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New York police arrest 'lone wolf' bomb plot suspect

Authorities say the U.S. citizen is an Al Qaeda sympathizer who was about to test explosives he hoped to use against police and American troops.

November 20, 2011|By Tina Susman, Los Angeles Times
  • New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg tells a news conference that Jose Pimentel, pictured at right, plotted to bomb police, post offices and U.S. troops. Pimentel is being held without bail.
New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg tells a news conference that Jose Pimentel,… (Louis Lanzano, Associated…)

Reporting from New York — A U.S. citizen who learned bomb-making on the Internet and considered changing his name to Osama out of loyalty to Osama bin Laden has been arrested on charges of plotting to blow up post offices and police cars and to kill U.S. troops returning from Afghanistan and Iraq, authorities said Sunday.

Jose Pimentel, 27, a Dominican-born convert to Islam, was on the verge of testing his homemade explosives in a mailbox when he was arrested Saturday in a Manhattan apartment, New York Police Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly said.

"We had to act quickly yesterday because he was in fact putting this bomb together," Kelly said at a City Hall news conference with Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg and the Manhattan district attorney, Cyrus Vance Jr. "It would have been not appropriate for us to let him walk out the door with that bomb."

Bloomberg described Pimentel as "a total lone wolf" not working in conjunction with anyone else or with terrorist groups abroad, despite his devotion to Al Qaeda. "He was not part of a larger conspiracy."

After an arraignment late Sunday, Pimentel, wearing a black T-shirt and wire-rimmed glasses, was ordered held without bail until his next court appearance Nov. 25.

It was at least the 14th plot against New York that authorities say they have foiled since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, but Pimentel appeared to have come closer than many to being in position to carry out an assault. According to prosecutors, Pimentel told police he had begun "shaving the match heads and drilling holes in the pipes" to insert the bomb parts, and he was "one hour away" from finishing.

Pimentel had been under surveillance for two years, and the five-page criminal complaint from the district attorney's office indicated that he was being closely followed in recent weeks as he shopped at Home Depot, 99-cent stores and elsewhere for the goods to build bombs.

With the help of a confidential informant, police said, they had video of Pimentel working on the devices, which were made of small clocks, nails to provide shrapnel, batteries, Christmas lights serving as electronic circuits, and wires.

Pimentel allegedly followed instructions taken from the online pro-Al Qaeda magazine Inspire, specifically from an article titled "Make a bomb in the kitchen of your mom."

He was motivated by anger over the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Bloomberg and Kelly said. His extremism grew to the point "where he made even some like-minded friends nervous," Kelly said.

According to the complaint, he had considered traveling to Yemen to train in jihad, or holy war; talked with associates about changing his name to Osama Hussein to honor Osama bin Laden and former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein; and discussed killing U.S. troops returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. He also talked about bombing police cars and post offices.

Eventually, his behavior "morphed from simply talking about such acts to action, namely, bomb-building," Kelly said.

Pimentel appeared to have been spurred to action by U.S. forces' Sept. 30 killing of American-born cleric Anwar Awlaki in Yemen. Awlaki was a prominent voice for Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Awlaki's death "really set him off," Kelly said of Pimentel, who prosecutors say maintained a website, http://www.trueislam1.com, which expounds on jihad and praises Bin Laden, Awlaki and Aafia Siddiqui, who was convicted in New York last year of trying to kill Americans.

A post by M. Yusaf — apparently Pimentel — derides the "Arab Spring," in which Tunisia, Egypt and Libya ousted longtime rulers. "We cannot be fooled by the propaganda of Western nations that try to deceive us by telling us that separation of church and state is the 'modern' and more civilized way of life," he writes.

The website also thanks a mysterious "sister" who told him of the blogging software that would enable him to spread his message.

An attorney representing Pimentel, Joseph Zablocki, said after Sunday's arraignment that the online postings showed Pimentel was not trying to hide anything.

But Kelly said Pimentel had plans to test his homemade bombs' effectiveness by putting them into mailboxes and hoped to "get the most bang for the buck" by attacking a high-profile target such as New York City.

Pimentel faces five charges, including conspiracy, criminal possession of a weapon and soliciting or providing support for an act of terrorism.

At the news conference, officials displayed a close-up photograph of Pimentel wearing a black short-sleeve shirt and apparently working on a bomb. They also played a video to demonstrate what one of his bombs might have done had it been detonated. It showed a sedan exploding, its doors flying off and flames shooting from its interior.

At the apartment building in Manhattan's Hamilton Heights neighborhood where Pimentel lived, a man described as his uncle and speaking Spanish said Pimentel spent a lot of time in his room with the door shut. Nobody knew what he was doing in there, the man told the local ABC affiliate, WABC.

Neighbors said that Pimentel spent a lot of time standing on the street smoking cigarettes because he was not allowed to smoke inside, and that he kept mainly to himself.

tina.susman@latimes.com

Richard Serrano in the Washington bureau and staff writer Geraldine Baum in New York contributed to this report.

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