledge about the investigation.
“I’d treat it as a serous thing. I would want to know foremost if he was part of a network, or if he was acting alone.”
Investigators, at least initially, were particularly interested in whether Satti might be connected to the Al-Quaeda-supported terrorist group Lashkar-e-Taiba in Pakistan. This summer, the government charged eleven reputed members of Lashkar-e-Taiba, two of them Pakistani nationals, with a variety of terrorist activities in the same suburb where Satti lives.
The Pakistan-based group has, until recent years, mainly trained Islamic extremists to fight in the disputed Indian-controlled territory of Kashmir. But the group, designated a terrorist organization in December 2001, is suspected more recently of naming the U.S. a legitimate target and of infiltrating sleeper cells into the country.
Last summer, federal authorities broke up a reputed Lashkar-e-Taiba cell in Virginia and charged 11 men, nine of them American citizens and two Pakistanis, with plotting a “holy war” and activities such as training at terrorist camps in Pakistan.
Dubbed the “Virginia Jihad” by federal prosecutors, many of the men, like Satti, were educated in the fields of engineering and computer technology and were caught in possession of illegal weapons. A 41-count indictment accused a number of them of traveling before and after 9-11 to Lashkar-e-Taiba terrorist camps in Pakistan where they received extensive weapons training and indoctrination before returning to the U.S.
A February 10 article by the Washington Times quoted domestic and foreign intelligence officials as saying that hundreds of operatives are being routed from Lashkar training camps to form sleeper cells in the U.S.
CBS-11 News has uncovered no information specifically linking Satti to Lashkar-e-Taiba but has learned that investigators have linked him to a number of “persons of interest.”
The question remains: If Satti planned to buy more than the one weapon and silencer for which he is charged, why?
Satti first entered the U.S. on a student visa in 1990. He earned an undergraduate degree in electrical engineering in 1993 and an MBA from Rochester Institute of Technology in 1997, according to the registrar’s office.
After earning his MBA in 1997, Satti apparently moved to San Jose, Ca. for work in the computer industry and then may have returned at some point to Pakistan. In September 2001, he returned to the U.S. on a visitor’s visa, federal records show.
CBS-11 has been unable to determine Satti’s whereabouts and activities in the months before he applied for that visa in September 2001.
Public records and interviews with residents indicate that that was when Satti may first have developed ties to East Texas. He moved in for several months with Pakistani friends in Gun Barrel City, an area which hosts an increasing number of Middle Eastern and Pakistani immigrants who own small businesses. He left less than two months later for the Northeast, according to neighbors in Gunbarrel City.
According to an affidavit unsealed in connection to the firearms charge, Satti returned in March demonstrating an in-depth knowledge of weapons and carrying thousands of dollars in cash.
During a joint undercover ATF and FBI operation, Satti bought one silencer and one handgun and spoke of plans by unnamed but similar-minded Muslims to kill and rob Jews and non-Muslims, including gays, CBS-11 has learned. Experts say many Islamic extremists are as obsessed with gays as they are Jews.
Special Agent James Parker, an ATF agent who posed as the weapons trafficker, testified in the affidavit that Satti wanted to buy a semi-automatic .9 mm Glock or H&K USP 40 pistol with silencers. Satti asked the agent if the Glock would work with the silencer for up to 100 rounds of ammunition.
After negotiations March 8 in the Tyler hotel room, Satti bought the .9 mm Glock and a silencer, handing over 20 100-dollar bills.
Satti told the undercover agent if the silencer and gun he was purchasing were good, “then he would have the money for 10, 15, or 20 more silencers in the near future,” the affidavit said.
“Satti also indicated he was purchasing these firearms and silencers for at least two customers…” the affidavit states. “Next, Satti requested to purchase C-4 plastic explosive.)”
Counterterrorism experts say this last request about explosives was most bothersome. C-4 is an explosive commonly used by suicide bombers in the Middle East and elsewhere.
“Explosives take it to a completely other level,” said one active FBI agent who has worked on terrorism cases but is not involved in the Satti investigation. “It could be one of two things. He’s either purely a criminal who wants to have the crimes blamed on terrorism, or he has ties to some of the groups (in the northeast) and is shopping for them.”
CBS-11 has been unable to learn much about Satti or his politics.
Several people who knew him during his brief 2001 stay in Gun Barrel City say he seemed affable enough but mysterious. Angie Land, a Gun Barrel City resident, said Satti was a friend of her brother-in-law, also a Pakistani.
Land said she sometimes quipped with him about his first name, Osama, but never heard Satti react much or speak about politics or religion.
“I used to tease him about being Osama’s son, but he thought that was kind of funny,” Land said. “I used to tell him, ‘you’re Daddy’s gonna get mad at you if you don’t go to work.”
Land said Satti always seemed to have plenty of money but was aloof when asked about what he did for a living.
“He just told me he worked with computers. I never knew what he did for a living,” she said.
Between 1998 and 2002, Satti was a frequent contributor to a news and information message board dealing with the Middle East. He posted messages under his real name more than 600 times during that period, but many of the posts strike a moderate tone when the subject dealt with Islamic extremism and terrorism.
For instance, in a Sept. 19, 2001 discussion, Satti argued that a few racist skinheads should not be able to taint all of Christianity as Nazi racists. “In a same token, hanful of religious extremists can’t be called Muslims…”
In another discussion a few days earlier, Satti inveighed against extremist religious leaders in Pakistan known as mullahs.
“Let the country be clean from extreme religious fanatics who have brought Pakistan and religion a bad name,” he wrote. “Maybe the time has come to keep all those so-called mullahs…in one line and shoot the buggers…”