The threat of domestic terrorism became uncomfortably real for south-central Kansas on Friday, with the announcement about a foiled suicide bombing that morning at Wichita Mid-Continent Airport.
Congratulations and gratitude are due the federal, state and local authorities whose work and collaboration enabled the incident to end with an arrest rather than a deadly blast. The agencies involved in the case include the Wichita FBI Joint Terrorism Task Force, drawn from the FBI, Sedgwick County Sheriff’s Office and Kansas Highway Patrol, with assistance from the FBI’s Kansas City division, the Transportation Security Administration, the Wichita Airport Authority and the Wichita Police Department.
The 21-page criminal complaint leaves one to imagine what might have been had Terry Lee Loewen, a 58-year-old avionics technician in Wichita, succeeded in his alleged goal of blowing up an explosives-filled van at the terminal in an act of violent jihad on behalf of al-Qaida. According to authorities, during the months when Loewen apparently thought he was in communication with others assisting him in such a terrorist operation, he was actually dealing with undercover FBI employees. And the explosive material he’d meant to kill himself and others was inert.
But his motives sound alarmingly genuine, judging from his excerpted writings and their talk of “maximum carnage” and death. Authorities say he studied the airport’s layout, took photos and researched flight schedules as the plot went along. He was taken into custody as he tried to use his security badge to open a gate and drive onto the tarmac, according to the complaint.
It’s breathtaking to think that as the construction of the new airport terminal has been underway this fall – and as Wichitans were engaging in a spirited debate about whether to rename the finished project to honor President Eisenhower – a homegrown wannabe terrorist was working on a plan to kill himself and others at the existing terminal, according to authorities.
In announcing Loewen’s arrest, U.S. Attorney Barry Grissom and FBI Special Agent in Charge Mike Kaste made the important point that Loewen’s alleged actions in no way should reflect on any religious group. Too many continue to forget that those who plan or carry out terrorist acts in the name of Islam have twisted that faith to unrecognizable extremes.
The arrest was a sobering reminder that a dozen years after the Sept. 11 attacks, people out there want to kill and maim Americans, and not only in coastal urban centers. It offers south-central Kansans a new frame of reference for the ongoing debates about electronic surveillance of Americans, as well as something else to ponder as they remove their shoes and file through airport security.
The vigilance needs to keep pace with the threat, which clearly can come from within our country and our communities as well as from abroad.
For the editorial board, Rhonda Holman