On June 14, U.S. Army Private First-Class Cole James Bridges of Ohio pleaded guilty to terrorism and attempted murder charges of helping the terrorist group ISIS kill his comrades on the battlefields in Iraq and Syria during 2020 and 2021.
This plea triggered the usual perfunctory dance between uninspired government press release writers and disinterested journalists keener on a white supremacy terrorism case. But before yet another Islamic terrorism prosecution passes with no public contemplation, the story of Bridges as detailed in the court files demands a pause for telling because the death penalty-deserving high treason for which this turncoat was not charged blew far past tolerance norms.
May this treasonous behavior in the service of the global jihad and against his country and brothers-in-arms at least be considered at his sentencing hearing scheduled for Nov. 2.
High Treason Not Charged
Plenty of civilian Americans have embraced the most violent of Islamic ideologies over the past two decades, physically joining ISIS or al-Qaeda on distant battlefields to kill American soldiers. Many were prosecuted for providing material support to designated terrorist groups.
But few American jihadists stealthily joined the U.S. military like Bridges did in 2019 as already fully dedicated to the cause of establishing a global Islamic caliphate under draconian Sharia Law — the prime goal of all groups like ISIS. What puts this case over the top is what Bridges did with his fresh training and access after becoming a cavalry scout for the 3rd Infantry Division while stationed in Fort Stewart, Georgia, and briefly in Germany, an ISIS flag always secreted away in his duffel.
The investigating FBI agent's complaint affidavit summarizes much of this, based on FBI-monitored ISIS chatroom conversations from August 2020 through January 2021 between Bridges and terrorists in Syria, some of whom, thankfully, turned out to be undercover FBI agents and informants.
"Bridges has, while deployed with his U.S. Army unit overseas [Germany] and continuing after returning with his unit to the United States, expressed his allegiance to ISIS and its radical jihadist ideology; provided advice regarding choosing targets in New York City for a potential ISIS attack; stated that if his Army unit was involved in combat with ISIS fighters, he would betray his unit and join the ISIS fighters; and provided support, tactical training materials, and advice for use by ISIS against American forces."
He also drew battle diagrams and sent U.S. training video clips to show ISIS how to tactically blunt U.S. attacks and use them against American forces.
Bridges lamented that he could only help from afar but hoped to one day "physically teach brothers of the ummah [the Muslim world] that want to fight." That day might come, he posited, if U.S. law enforcement tried to arrest him. He'd flee the country to a battleground. But if he could not escape, he'd happily martyr himself in an attack on arresting officers.
These offenses to uniform, oath, and country went on to a climactic and treacherous plot. Bridges drew diagrams for his ISIS fighter friends to rig a real Syrian compound with explosives so that they could lure U.S. Special Forces soldiers in to fight and then blow them all up. Bridges was so excited about the plan he was orchestrating that he appeared in full battle rattle, wearing a tactical mask in front of his secret ISIS flag to narrate with voice-changing software a post-attack propaganda video he'd make of the dead Special Forces soldiers.
He never let his ISIS friends forget how much he hated his uniform and all it stood for.
"I don't tell people I'm in the military, and I hate the U.S. flag on my shoulder," he wrote once in the chatroom.
Road to High Treason
Court records don't map the entire route Bridges took to his coming prison stint.
But as the FBI chatted with him in the encrypted ISIS chatroom, Bridges gave up some pertinent details. He somehow converted to Islam and devoted himself to violent global jihad while growing up in Stow, Ohio, a town of 34,000 northeast of Akron, where friends and neighbors all knew him as "Cole Gonzalez."
In the chatroom, he recalled that before joining the military, he'd been deeply inspired by "the brothers who have been fighting to establish a khilafah [caliphate]" because of their "love for Allah and courage to go against all of this world to raise His word to the highest" — so much so that he put up a propaganda web page and reached out to jihadists overseas.
His family discovered the page with its photos and videos lionizing jihadist fighters. So did the government, evidently. He said "homeland security" officers even paid him a visit at his pre-military civilian job.
"I used to have connections with people in Hamas and ISIS, and my family found out, and the government could have arrested me," he wrote. "So I needed to prove to them I wasn't what they thought I was, and I needed the government to get off my back."
Evidently, the younger Bridges succeeded in that. The Army took him in September 2019.
Asked how he was able to join despite family and government awareness of his jihadist proclivities — a very good question — Bridges responded this way: "Mm, nobody knew I had contacts besides my family but it was never confirmed. They were suspicious. Even still, because I had homeland security show up to my work before the army."
Once in, he resumed his interest. The FBI got onto him about a year later in the encrypted chatrooms, where Bridges explained that he felt "frustration with not being able to do more and feeling like you are useless. But ... you are not. To be a lion or lioness doesn't mean you always have to fight ... there are ways other than fighting that are considered a form of Jihad even within yourself."
He found those other ways, only now with, as he put it in the chatroom, "skills not everyone else has" that he'd be willing to share with the "brothers."
"I can teach them ways of fighting, combat techniques, movements, formations, etc. React to contact. I'm a cavalry scout ... so I work with infantry sometimes. [Cavalry scouts] do a little bit of everything."
Bridges began sending helpful combat instructions, battle tactics diagrams, and Army training video clips he hoped would preserve the lives of ISIS fighters and take the lives of American troops.
But Bridges also proved receptive when an undercover FBI agent posing as an ISIS operative in New York asked if he'd be willing to help attack the Big Apple.
"I have no problem with that," Bridges replied, adding that he could only provide advice and training techniques for a U.S. attack because his job put him at high risk of discovery.
"We have civilian investigators that came by last week taking random people for 'interviews.' Luckily, I wasn't picked," he explained as one example.
But Bridges was into the U.S. attack. He warned his new friends to just go deeper undercover and moved the conversation to new chat channels. The "friends" asked Bridges to evaluate a series of pictures of federal, local, and foreign government buildings in and around New York City for an attack.
"Not enough firepower for that," Bridges replied in one input. When the purported New York ISIS operative proposed killing civilians visiting the 911 Memorial, Bridges retorted that "a sniper kill" targeting diplomats and heads of state visiting the memorial would be better, "and then getting out quietly for a second attack."
What excited Bridges more, though, was advising ISIS on a plan to kill Special Forces personnel by luring them into a bomb-laced house inside a compound. He came up with the idea.
"Yes, well of course get all the men out of the house and then blow the house," he advised.
He went all in, not only planning the attack but advising on weapons placement and drawing out positions using a satellite image of the compound. Then he planned to exploit the dead Americans for propaganda by using himself in his U.S. Army combat kit.
He sent video of himself, giving the ISIS sign of a finger pointing upward and his jihadist flag behind him.
Bridges faces a maximum of 40 years on his charges, which arguably could have included treason and thus the death penalty.
At the November 2 sentencing, U.S. District Judge Lewis J. Liman needs to send a message to other potential jihadist turncoats willing to abuse the trust of a uniquely sacred oath to murder those who bestowed it.
Todd Bensman is a Ginsburg/Milstein Writing Fellow at the Middle East Forum and a senior national security fellow for the Center for Immigration Studies. He previously led counterterrorism-related intelligence efforts for the Texas Intelligence and Counterterrorism Division.