In Alaska, becoming the militants next door

Paul Rockwood Jr. and his wife were well-liked neighbors, until the FBI accused them of drafting a list of terrorist attack targets. In an interview from prison, he tells his story, beginning with Sept. 11 and his Muslim conversion.
Reporting from Fairton, N.J.—

A little more than a year ago, he was a weather forecaster at a remote outpost in King Salmon, Alaska, population 442. He and his wife — he with his close-trimmed red beard and shy smile, she with her rosebud cheeks and sweet English accent — lived in a two-story frame house strewn with toys. They were popular dinner companions and regulars at community theater productions.

Now Paul Rockwood Jr. is a convicted terrorist, serving eight years in a federal prison. His wife, Nadia, is exiled on probation in England after her own criminal conviction. Since their arrest in 2010 — accused by the FBI of drafting and delivering a list of targets for terrorist attacks — friends and neighbors have been left in confusion, wondering how the nice young couple could have turned into the terrorists next door.
The possible answer, provided in Rockwood’s first interview since his arrest, opens a window on one man’s uncertain spiritual journey and radicalization after the Sept. 11 attacks. It also offers a look at the government’s increasingly deep dragnet for suspected domestic terrorists.

To federal authorities, Rockwood, 36, is a man who turned from hard-partying bartender and ex-Navy seaman to Muslim militant committed to killing fellow Americans.

To Rockwood, the plot involving targeted assassinations and bombs was a “pure fantasy” created by a government agent he thought was his friend, a common refrain in the nation’s burgeoning number of “home-grown” terrorism plots prosecuted since the Sept. 11 attacks. “But as time went on, I started needing to know why somebody would kill themselves, flying a plane into a building.”