The FBI sting had elements of a B-movie production. Federal agents used a car chop shop in Seattle that was an FBI front, placed a prayer rug and a copy of the Quran inside the office, and designated it the scene for the final bust. The FBI’s informant was a registered sex offender named Robert Childs, who had told agents that his friend Abu Khalid Abdul-Latif had a vague plan for a terrorist attack on a military base in Washington state. The FBI furnished Childs with weapons, including assault rifles and grenades.
At the chop shop, Childs met with Abdul-Latif and his friend Walli Mujahidh, who had a mental illness, and showed them the weapons he’d acquired for their supposed attack. The guns and grenades had been disabled, and hidden FBI cameras captured Abdul-Latif and Mujahidh holding rifles, even though neither man knew how to use them. “He didn’t even understand how to work the breech,” Childs would later tell me, referring to Abdul-Latif’s inability to load the firearm.
Suddenly, FBI agents, dressed in tactical uniforms, tossed in a smoke grenade and charged toward the men; they handcuffed Childs as part of the show.
“When the feds rushed in, I knew it was Robert Childs,” Abdul-Latif later told me. “I knew he’d set us up.” As Abdul-Latif saw it, Childs had manipulated and betrayed him for money. The FBI, meanwhile, described Childs as valiant. “But for the courage of the cooperating witness, and the efforts of multiple agencies working long and intense hours, the subjects might have been able to carry out their brutal plan,” Laura Laughlin, then the FBI’s special agent-in-charge in Seattle, said in a 2011 press release. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer later described Childs as “the unlikely hero” of the bust.
After years of talking to both men and sorting through conflicting claims, I can finally explain the origins of this high-profile case that the FBI and the Justice Department have misrepresented to the public and the courts. The FBI hired a convicted sex offender as an informant, even as a rape kit with his DNA sat untested on a shelf. They paid him $90,000 to set up his friend and his friend’s mentally ill buddy in a terrorism plot concocted from nothing more than an over-the-top statement by Abdul-Latif, landing both Abdul-Latif and Mujahidh in prison. A decade later, Childs is in prison as well, serving a life sentence for the crime documented by the rape kit that the Seattle Police Department left untested for 13 years.
Last winter, with nothing left to lose, Childs contacted Abdul-Latif and me to come clean about the FBI terrorism sting he’d helped engineer.
“We’re Not Here By Accident”
I never expected to be caught in the middle of a strained relationship between two old friends convicted on terrorism and rape charges, respectively. It just happened, in the slowly discomforting way it can when you spend years researching a story.
In 2015, I flew to Key West to meet with Childs for the first time. He’d moved to Florida because his cover had been blown in Seattle. After the sting targeting Abdul-Latif, Childs kept working as a police informant. He grew his hair out into dreadlocks and, as part of a police surveillance operation, joined the Clandestine Insurgent Rebel Clown Army, a left-wing activist group whose members dress like clowns during protests.
Activists in Seattle soon linked him to Abdul-Latif’s case and posted pictures of Childs on social media, warning others that he worked for the FBI. I only knew that Childs had moved to Florida because he was arrested there following a complaint that he had rung up five transactions totaling more than $800 on a stolen credit card. Police in Key West investigating the complaint discovered that Childs had not registered as a sex offender in Florida and arrested him. Childs told the cops that “he was hiding from a previous case he worked with detectives in Seattle,” according to the police report.
Childs and I met at a pizzeria on Stock Island, just east of Key West. At the time, he was homeless and camping in a wooded area near the ocean. He wore an ankle monitor — the result of his charge for not registering as a sex offender — and had both ears pierced, a soul patch under his bottom lip, and his long, sun-bleached dreadlocks tied up in a knot. He’d go to a local Burger King nearly every day to charge his ankle monitor and use his phone to access the free internet.
When we talked then, he parroted the Justice Department’s official account of what had happened in Seattle: He’d gone to the police because Abdul-Latif had talked about a terrorist attack, and what he’d done to set up his friend was heroic. I asked him about one of the questions that has hung over Abdul-Latif’s case: Why did Childs and his handler, a Seattle detective assigned to the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force, delete their text messages following Abdul-Latif’s arrest? Childs told me that he’d chosen to wipe his entire phone because he had pornography on the device that would have violated his release terms as a sex offender; he wasn’t trying to hide evidence from Abdul-Latif when he deleted his data, he told me, but rather evidence strictly related to himself. Childs also assured me that his police handler wouldn’t have deleted anything relevant to Abdul-Latif’s case.
At the time, Childs wasn’t happy with the FBI. He said that federal agents hadn’t lived up to their promises, including, he claimed, to expunge his criminal record that included sex crimes. “I have no trust for them,” he said. Still, he maintained that his work for the bureau was legitimate: He’d helped stop a would-be terrorist by ratting out his friend.
After our meeting, I continued to track Childs on Florida’s sex offender registry. Not long after we met in the Keys, he moved to Okeechobee, a small town in the southern part of the state named after the enormous freshwater lake it sits above. Okeechobee is an impoverished corner of Florida that few tourists or even locals visit — a good place to disappear. But Abdul-Latif had found Childs’s address there and wrote him a letter from prison, begging him to tell the truth about what had happened during the sting. “I wanted to come clean and confess,” Childs told me a few months ago. But, concerned about what could happen to him, he ignored the letter.
“I wanted to come clean and confess,” Childs told me. But, concerned about what could happen to him, he ignored Abdul-Latif’s letter.
Ultimately, even in Okeechobee, the world came looking for Childs. The rape kit of a 12-year-old girl — which had collected dust on a shelf in Seattle since 2006 — was tested in 2019. DNA from the rape kit, found on the victim’s underwear, was a match for Childs.
On February 21, 2019, the Okeechobee County Sheriff’s Office arrested Childs on a warrant from Washington state. During an interrogation, detectives showed Childs a picture of the victim and explained that his DNA matched the sample recovered from the rape kit.
“We’re not here by accident,” Detective Ted Van Deman told Childs. “Did you rape this young lady?”
“No,” Childs responded.
“I did not,” Childs said.
Childs told the detectives that he believed the girl must have seen a picture of him in the news media and confused him with her rapist. He explained to detectives that his name and photo had been used in a TED Talk I had given about FBI stings in 2015. “There was an author who had me on TED Talks — not me personally, but his interpretation of everything that happened in the terror case,” Childs said. “My name publicly out there. My picture publicly out there.”
Childs was extradited from Florida to Washington state, where he was convicted at trial and, in January, sentenced to life in prison. He continues to maintain that he did not rape the girl.
In his prison cell, Childs sat down and wrote a letter to his onetime friend, incarcerated 1,000 miles away in a federal facility in southern California. The letter was a confession.
“Abdul-Latif may have had some hardline ideology and radical speech, but he was never in any place to be a terrorist,” Childs wrote. “If I had not been encouraged to ‘turn him in’ or threatened to keep him on course, he would not be in prison now and no attack would have ever been perpetrated by him. He’s in prison because I was too coward to tell the truth.”
In the letter, Childs also admitted that he’d wiped his phone back then not to delete pornography, but because it contained text messages between him and his handler in which he discussed his view that Abdul-Latif was no threat to anyone. Childs also explained that he was coming forward now, as he embarked on a life sentence, because he no longer feared the FBI. “I have tried to relay this information before,” Childs wrote in his letter, “but was always cut off and threatened with losing my freedom as well.”
Childs added: “The so-called plot to attack the [Military Entrance Processing Station] location was created by me, approved by my handler, and then fed to Abdul-Latif to make it look like he came up with it himself.”
His confession has reopened Abdul-Latif’s case. In March, a federal judge appointed a lawyer to investigate the claims and file an appeal on Abdul-Latif’s behalf.
The missing text messages, which Childs now claims he destroyed on orders from Samuel DeJesus, the Seattle detective working with the FBI, were central to Abdul-Latif’s case. Abdul-Latif had planned to question the government about why the texts had not been retained. But on the eve of a hearing about those messages, Abdul-Latif took a plea deal to avoid a possible life term in prison. U.S. District Judge James Robart called the government’s investigation “at best sloppy.” Had Childs’s information about the text messages been available then, Abdul-Latif now says, he wouldn’t have taken the plea.
Abdul-Latif and Childs cannot call each other, since they are both incarcerated and prisoners are only allowed to make outbound calls. So earlier this year, I became the middleman between these estranged friends, with Abdul-Latif and Childs both agreeing that our conversations would be the on the record.
“We’ll Just Kill Him Right Away”
Born in California as Joseph Anthony Davis, Abdul-Latif served a brief stint in the U.S. Navy. In his mid-20s, he was arrested and convicted of armed robbery for sticking up a convenience store with a toy gun. Abdul-Latif converted to Islam and settled in Seattle, where he met Childs at a local mosque.
Childs grew up in Indiana and, at 16, moved out West. In October 1994, Childs, then 18 years old, was reported to local police for raping a 14-year-old girl he’d met at an arcade. “It’ll be all right,” Childs allegedly told the girl as he assaulted her, according to the police report. He was convicted and spent six months in jail. In 1996, when he was 20, Childs met a 15-year-old girl at a Seattle mall. Childs and the girl fondled each other in a park, and the girl’s mother filed a police report; Childs pleaded guilty to child molestation and registered as a sex offender. In prison, Childs became a Muslim. “It made sense to me at the time,” Childs told me of his conversion.
He returned to Seattle, where he married, started a cleaning business, and attended a local mosque. On occasion, Childs hired Abdul-Latif to work shifts at his business.
Abdul-Latif would stare into the camera, offering the type of anti-American religious rants that seemed engineered to catch the attention of FBI counterterrorism agents.
In 2007, with his marriage falling apart, Childs decided he wanted to fight for Islam. He thought at the time that being a part of the mujahedeen was the “highest plane” available in life. So he sold his cleaning business to Abdul-Latif and flew to Turkey. Both Abdul-Latif and Childs would later claim that they were cheated in this transaction; as a result, the two men stopped communicating for a time.
But Childs never reached the “highest plane.” In Turkey, he befriended a German Christian missionary, Tilman Geske, who was murdered along with two Christian Turks in the office of a Bible publishing company on April 18, 2007. A note left behind read: “This should serve as a lesson to the enemies of our religion. We did it for our country.” The five murderers were Muslims who told a court that their victims were involved in “harmful activities” that dishonored Islam. Geske’s grisly murder shook Childs, and he abandoned his ambitions to fight for Islam.
In 2011, Childs returned to Seattle, where Abdul-Latif was still running the cleaning business. By this time, Abdul-Latif was married and had a small child, and he devoted his free time to making YouTube videos that promoted Islam, a form of proselytization known in Arabic as dawah. With his shaved head, unkempt, jet-black beard, and rectangular eyeglasses, Abdul-Latif would stare into the camera, offering the type of anti-American religious rants that seemed engineered to catch the attention of FBI counterterrorism agents. “Look what happened in Iraq, Muslims,” Abdul-Latif said in one video. “Weapons of mass destruction, they never found any. Now they’re trying to take the natural resources of the Muslims from that country. And instead of standing up and at least saying no, we just say, ‘OK, it’s all right. I got my job. I got my apartment.’ And that’s it. When a Muslim gets killed, it should affect us emotionally.” Abdul-Latif would often praise Anwar al-Awlaki, the American-born imam who was at the time a popular propagandist for Osama bin Laden’s Al Qaeda terrorist network. (Al-Awlaki was killed in a 2011 drone strike ordered by President Barack Obama.)
Abdul-Latif was recording dawah videos regularly and had just filed for bankruptcy protection in the hopes of cleaning up his finances when Childs returned to Seattle. The two ran into each other at the mosque where they had first met. Childs and Abdul-Latif hadn’t spoken in years, but that evening, they forgave each other for the business disagreement and Abdul-Latif invited Childs to dinner. “His wife was making fried chicken,” Childs remembered, “and I really liked her fried chicken.”
After dinner, Abdul-Latif and Childs walked outside and into the parking lot of Abdul-Latif’s apartment complex. Abdul-Latif saw Childs’s vehicle — an enormous, gas-guzzling 1980s-era Chevrolet Suburban. Abdul-Latif came up with a nickname for the vehicle on the spot: “The Tank.” “We could take this truck and just ram through the gates at Fort Lewis,” Childs remembered Abdul-Latif telling him that night. Fort Lewis, now known as Joint Base Lewis-McChord, is a large U.S. military installation in Tacoma, Washington.
According to the Justice Department, Childs, concerned about this comment, reported Abdul-Latif to the Seattle police. DeJesus, a local detective working in partnership with federal counterterrorism agents, brought in the FBI, and federal agents enlisted Childs as an informant. He joined more than 15,000 others, many of them criminals and conmen motivated by money. Childs was not just a convicted sex offender when the FBI signed him up; a rape kit on a nearby shelf would have proven that he had sexually assaulted the 12-year-old girl just a few years before.
Over the next few weeks, the FBI paid Childs tens of thousands of dollars to buddy up to Abdul-Latif and see if he would move from talk to action. Abdul-Latif and Childs eventually came up with the idea to attack Seattle’s Military Entrance Processing Station, or MEPS, where new enlistees would first report for duty. It was a soft target: a federal building with just one security guard in the lobby. “We’ll just kill him right away,” Abdul-Latif said of the guard, according to FBI recordings. Abdul-Latif and Childs recruited a third man, Mujahidh, a friend of Abdul-Latif’s in Los Angeles who had been diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder, a mental illness that can cause an unmooring from reality. Mujahidh, also known as Frederick Domingue Jr., traveled to Seattle by bus. Neither Abdul-Latif nor Mujahidh had firearms, so Childs offered to provide assault rifles, ammunition, and grenades — thousands of dollars’ worth of military-grade weaponry that Childs told Abdul-Latif he’d sell them for just $800. Abdul-Latif’s knowledge of guns was so limited that he had no idea he was getting the arms deal of the century.
On June 22, 2011, having been secretly recorded by the FBI discussing their plot, Abdul-Latif and Mujahidh met Childs at the chop shop. They inspected the weapons. FBI agents charged into the building and cuffed them.
Such stings have become the FBI’s primary counterterrorism tool. Since 9/11, more than 350 accused terrorists with alleged links to international groups like the Islamic State or Al Qaeda have been caught up in terrorism stings, yielding a near perfect record of convictions for the Justice Department. Federal prosecutors filed terrorism charges against Abdul-Latif and Mujahidh, including counts of conspiracy to murder U.S. government employees and conspiracy to use weapons of mass destruction. Mujahidh agreed to plead guilty within months of the indictment and was sentenced to 17 years in prison. “This defendant was a cold-hearted, enthusiastic partner in this murderous scheme,” then-U.S. Attorney Jenny Durkan said in a statement at the time.
Of Abdul-Latif, who received an 18-year sentence, Durkan said: “He targeted young men and women solely because they wanted to serve our country. His goal: to inspire others with a message of hate.”
“I Can’t Do This Anymore”
I don’t recall when I started communicating with Abdul-Latif, but it had to have been at least eight years ago, after he’d pleaded guilty.
At the time, I was reporting on Russell Dennison, an American who joined ISIS in Syria. Abdul-Latif and Dennison had met online, and FBI records indicated that the bureau began surveilling Abdul-Latif following a single phone conversation with Dennison — months before Childs went to the FBI with his tip. Based on that, I knew the story the FBI and the Justice Department had told the public and the courts — that Childs had spurred the investigation of Abdul-Latif — was not true.
What’s more, records from the Seattle Police Department and the FBI suggested that a complicated series of events had preceded Childs’s recruitment as an informant. In a June 2011 report, DeJesus, the Seattle detective, wrote that another paid informant had introduced Childs to DeJesus. But the other informant’s relationship with the Seattle Police Department and the FBI wasn’t fully explained in the records. Abdul-Latif had never met this other informant. I had tried to figure out what role this mysterious man had played in the investigation of Abdul-Latif, but I always came up empty.
Abdul-Latif called me one afternoon last year, his voice somber. “I can’t do this anymore,” he told me, explaining that he couldn’t take the emotional ups and downs that came with the horizonal prospect that I might find something that could reopen his case. “I need to accept and be at peace with the fact that I will in prison for another few years.” (Abdul-Latif is scheduled to be released in October 2026.)
I respected Abdul-Latif’s position, and I’d reached a similar conclusion: I needed to accept that I wouldn’t get to the bottom of his case, at least not any time soon.
“I’ll keep in touch,” I told Abdul-Latif, which, if I’m being honest now, I said more out of politeness than sincerity.
Then late last year, months after Abdul-Latif had called me to say goodbye, I read about Childs’s rape conviction.
In July 2006, a 12-year-old girl had run away from home and traveled to Seattle. On the night of the city’s annual torchlight parade, the girl was out on the streets, asking people for help finding her mother. She then asked a man if she could use his cellphone. According to a statement she’d later give police, the man grabbed her by the neck, pulled her into a secluded area, and sexually assaulted her.
The victim’s rape kit sat on a shelf in Seattle until a $3 million grant from the Justice Department funded the examination of more than 6,500 rape kits in Washington state, some dating back as far as 1982. Until a new state law took effect in 2015, individual police officers investigating sexual assault cases in Washington had discretion to decide whether a rape kit should be tested, creating a backlog that stretched back several decades. Untested rape kits are a national problem, with more than 100,000 moldering on shelves.
The Justice Department grant funded the testing of the 12-year-old girl’s rape kit from 2006. The kit contained DNA belonging to Childs, who was 30 years old at the time of the crime.
A Seattle police detective recorded an interview with the victim in 2019, following the testing of the rape kit and the positive match for Childs. “I remember trying to fight him off a little bit,” she said, then softly wept.
“I Did Manipulate Him”
In the months after Childs wrote his letter, I spoke regularly to him and Abdul-Latif. Childs was in a Seattle detention facility and Abdul-Latif in a federal prison in southern California. Childs told me that his goal now is to help Abdul-Latif overturn his conviction, and he agreed not only to talk to me, but also to Abdul-Latif’s lawyers. “He wasn’t serious about it,” Childs told me of Abdul-Latif’s interest in terrorism. “He was just talking.”
Childs explained that after he returned to Seattle, he ran into another friend he’d met in prison following his child molestation conviction. Childs said he was envious of this person when they reconnected. “He had two cars at that time. He had a house he was renting. Never once did I ever see him go to work,” Childs said. “He was always available to just hang out, always hanging out, smoking weed, cigarettes, going out drinking. Just basically partying it up and never working.”
Childs asked his old prison friend how he afforded his lifestyle. The man told Childs that he was an informant for the Seattle police. He explained that cops will pay for information, Childs recalled. That’s when Childs told him what Abdul-Latif had said to him: “We could take this truck and just ram through the gates at Fort Lewis.”
“Even when I told him, I was like, ‘Dude, this guy is not serious. They’re gonna laugh at this,’” Childs recalled.
“Well, you make it sound believable,” Childs remembered his friend telling him. “You make it sound like you were afraid for your life.”
Childs’s friend was persuasive, appealing to his desire for quick cash. “He’s the one that actually convinced me to turn this into something that it wasn’t, because we could make money from it,” Childs said.
The other informant brought Childs to the Seattle Police Department. They met with DeJesus, who took Childs to the FBI. “This is a career maker,” Childs recalled DeJesus saying of the case.
Seattle police records and text messages provided as evidence in Abdul-Latif’s case support what Childs is now saying. DeJesus wrote a police report explaining that another Seattle detective, who was overseeing Child’s friend’s work as an informant, introduced him to Childs. DeJesus recorded a statement from Childs and then turned over the recording to the FBI. Later, Childs’s friend texted Childs that his Seattle police handler gave him $1,000 for making the introduction. “Also, he’s going to try to get me some cigs tomorrow inshallah,” he wrote, referring to cigarettes and using an Arabic expression meaning “God willing.”
But, as my reporting on Russell Dennison, the American ISIS fighter, indicated, it wasn’t Childs who’d first brought Abdul-Latif to the FBI’s attention. Childs told me that FBI agents had told him that they’d been surveilling Abdul-Latif and had become frustrated that they couldn’t move the case forward. I was able to confirm independently that the FBI had even sent another informant to meet Abdul-Latif, but nothing came of the encounters. “They made a comment to me that they had been watching him for a while,” Childs recalled, “and now they can get him with my help.”
And they got him. FBI agents burst into the car chop shop, where Abdul-Latif and Mujahidh were holding disabled rifles. “Get down!” the agent yelled. Another FBI agent tackled Childs. “I need you to struggle,” Childs remembers the agent telling him. So Childs put on a show, hoping Abdul-Latif wouldn’t realize that he’d set him up.
I asked Childs if, in that moment, he regretted what he’d done. “There’s regret,” he told me. “There’s fear that he’s going to know that I was behind it, which apparently he did.”
After the arrests, Childs said that DeJesus instructed him to wipe his phone to get rid of any text messages. “Make sure there is nothing on your phone that can hurt the case,” Childs said DeJesus told him.
“I took that as an order to wipe my phone before it was collected,” Childs said. “In order to protect everyone, I claimed that I had a bunch of porn on it that could have gotten me in trouble.”
In court filings, the Justice Department acknowledged that DeJesus deleted his text messages. It was DeJesus’s standard practice to delete text messages following an arrest, according to the government, and he did not remember that the FBI had asked him to preserve them.
“There was no terror plot. It didn’t exist. It was created by the FBI and, well, me.”
The FBI and the Seattle Police Department declined to comment on Childs’s confession. DeJesus has left the Seattle police and could not be reached.
Emily Langlie, a spokesperson for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Seattle, said the government “did not seek to obscure or minimize” the missing text messages during its prosecution of Abdul-Latif.
“As proven by hours of recordings, and as Mr. Abdul-Latif admitted under oath in his plea agreement, his plan was to storm a military processing center and massacre the unarmed recruits with automatic weapons,” Langlie said. “A fundamental reality of criminal investigations is that law enforcement does not get to choose its informants. Prosecutors would never have asked a jury to convict Mr. Abdul-Latif based on the word of Robert Childs. Instead, the United States built a case based on independent evidence, such as the hours of recordings from Mr. Abdul-Latif himself.”
Childs said he quickly blew through the tens of thousands of dollars he’d earned from the terrorism bust. He bought a boat, stereo equipment, drugs, and visits with sex workers. “It went fast,” he said of the money.
“I did manipulate him,” Childs told me, referring to Abdul-Latif. “There was no terror plot. It didn’t exist. It was created by the FBI and, well, me.”
Abdul-Latif’s new court-appointed lawyer is working to obtain a recorded statement from Childs. “I’m looking at the possibility of filing a motion based on newly discovered evidence — that recently Robert Childs has come forward and indicated that he entrapped Abdul-Latif into committing the crimes that he pled guilty to,” Gilbert Levy said in one of our conversations. Levy is poring over Abdul-Latif’s case to find evidence that might corroborate the new details from Childs, whom Levy described as “a recidivist sex offender and not necessarily the most credible witness that’s ever come down the pike.”
Abdul-Latif calls me regularly again now; he’s concerned that Childs will lose his nerve and refuse to provide a statement under oath. I’ve told him what Childs has consistently told me: that he wants to help Abdul-Latif and make amends for what he did.
I don’t know if Abdul-Latif will have his conviction overturned or his sentence vacated. I suspect neither is likely, just as it’s unlikely that any of the people involved in his case will face questions about their actions, or any sort of accountability, more than a decade later.
In the end, Abdul-Latif’s case did go down as a “career maker.” After his arrest, one of the FBI agents involved was promoted to a supervisor position and Childs’s police handler was named “detective of the year.”