Jose Pimentel, 27, is in custody after authorities say he intended to target U.S. military personnel who had served in Iraq and Afghanistan. Police say he also intended to strike U.S. postal facilities and police in New York and Bayonne, New Jersey.
Pimentel was arraigned in a New York court late Sunday night. His attorney, Joseph Zablocki, said the case against his client is nowhere near as strong as authorities and the prosecution say.
“As they admit, he has a very public online profile, and that flies in the face of everything that they’ve said,” Zablocki said at the hearing. “This is not the way you go about committing terrorist attacks.”
Earlier, the prosecution said Pimentel had a “very active and very public online profile,” citing the website TrueIslam1.
New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg described the suspect as an “al Qaeda sympathizer,” though he is not believed to have ever worked with or received training from anyone in that terrorist organization.
“There is no evidence he worked with anyone else,” Bloomberg said. “He appears to be … a lone wolf.”
Pimentel’s uncle Luis Saverino told CNN affiliate WABC that his sister’s son lived with him on 137th Street in Hamilton Heights. Saverino said he had no idea what his nephew was up to inside his bedroom, which he always kept locked.
New York City Police Commissioner Ray Kelly identified the suspect as a follower of Anwar al-Awlaki, a radical U.S.-born cleric who rose to become a top figure in al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. Pimentel allegedly tried to contact al-Awlaki directly but never got a response.
An unemployed native of the Dominican Republican who is a U.S. citizen, Pimentel had lived most of his life in Manhattan, except for five years in Schenectady, New York. He’d had been monitored by authorities since 2009 and his extreme positions “made even some of his like-minded friends nervous,” said Kelly.
The commissioner said Pimentel even talked about changing his name to Osama Hussein — in honor of his now deceased “heroes,” longtime al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden and Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.
Last August, the suspect allegedly decided to carry out the bomb plot. He “jacked up his speed” after September 30, when al-Awlaki was killed in a U.S. drone strike in Yemen, according to the police commissioner.
After that strike, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula released a “eulogy,” in which it promised to “retaliate soon” for the deaths of al-Awlaki and three others. That threat prompted the United States to issue a worldwide alert warning of such attacks.
“We knew for the last two years, he’s been reading a lot of jihadist information and talked a lot of inflammatory rhetoric,” Kelly said of Pimentel. “But it appears at this juncture the death of Anwar al-Awlaki motivated him and made him increase his tempo.”
Pimentel bought ingredients at Home Depot and other stores for the three bombs that he was working to make, mindful to shop around so as not to “raise red flags,” according to the police commissioner.
He allegedly planned to test an explosive device in a mailbox before using it against other targets. His aim, the police commissioner said, was to show there were “mujahedin” — or Islamic militants — in the city ready to wage “jihad.”
He was arrested Saturday afternoon in an apartment in Washington Heights, a neighborhood in northern Manhattan, after he began to drill holes in the would-be pipe bomb, Kelly said. While authorities had monitored him for more than two years, they decided to move quickly for fear that device may explode, according to the commissioner.
“Pimentel’s behavior morphed from simply talking about such acts to actions — namely, bomb making,” Kelly said.
The suspect allegedly learned how to make a pipe bomb after reading an article entitled “How to make a bomb in the kitchen of your Mom” in Inspire, the al Qaeda terrorist network’s English-language online propaganda, recruiting and training magazine. The issue that came out just before al-Awlaki’s death, for instance, emphasized that al Qaeda supporters in the West should take matters into their own hands and launch attacks themselves.
“He was a reader of al Qaeda’s slick online magazine Inspire — and inspire him it did,” Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance said. “His stated desire to attack our servicemen and women … could have come from an al Qaeda playbook.”
The district attorney said his office filed charges Sunday against Pimentel for conspiring to build a bomb for terrorist purposes and possessing a bomb.
Vance said his office and other New York authorities had long been “in communication with federal authorities.” Pimentel was arrested by state law enforcement agents and will be tried in New York courts.
Kelly said authorities have maintained a “360-degree perimeter” around the city after 9/11 “looking for al Qaeda central, its affiliates or lone wolves to return here to kill more New Yorkers.”
“We remain the nation’s financial capital, its communications capital, and a world state on which terrorists can get the most bang for their buck,” Kelly said. “Thanks to the outstanding work of the police officers involved and support from the district attorney, the buck stopped in Washington Heights (Saturday) afternoon.”