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Two Years After Terrorism Arrest, Ciccolo's Mother Defends Son, Tries To Explain

Shelley MacInnes, holding pictures of her son, Alex Ciccolo, who faces domestic terrorism charges.
Jill Kaufman
Shelley MacInnes, holding pictures of her son, Alex Ciccolo, who faces domestic terrorism charges.

Alex Ciccolo has been in federal custody since July 4th, 2015. The 24-year-old Adams, Massachusetts, man is charged with attempting to commit domestic terrorism.

Ciccolo's father is a Boston police captain and was among the first-responders at the 2013 Marathon bombings. He was the one who tipped off federal officials his son was becoming “obsessed” with ISIS. That led to an FBI sting, where Ciccolo described to a government informant his plans to explode pressure cooker bombs in a crowded place.

After Ciccolo's arrest, his father made a single statement to the public. His mother has kept an even lower profile -- until recently.

Ciccolo's parents divorced when he was in grade school. For a while, he lived with his mother on Cape Cod. When he was about 14, he moved closer to Boston, and lived with his father and stepmother. There were ongoing custody battles, with each parent accusing the other of doing a poor job raising their son.

'He Literally Would Not Hurt A Fly'

Ciccolo's mother, Shelley MacInnes, now lives in Peru, Massachusetts.

"I've only been in the Berkshire for a little over 7 years," MacInnes said in an interview. "I miss the ocean, but I love the mountains."

She works the overnight shift in a substance abuse clinic. She said her son had his own struggles with addiction. And he did have a problem with anger, MacInnes said, but he would not hurt innocent people.

"He’s very compassionate. He has a deep respect for all living things," she said. "I’m sure some people are out there saying, 'Yeah, right.' But he literally would not hurt a fly."

That's what MacInnes chooses to believe, she said, and if people want to call her naive or stupid, they still can't take that belief away from her.

I'm so glad that he's imprisoned rather than going out somewhere, if he were planning to do that, I don't know, and getting killed. - Shelley MacInnes, on her son, Alex Ciccolo

Yet, when Ciccolo was first arrested and he stabbed a nurse at the jail with a pen, that shocked her. She thinks he was disoriented. It was halfway through Ramadan. Ciccolo, who'd converted to Islam a few years ago, was fasting.

"And he regrets that," MacInnes said. "He really has remorse for that."

And that stabbing is the one wrong act MacInnes directly acknowledged her son committed. Still, she's relieved he's not on the street.

"I'm so glad that he's imprisoned rather than going out somewhere, if he were planning to do that, I don’t know, and getting killed," she said.

Getting By With Faith In God -- And Her Son

MacInnes is leaning heavily on her Catholic faith, giving all this trouble up to God, she said. And she's learning about her son's beliefs. Several books on Islam are piled on the table in the compact A-frame house she shares with her second husband.

It takes about an hour from here to get to Springfield and it’s a drive they take for almost every one of Ciccolo’s appearances in federal court. She visits her son, in a federal prison in Rhode Island -- about twice a month.

“We actually get as much time as we want," she said. "There are visiting hours. They’re different during the weekday and during the weekend."

Mug shot of Alexander Ciccolo.
Credit Department of Justice
U.S. Department of Justice

Ciccolo's Decline

Since Ciccolo was arrested on July 4th, 2015, quite a bit has been reported about his early life. According to court records obtained by several media outlets, in his teens, Ciccolo was suspended from school for threatening another student. And then something happened at his father's home in 12th grade. Things got a little physical, MacInnes said.

"And Alex, you know, in anger, I guess...it got pretty aggressive," she recalled. "So then his father decided to call the ambulance and he was placed in the psychiatric unit."

After Ciccolo got out, MacInnes said he refused to take medication. He dropped out of high school, left his father's home, stayed at friends’ houses or slept in his car. He was drinking and doing drugs.

MacInness said she knew people who ran a Buddhist peace pagoda in New York state and her son agreed to go there. He found a mentor and stayed in New York for about a year. And eventually he made his way to western Mass, not far from his mother.

"He worked little odd jobs here and there," she said. "I think it was construction or landscaping."

Plans For Terror

Two weeks before the arrest, MacInnes said her son was reclusive and anxious. He told her everything was fine. But she said he was in despair and angry "about the situation the here in the U.S. and the Middle East, and all around the world -- what was happening to his Muslim brothers and sisters, getting killed, how they're being treated."

Guns that prosecutors say Alex Ciccolo received from a cooperating witness.
Credit U.S. Attorney's Office
Guns that prosecutors say Alex Ciccolo received from a cooperating witness.

According to the U.S. Attorney's office, Ciccolo is a supporter of ISIS. He's accused of attempting to provide the terrorist group with material support. And there is physical evidence against Ciccolo. He received firearms from a person who was cooperating with law enforcement. Several partially constructed Molotov cocktails were found in his apartment. And in recorded conversations, Ciccolo describes plans to commit acts of terrorism including setting off explosives where a large number of people congregate, like college cafeterias.

MacInnes won't condemn her son for any of these alleged plans. She has empathy for him. That's being a mother, she said.

Knowing about the allegations, we asked, is there any way she thinks Ciccolo was trying to do something good by taking the alleged steps he took?

"Absolutely," she replied. "There's no doubt in our minds that he felt it was his duty -- and in the eyes of God -- to step forward and and try to do his part. Do something. And I think he didn't know what to do. And I think if he had some confusion or second thoughts...I think maybe it got to a point that he didn't know who to go to."

In the past, MacInnes said, her son told her everything. But she said she had no clue about any of his alleged plots. And whatever her ex-husband knew, MacInnes said going to the FBI was the wrong way to help their son.

The FBI Interview


In a videotaped interview with the FBI in the hours after his arrest, Ciccolo is sitting in a cubicle, kitty corner to a desk. One leg is crossed over the other.

Ciccolo told the agent that ISIS will only kill people who fight them. That claim has been disproved repeatedly by the group's attacks in public spaces -- cafes, concerts, offices, places of worship.

A couple of weeks after that FBI interview, Ciccolo's attorney, David Hoose, stood outside federal court in Springfield. 

"One of the things that's hard to convey is the depth of this young man's feeling toward his mother and step-dad," Hoose said. "And as I said in court, he would not do anything to put them at risk or in danger."

Alex Ciccolo's attorney, David Hoose, following a hearing in federal court in Springfield, Mass., in July 2015.
Credit Dave Roback / The Republican
The Republican

When asked by a reporter how he thought Ciccolo's father “developed the belief” his son was a danger to others, Hoose said this:

"We all have children and our children sometimes fall far from the tree," he said, adding that he couldn't really elaborate more than that.

Jill has been a reporter and host at NEPM since 2005. Before that she spent 10 years at WBUR in Boston, producing The Connection with Christopher Lydon, Morning Edition, reporting and hosting. In the months leading up to the 2000 presidential primary in New Hampshire, Jill hosted NHPR’s daily talk show The Exchange. Right before coming to NEPM, Jill was an editor at PRX's The World.