On July 4th, 2015, the FBI arrested an Adams man on suspicion of terrorism. That man, Alexander Ciccolo, was going by the name “Ali al Amriki” and had expressed sympathies for the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or ISIS.
It was a minor national news story, as these events always are. The FBI routinely arrests American men under suspicion of terrorism. Here in the Berkshires, of course, it was more sensational: a terrorist in our idyllic community.
When The View looked over the publicly available evidence against Ciccolo and delved into his background, however, a different picture emerged. Alexander Ciccolo’s willingness to use violence in the name of his ideology was not a foregone conclusion. His violent ideation may not have been purely self-driven.
Merriam-Webster defines “ideation” as the act of forming ideas. The term encompasses the process from thought to action. Ideation can be the result of one person’s inspiration, or many. It can also be the result of outside forces pushing an individual to come to the actionable idea they prefer.
By September of 2014, Alexander Ciccolo had changed. He had changed enough, in fact, that his behavior raised suspicions in his family.
In July of 2012, Ciccolo and three others- Andrealynn Dastoli, Jun Yasuda, and Lauren Carlbon- were bringing attention to their dreams of a future free of nuclear energy. The group was walking the perimeter of Lake Ontario for a “No More Fukushimas Peace Walk.”
The Canadian paper The Napanee Guide interviewed all four participants. Ciccolo expressed severe concern over the Fukushima meltdown that occurred in the wake of the Japanese tsunami in 2012. He worried about nuclear energy. “If we don’t stop using [it],” he said to The Napanee Guide, “Then we’re not going to be able to live on this earth anymore.”
Ciccolo’s parents are divorced. He lived with his mother and stepfather in the rural Berkshires until he moved into an apartment in Adams in early 2015. Robert Ciccolo, his father, has been a member of the Boston police force for the past 23 years, and apparently has never lived in the Berkshires.
Whatever their level of closeness, the two men could not be more different. The same year that Alexander was embarking on his peace walk, Robert was sharing posts on his facebook page from the right wing magazine National Review.
Ciccolo converted to Islam at some point between January of 2012 and September of 2014. This timeline is based on the FBI’s narration of events, where they say that by September of 2014, he had been “obsessed” with Islam for eighteen months. His behavior was sufficiently worrying for his father, the Boston police captain, to report his own son for monitoring to the FBI.
The FBI moved quickly. By June of 2015 the Bureau had a “cooperating witness” (CW) working to see just how radical Ciccolo was.
CW and Ciccolo agreed to implement a terror attack on US soil. On June 24th of 2015, Ciccolo met with CW in Pittsfield and said he was prepared to attack a police station and two bars in “another state.”
By the time of their next meeting, on June 30th, Ciccolo had changed his target to an unnamed university so he could kill as many people as possible and watch the carnage unfold in front of him. He said he was willing to die for the cause: “We win or we die.”
During the meeting, Ciccolo expressed sympathy with an ISIS inspired attacker in Tunisia who had recently attacked a resort and killed a number of westerners. “Awesome, you know, that brother in Tunisia was impressive,” he said. He added that a body count of 38 was “a huge accomplishment” for one man.
Two days later, Ciccolo changed targets once again. Now he wanted to attack a local bar that had celebrated the Supreme Court’s decision to strike down the Defense of Marriage Act and effectively legalized gay marriage in the United States. CW asked Ciccolo if he had made any moves towards actually carrying out the attack, specifically if he had done any work on building the IEDs. Ciccolo replied that he lacked any of the components for the bombs. He also “lamented” that he had no guns.
Later that day, Ciccolo changed his target for the third time in forty-eight hours. Now he was targeting the cafeteria at the university, believed by this point to be MCLA. He said the reason was accessibility to escape routes and the high concentration of potential victims. When CW asked who was responsible for what aspect of the plan, Ciccolo replied that he was in charge of the IEDs and CW would supply the guns.
On July 3rd, Ciccolo purchased a pressure cooker from Wal Mart. He told CW that he had built ten firebombs, but still did not have the black powder for the IEDs. When CW offered to help with money to purchase fireworks, Ciccolo rejected his help, placing his faith in the conceit that “Allah will provide.”
On July 4th, Ciccolo met CW and was provided the following weapons (by the FBI, not Allah): a 9mm Glock 17 handgun, a 10mm Glock 20 handgun, a .223 Colt AR 15, and a 556 SG550 rifle. On his way home from the weapons drop, the FBI apprehended him.
The FBI arrested Ciccolo in possession of the firearms. He also had a 5-inch bladed knife on his person. Upon searching Ciccolo’s apartment, the FBI found “several partially constructed ‘Molotov cocktails’” that appeared to be what Ciccolo had described as firebombs to CW. They “contained… shredded Styrofoam soaking in motor oil which Ciccolo told CW would cause the fire from the exploded devices to stick to people’s skin and make it harder to put the fire out.”
Ciccolo waived his Miranda rights and launched into a two-hour diatribe on ISIS. A portion of this interview was released to the public. Ciccolo did not display any remorse over his plans to attack innocent civilians- anyone who does not accept Sharia Law, said Ciccolo, is an enemy.
Ciccolo was taken to the Franklin County House of Correction. While being processed, he was medically screened. During the screening, Ciccolo “grabbed a pen and forcefully stabbed the [attending] nurse in the head.” He stabbed her hard enough to break the pen.
Ciccolo was restrained and held at the jail for two days. He was then transferred to an undisclosed location.
FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION
On July 13th, Ciccolo was in the US District Court in Springfield for a bail hearing. Ciccolo’s attorney, David Hoose, argued that Ciccolo should be placed under house arrest with his mother and stepfather.
Hoose argued during Ciccolo’s bail hearing that his client was only guilty of distasteful views and weapons possession, not terrorism.
“Many people hold views that are not mainstream and that other people find repugnant,” Hoose said after the hearing. He pointed out that nothing in the publicly released portion of the post-arrest interview between Ciccolo and the FBI explicitly advocated Ciccolo himself committing violent acts.
District Court Magistrate Judge Katherine Robertson did not accept Hoose’s recommendation. She ordered Ciccolo to be held without bail at Rhode Island’s Wyatt Detention Center, a maximum-security prison.
From one perspective, this imprisonment can be seen as purely based on Ciccolo’s beliefs. And that is problematic. After all, there are no indications from the evidence explored above that Ciccolo was involved in a terror plot or any actionable violence before being approached by CW. Nor is there any indication of substantial attempts to develop the necessary weaponry to take part in such a plot aside from the haphazard Molotov cocktails found in the apartment.
AN IMMEDIATE THREAT
The FBI, unsurprisingly, does not agree with Hoose’s free speech defense. The affidavit the Bureau put together for Ciccolo’s detention memo is full of ominous warnings of what could have been if not for the efforts of the FBI’s agents.
The affidavit explains the danger posed to the US by ISIS. It says that ISIS has called for attacks on western targets. And it mentions Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s role in the Boston Marathon bombings of 2013.
Tsarnaev’s placement alongside ISIS in the text is problematic because the Tsarnaevs were not attacking the marathon for ISIS. ISIS hardly existed when the Tsarnaevs made their attack. This differentiation is not made clear in the affidavit, but it must be there for some reason.
The FBI declined to comment on an active investigation.
Ciccolo’s beliefs have decided his fate for now. Magistrate Robertson specifically pointed to his statements in support of ISIS as one of the factors for denying his release into house arrest. He is now in solitary confinement in Rhode Island.
A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE
Ciccolo has a history of violent outbursts and mental instability. According to various media reports, he was suspended five times at local schools in the Wareham area for aggressive behavior. In one instance, he attacked a fellow student with a butterfly knife.
Ciccolo was allegedly institutionalized at least once at the age of eighteen. His behavior was sufficiently erratic, it seems, that someone once took the step of committing him for his own good.
Perhaps this explains the swing from peace activist to violent extremist. The two positions are difficult to reconcile. One cannot be on the one hand interested in peace and tolerance and on the other hand supportive of the murder of men, women, and children for not sharing your religious beliefs.
The two ideas are incompatible, swinging from left to right wing.
Even with his adherence to this new ideology, there were signs that Ciccolo’s devotion to the cause and his religion were not complete and that he did not fully understand the doctrine. In February of 2015, Ciccolo was convicted of driving drunk- hardly the actions of an ISIS devotee given that the Islamic State harshly punishes the drinking of alcohol.
Additionally, Ciccolo’s plans that he divulged to CW in the affidavit are not the calculations of a clear mind. In the space of ten days, he decided to mount an attack, changed the targets, which were never named, at least four times, found countless reasons why he hadn’t built any munitions, and took delivery of four high powered rifles at a drop point within walking distance of his home.
None of this makes any sense if Ciccolo was a rational actor. All of it makes sense if you consider these the actions of someone with a profound mental illness.
INTENTIONS NOT ACTIONS
If Alexander Ciccolo is a terrorist, then his guilt is predicated on his intentions. The Anti-Defamation League has a data set on Ciccolo’s online behavior. Ciccolo described in a facebook post dreams he had had of joining ISIS. In one dream his father tries to stop him and he has to kill him. In another, he steals weapons from a police car’s trunk for the cause. Joining the fight in Syria was obviously a priority, at least from a hypothetical standpoint.
It’s certainly within the realm of possibility that in another eighteen months, the one time anti-nuclear peace activist would have found another cause to devote himself to. Again, the FBI became involved with Ciccolo once his radical beliefs reached a point where he appeared to have ill intent. Intent, however, is not action.
Hoose’s argument for his client’s release is worth exploring here because it brings up fundamental questions of rights that do not end with this case. Are we as a society comfortable limiting the freedom of expression to those beliefs we find nonthreatening? Do we want to imprison people for having ideas?
Ciccolo’s belief system is certainly antithetical to a free society. He believes that the murder of children is acceptable and justifiable if ISIS deems it so. He thinks that a bar that celebrates gay marriage should be the target of violence because of homosexuality. He endorses all the repressive practices and laws of ISIS in its territories and believes they should be spread around the world.
But many people in the US hold similar beliefs. Neo-Nazis and other extreme right wing groups believe in instituting a “whites-only” country. Extremist Christian organizations want to dissolve the separation between church and state. Even in the Berkshires, an antebellum hotbed of abolitionism, men fly the Confederate flag proudly and are still respected members of their community. Extremist right wing, Christian, and secessionist groups are hardly different from ISIS in their desire to impose their own nightmarish order on society.
There is a case to be made that the FBI pushed the process of ideation that led to Ciccolo’s arrest. The terror plot and weapons were the immediate result of FBI involvement. It’s at least questionable whether or not the chain of events from July would have been the same had Ciccolo been left to his own devices.
Ciccolo’s grasp of how to build IEDs was tenuous- his main ingredient was fireworks for the explosive in the bomb, and he never made any effort to get said fireworks. He planned to use a homemade bomb that involved “a pressure cooker.. uhm, fill it up with, ah, black powder.. fill it up with ball bearings, nails, glass, rocks.. you know.” He went on, the FBI’s affadivit claims, to explain how the bomb would “heat itself up.”
Everything Ciccolo said to CW included in the affidavit shows that, for all of his rhetoric, the man was generally clueless about how to carry out his “plot.” The targets were never named until CW pressed him. He made no real steps to obtain the components for the IEDs he promised to build.
Ciccolo’s lack of planning or follow through, until pushed, do not lead one to believe he was an imminent threat or danger. His history of mental illness, his violent outbursts, and previous institutionalization are the benchmarks of an unstable mind. All of that leads to the conclusion that he is mentally ill and is more deserving of mental institutionalization and medication than imprisonment.
There were options for those concerned about Ciccolo other than turning to the FBI. He could have been reported to the police as a danger under Section 8, not to the FBI as a terrorist. In that case, he would have been involuntarily committed as a risk to the safety of himself and others.
We’ll never know if Alexander Ciccolo would have carried out his plans to attack civilians in the region. We can’t know if the FBI’s actions triggered an impulse that was already there or nurtured an idea that didn’t already exist in any real form.
On the one hand, the FBI’s actions can be seen as preventative. Ciccolo did make an effort, once pressed, to cause harm. His desire to involve himself in the war that ISIS is waging against the west constituted at the very least premeditation to cause harm to civilians and the country. From the point of view of the FBI, the US Attorney’s office, and Magistrate Robertson, Ciccolo’s willingness to take the firearms and his desire to fight for ISIS constituted a clear and present danger that had to be stopped.
On the other hand, it’s not obvious that he would have ever taken the steps to hurt anyone without the FBI’s involvement. In order for Ciccolo to take any action to achieve his vaguely stated goals, he would have had to obtain weapons and have some sort of target for the violence. It’s far from certain that without CW’s involvement in his life that this focus would have developed.
We leave it to the reader to draw his or her own conclusions.