Federal prosecutors said Monday they had filed a criminal charge against a 28-year-old man who they say planned to run down pedestrians on the National Harbor waterfront, a popular tourist site along the Potomac River near Washington.
The man, Rondell Henry of Germantown, Md., was inspired by the terrorist group ISIS when he stole a U-Haul van from a parking garage in Alexandria, Va., on March 26, according to the United States attorney’s office in Maryland. He has been charged with interstate transportation of a stolen vehicle.
Prosecutors say Mr. Henry, a computer engineer, drove the van early on March 27 to Dulles International Airport, where he got out and tried, unsuccessfully, for more than two hours to find a way through security. Mr. Henry then got back in the U-Haul and drove to the National Harbor in Maryland, arriving around 10 a.m., they said.
According to the complaint, Mr. Henry walked around looking for an ideal spot to mimic a 2016 Bastille Day attack in Nice, France, in which a truck barreled through a crowd of spectators, killing more than 80 people.
Because the crowds at the National Harbor waterfront on March 27, a Wednesday, were thin, he delayed his plans, prosecutors said. He broke into a boat and hid there overnight, according to court documents.
The next morning, police officers discovered the stolen U-Haul and arrested Mr. Henry after he leapt over a security fence from the boat dock, according to prosecutors. The authorities first identified Mr. Henry through registration records left in his BMW, which was parked in Alexandria, near where the U-Haul was stolen, they said.
Mr. Henry did not have an escape plan, as he did not plan to survive the attack, prosecutors said.
“I was just going to keep driving and driving and driving,” he is quoted as saying in a motion for detention filed by federal prosecutors. “I wasn’t going to stop.”
A detention hearing is scheduled for Tuesday at 12:45 p.m. in Federal District Court in Greenbelt, Md.
Thomas Mooney, a lawyer who is representing Mr. Henry on state burglary and malicious destruction of property charges related to the National Harbor episode, said he would plead not guilty. A public defender representing Mr. Henry on the federal charge did not immediately return a call for comment on Monday afternoon.
Mr. Henry was reported missing after he left work around noon on March 26, and his family was concerned about his “physical and emotional welfare,” according to a public notice issued by the Montgomery County Police Department.
A spokeswoman for Hughes Network Systems, a broadband satellite company in Germantown, said Mr. Henry had previously been employed there as an independent contractor. The company declined to provide details about his position.
Seamus Hughes, the deputy director of George Washington University’s program on Extremism, said there is a long history of using vehicles as weapons of terror. In 2010, Al Qaeda promoted the use of cars to run over people in its online magazine, in an article titled “The Ultimate Mowing Machine.”
It was not until the rise of the Islamic State in 2014, however, that vehicular attacks became a common occurrence in Western countries. The most devastating was the 2016 attack on Bastille Day. It was followed by an attack on a Berlin Christmas market in 2016 as well as numerous smaller ISIS-inspired attacks in Europe and in North America.
An ISIS motto has become, “It doesn’t matter what you do, as long as you do something,” Mr. Hughes said. And vehicles, of course, are easier to obtain than other weapons.