A Texas man was arrested by the FBI last Thursday for plotting to blow up an Amazon data center in Virginia. Following a sting operation, Seth Aaron Pendley, 28, of Wichita Falls, Texas was indicted Friday morning on explosives charges and faces up to 20 years in prison.
Formerly an amateur bodybuilder and personal trainer whose interests revolved around fitness and family, Pendley seems to have had no criminal history or interest in politics prior to 2020. Over the course of a year, he developed increasingly radical views, beginning with opposition to COVID-19 lockdown measures and becoming a passionate supporter of former President Trump. After attending the January 6 protests in Washington DC, Pendley began advising friends to arm themselves and soliciting others online to ‘pick a side in the next civil war.’ Seemingly within weeks, he developed an elaborate plan to attack US internet infrastructure and provoke a wider social conflict. Pendley’s headlong journey into militancy culminated with his allegedly taking possession of C-4 explosives and detonators, which turned out to be fakes supplied by an undercover FBI agent. Following his arrest, Pendley admitted to planning an attack and is now in federal custody in Texas.
FROM THE GYM TO THE CAPITOL
Pendley was born and grew up in Rush Springs, Oaklahoma, a town of just over 1000 people. He was the youngest of 9 children, with 4 brothers and 4 sisters. His father, James, to whom Seth Pendley bore an uncanny resemblance, was a heavy equipment operator. Though short and skinny, Pendley took a job working as a roughneck, working hard and playing hard. Leisure hours were spent testing out a growing interest in weightlifting and his capacity for alcohol; the weights soon won out.
The shortest in the family, Pendley joked to a sibling in 2013 that ‘since I’m not going to get any taller, I’ll just work on getting wider – I’m going to get JACKED’; and within a month of starting to train seriously he already liked the results. Weightlifting provided him with structure and satisfaction, and he went from a 125lb kid to a solidly muscled 160lbs in a year. He began to regard fitness as his full-time occupation, his oilfield job just the economic means that enabled him to work out.
Within a few years Pendley managed to turn his hobby into a career. He went back to school and gained the certifications to become licensed as a personal trainer, and moved an hour’s drive away from his hometown to Wichita Falls, Texas, a picturesque city of about 100,000. By then he had swapped working in oilfields for nutritional supplements sales, settled into a steady romantic relationship, and by late 2017 was winning medals in regional bodybuilding competitions. Few things distracted him; here, regret at his failure to be there for an old friend during a fatal illness; there, relief at his beloved father’s recovery following a spell in hospital.
But 2019 proved to be an emotional roller coaster. Early in the year, Pendley and his girlfriend announced their marriage plans, but soon afterward Pendley’s father died. Although the marriage went ahead that June, by the end of the year it had fallen apart. Why is unclear, but around this time his social media includes accusations of betrayal and disrespect to his mother – a stark change from his normal sunny positivity.
Pendley began 2020 in a black mood, disappointed and lonely but relying on his steady job and the discipline of the gym to get him through tough times. Then coronavirus struck, forcing many businesses to close; gyms were hit especially hard. Pendley was skeptical of public health measures; at first joking about masks, but by August writing angry diatribes on Facebook questioning the reality of the pandemic and expressing anger over how it was impacting the fitness industry.
As the election approached, Pendley’s Facebook timeline was suddenly awash in conservative political memes. And his posts were becoming more angry – now re-sharing angry rants directed at LGBT folk, Muslims, Antifa – a strange turn for someone who until then had shown no interest in politics, nor ever had a mean word for others.
By December 27th his dissatisfaction had come to a boil, saying ‘The people in power have changed society in a way that no longer [serves] the American people. Insanity has become the new norm […] I will be headed to Washington DC to hopefully help the country for the better/ All I gotta say is, WHO’S COMING WITH ME?’ Online at least, few responded. One associate asked what he planned to do there and he replied ‘Take it to the Capitol and see what happens. […] I’m hoping for the insurrection act but either way I want to be there.’
On January 2nd 2021, Pendley told an acquaintance that he owned an AR ‘556’ rifle, but had cut the barrel down to 9 an 1⁄2 inches. This made it into an short-barreled rifle (SBR); illegal unless registered and appropriately taxed. His acquaintance advised him not to bring it to DC, but Pendley ignored him. Two days later he told another associate of his intention to bring the firearm to DC with him, but that he planned to leave it in his car if there were too many law enforcement checkpoints.
On the day of January 6th Pendley was on the Capitol steps with other protesters. He had brought his gun to DC, but wrote in a later social media post that he ‘left it in my ride after seeing [zero] accompanying me in my endeavor.’ Pendley made it to a platform directly in front of the Capitol building and–according to the criminal complaint–took video of the scene but did not enter the Capitol itself. In the days that followed, he shared screenshots of the video with friends on Facebook, and mentioned he claimed to have taken a piece of glass from a broken window as a souvenir.
THE BOMB PLOT
If Pendley was disappointed by the failure of the January 6th protests to halt the transfer of power, he was in no way deterred. Instead, the same single-minded determination that had served him so well in the gym was now turned upon his political goal. By now, he had signed up for an account on MyMilitia.com under the name ‘Dionysus’ and was diligently networking on the platform. In his view, the protesters’ efforts failed because they were not ambitious enough:
_Those of you that are upset about the death of a fellow patriot. Yeah. That shit sucks. Especially for those of you that were close to her. And those of that are happy. Yeah. I’m sure we emboldened a good number of the more timid... But shit fire. I feel like we all went into this with the intention of getting very little done. How much did you expect to do when we all willingly go in unarmed.\[...\]_
For weeks I had prepared to show up at the capital as strapped as possible. The whole time I had high hopes that SOMEONE would understand. […] After noticing that the majority of us were too afraid of revealing a secret of some sort to say anything worthwhile. I tried to portray that I felt the best way to go about this opportunity was to show up with our Dicks in our hands.
In another post, he was less careful with his words, saying ‘I’m not a dumbass suicide bomber but even if I only have a handful of fellow patriots standing beside me I will happily die a young man knowing that I didn’t allow the evils in this world to continue unjustly treating my fellow Americans so disrespectfully.’ Soon after, ‘Dionysus’ posted a comment about his intention to ‘conduct a little experiment’ saying that he was ‘confident enough in my idea to risk putting myself in a ‘potentially’ dangerous situation.’ When asked what outcome Dionysus hoped for, the reply was one word: ‘Death.’
Such comments unsurprisingly set off alarm bells with some readers, and one contacted the FBI on January 8th with screenshots of Pendley’s posts. The FBI’s criminal complaint against Pendley indicates that this confidential source had provided the FBI with valuable information in the past.
Once committed to his goal, Pendley seemed to throw caution to the wind and prioritized speed and networking opportunities over tight security. On January 10th, he posted on his Facebook page ‘If you are a supporter of a free America message me. I was at the capitol and I have info regarding the future. No socialist/Marxist crap.’ Over the following days he exhorted people to obtain guns, fretted over the potential imposition of gun control and socialism, and expressed strong opposition to the incoming Biden administration.
By February, Pendley began asking Facebook friends for a different kind of help, writing: ‘I cannot care for my Hambone anymore. Does anyone want to take him off my hands? I’ve called the animal shelters around here and they won’t take him.’
Meanwhile, Pendley was talking with several like-minded people via Signal – including another FBI informant who had made contact with him on MyMilita.com, and who also had a history of providing reliable information to law enforcement. Unaware of who he was talking to, Pendley shared his idea of making an attack with explosives on an Amazon Web Services data center, saying ‘The AWS data places are almost all centrally located. They are fucking MASSIVE. I haven’t got [all] the details worked out now, but that’s where I have risky questions for you that I didn’t want to ask until now.’
Amazon Web Services is not the website of Amazon, the delivery company, but a separate and in fact more profitable part of the tech behemoth. It allows business and individuals to host web sites, apps, or huge databases and is so useful that at least one third of the internet relies upon it. Pendley estimated that a successful attack would take up to 70% of the internet offline at once, joking on February 19th: ‘Oh yeah if I had cancer or something I would drive a bomb into those servers lol.’ Soon after the informant offered to obtain C-4 explosive for such an attack – a classic FBI sting approach deployed repeatedly as part of the ‘war on terror’.
Frequently criticized for creating as often as catching terrorists, the FBI has grown expert at reading both the psychology of those they investigate and what courts and juries find acceptable. When the matter comes to court, much will turn on the degree to which Pendley or the informant led the conversation. In any case, Pendley expressed happiness at the offer, replying ‘Fuck yeah. And I’m not telling anyone anything. Even if I gotta wheel a wheelbarrow in that bitch, I’m sure we can get it done.’
Get it done Pendley did, obtaining topographic maps and then drawing up his own maps and entry-exit diagrams for one location in particular. As described later by Pendley:
_The main objective is to fuck up the amazon servers. there’s 24 buildings that all this data runs through in America. Three of them are right next to each other, those 24 run 70% of the internet. And the government, especially the higher ups, CIA, FBI, special shit, they have like an 8 billion dollar a year contract with Amazon to run through their severs. So we fuck those servers, and it’s going to piss all the oligarchy off._
This is like, like ‘em, hopefully, they react the way I would like them to react. Hopefully, they let the world know in a weird way by acting too fast that they’re a fucking dictatorship and then hope like hell that some of the people that are on the fence jump off the fence.
Pendley had not only chosen a key node in the North American internet infrastructure, but gone on to create diagrams and even models of how he would deploy explosive. By constructing special boxes – possibly a secondary powder bomb - he hoped to increase the directionality and damage of the explosives. How did Pendley acquire this knowledge? His social media timeline showed occasional sport shooting with friends, but otherwise showed no interest in military pursuits other than one brief flicker of interest in the army. Was he guided toward it online, or did he simply decide goals and his methods and pursue them with the same intensity that he brought to his bodybuilding? Pendley’s alleged plan is unusual in that he appears to been radicalized over a quite short period of only a few months, but having a high level of technical and organizational ability that those of much more experience rarely possess.
Unaware that the FBI had had him under personal surveillance since the beginning of March, Pendley developed his plan meticulously. He would drive his own Pontiac from Texas to Virginia, but had prepared by changing the license plates and painting the normally silver car with black ‘Plasti-Dip’, a rubbery paint designed to be peeled away easily. His plan, the FBI alleges, was to attack the Amazon facility by using small explosives to blow open the doors of the facility and a larger charge within the data center itself. Pendley then planned to be seen escaping in a black car; later he would stop somewhere, peel away the paint, change the license plates, and blend into traffic without arousing suspicion.
It’s unclear from the criminal complaint whether Pendley anticipated carrying out the attack alone or expected to have collaborators. But he seemed to have given up on any kind of normal future. His last post to Facebook on March 24th featured a nihilistic meme and the text: ‘I don’t know about the rest of y’all but this hit a little too close to home for me. #libtard #seeyalaterfreedom’.
In any event, the informant introduced him to a supposed explosives supplier–actually an undercover FBI agent. After an initial meeting toward the end of march to discuss the type and amount of explosives that Pendley wanted, they met again last Thursday in Fort Worth, Texas. The undercover agent brought bricks of C-4 plastic explosive and detonators – fake, of course – and gave Pendley a demonstration of how to connect and detonate them. Pendley accepted the materials and stored them in his car. Immediately afterwards, he was arrested.
Though entitled to remain silent, after being read his rights Pendley admitted in interviews to having orchestrated the plan, although the FBI’s complaint against him gives no hint of whether he came up with the idea himself or had help along the way. A search of his home turned up more detailed planning materials–hand-drawn maps, notes, and flash cards - wigs and masks, a pistol which had been painted to look like a toy gun, the cut down AR, and a machete with the name ‘Dionysus’ on the blade.
Now in custody in North Texas and represented by a public defender, Pendley is likely to spend a long time behind bars. Given his militant rhetoric and elaborate planning, pretrial release is unlikely. And with the substantial weight of evidence against him, including his own confession, he will almost certainly be convicted even if he does not plead guilty. The specific charge is that he attempted to damage or destroy a facility of interstate commerce with fire or explosive, a violation of 18 USC 844(i); this carries a mandatory minimum sentence of 5 years, and a maximum of 20, even if no additional charges are brought. Though a guilty plea or extenuating personal circumstances could keep his sentence near the lower end of that range, Pendley seems not to have any co-conspirators that he could testify against and prosecutors may seek to make an example of him to deter imitators. With many other cases of political violence in the last few years, and hundreds of prosecutions stemming from January 6th alone, Pendley’s future looks grim.
Political violence and asymmetric terrorism have become commonplace in recent years, and so have stereotypes of the perpetrators–Proud Boys in black-and-gold Fred Perrys, grizzled Oath Keepers in plate carriers and fatigues, Siege-pilled Atomwaffen fanatics in skull masks. Pendley doesn’t fit that pattern; his social media history had no background of bigotry, no rare Pepes or MAGA hats; only in the last six months is there any political content at all. Though some family members and close friends regularly shared conservative memes – similar in tone to Fox News or Trump campaign rhetoric – no connections to militant groups or specific endorsements of extremism have come to light so far.
It’s apparent that once Pendley did develop an interest in politics, it accelerated quickly – from bad-taste memes about Jeffrey Epstein last September to conspiracy theories and dire warnings about ‘everything being rigged.’ Pendley wrote that he had ‘read tons of books and documents over [sic] the socialistic structure…’ and cited libertarian-leaning video channels like PragerU and Academy of Ideas. While Pendley is hardly the first person to go down a right wing media funnel and be radicalized by it, few have done so in such a short time frame, or without the mutual reinforcement of a peer group. It’s painfully apparent that by the beginning of this year, Pendley was not only willing to die for his beliefs, but willing to kill.
An even larger question is where and how Pendley acquired the knowledge to plan his attack on one of the nation’s largest data centers. While the exact details of his plan remain obscure for now, his efforts display an unusual, almost professional level of organization. Had he been more cautious about security and gained access to real explosives, his plan might well have succeeded. To be sure, that sort of information is available to any diligent seeker; most military surplus stores carry manuals on the techniques of warfare, and imageboards or social platforms like Telegram serve accelerationist cocktails of practical knowledge and extremist rationalizations.
But acquiring, digesting, and synthesizing all that knowledge generally takes time. Other highly organized extremists like Anders Breivik or Brenton Tarrant developed their murderous plans over a period of years rather than months, and while Pendley’s primary target was internet infrastructure rather than flesh and blood, it seems clear he was willing to shed blood in pursuit of his goal – and of course, his larger hope was to trigger an oppressive governmental response that could trigger a full-fledged civil war.
Perhaps we should be grateful that his rush into extremism was so fast that he never developed the habits of digital and social security that would have allowed him to stay under the radar. But Pendley’s case suggests the path from angry rhetoric to violent action is an increasingly short one.