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.
Rockwood concedes that he drew up a list of people. He thought they should be punished.
"But ... it was all talk," Rockwood said in a small interview room at the correctional facility he has called home since July 2010.
By his account, the events of Sept. 11 stunned and repelled Rockwood and his wife, both raised Catholic. They were living in Virginia, and Rockwood had recently gotten a job as a contractor with the National Weather Service, hoping to eventually land a full civil service position and a more stable future.
"A week later, I was flying back from New Mexico and I was telling my co-workers, 'I'm not getting on the plane if there's Arab or Muslim people on the plane,'" he said. "But as time went on, I started needing to know why somebody would kill themselves, flying a plane into a building."
Rockwood was taking medication for anxiety and Meniere's disease, an affliction of the inner ear that causes vertigo, headaches and nausea. He was also trying to cut back on his partying and had taken a comparative religion class to try to quiet his mind.
He started studying Islam online.
"I was struck by how similar the beliefs in Islam were to Christianity, and at the same time, I guess also the differences made sense to me; it was a straighter path," he said.
Rockwood said he also felt that he was beginning to understand what had driven the Sept. 11 hijackers. "These people felt that they had been under attack," he said. "They kind of saw it as a self-defense response. It was like you'd be impressed if an American soldier jumps on a grenade to save his buddies; it takes a lot of courage to give up your life like that."
In December, only three months after the attacks, Rockwood took the shehada, the Muslim affirmation of faith, and not long after began attending the radical Dar al-Arqam mosque in Falls Church, Va. That mosque had frequently served as a platform for Ali al-Timimi, a radical lecturer who would soon be convicted and sentenced to life in prison on charges of soliciting followers to join the Taliban in Afghanistan.
Here, Rockwood was exposed to the teachings of Anwar Awlaki, a Yemeni American engineer whose entreaties to U.S. Muslims to engage in holy war made him one of the most influential voices of violent, radical Islam in the West. Awlaki was killed in September in a U.S. missile strike in Yemen.
"I held beliefs that were similar to his beliefs," Rockwood said. Among them were outrage over the deaths of innocents, fury over war crimes committed by U.S. troops and a conviction that the Iraq war had been started to lock up new oil supplies for the United States.
Nadia resented the way her husband's newfound religion consumed him, and the couple separated for a time. Eventually, though, she converted to Islam. Not long after, the couple's first child was born, and Rockwood took the job in King Salmon, his civil service entree to the weather service.
Nadia integrated easily into the close-knit social life in King Salmon, but it was harder for Rockwood. "Some of the best people I ever met lived in King Salmon. But it was hard for me not to have other Muslims," he said.
Two years after arriving, and again in 2009, Rockwood traveled to Cairo, hoping to find a way that he and Nadia could move there and enroll their young son in an international madrasa. Nadia, though, didn't want to live in Egypt. So Rockwood did his best to settle into life in King Salmon, relishing the occasional chance to debate politics and the war in Iraq, especially with his then-boss, whom he described as a devout Christian and a fellow military veteran.