New York police arrested a 27-year-old man they called a “lone wolf” militant on charges of plotting to build bombs to kill American soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan.
Jose Pimentel, a follower of late Muslim cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, made his first appearance in state court on Sunday night on terrorism-related charges.
A U.S. citizen born in the Dominican Republic, Pimentel was arrested on Saturday in a Manhattan apartment while assembling a bomb, police said, Reuters reports.
“We had to act quickly because he was in fact putting this bomb together,” said Police Commissioner Ray Kelly.
Pimentel admitted he “took active steps to build the bomb, including shaving the match heads and drilling holes in the pipes” and was “one hour away from completing it,” said the criminal complaint filed by the Manhattan District Attorney.
Authorities called him a “lone wolf” who had converted to Islam and became a radical.
Pimentel, who has not been charged in federal court, faces life in prison if convicted.
He was under surveillance since May 2009 and considered New York police cars, a New Jersey police station and U.S. post office among his potential targets, officials said.
As a reader of the online magazine “Inspire” published by al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, Pimentel took instructions from an article “How to Build a Bomb in the Kitchen of Your Mom,” Kelly said.
“We think an event that really set him off was the elimination of Anwar al-Awlaki,” Kelly said. “His actions became a lot more intense after September 30.”
A U.S. drone strike killed Awlaki, a U.S. citizen, in Yemen in late September, ending a two-year hunt. U.S. intelligence called him the “chief of external operations” for al Qaeda’s Yemen branch and an Internet-savvy propagandist.
Kelly said Pimentel “talked about changing his name to Osama Hussein to celebrate his heroes Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein.”
He also talked about killing U.S. military personnel returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, the complaint said.
It said a police informant recorded meetings with Pimentel over several months and accompanied him as he bought materials for the bomb, including a drill and a clock.
Since the September 11 attacks by al Qaeda in 2001, New York City has considered itself a prime target and has developed extensive intelligence and counterterrorism divisions that employ 1,000 officers within the police department.
No suspects have yet been convicted under New York state anti-terrorism laws passed after the attacks 10 years ago.
Mayor Michael Bloomberg called the Pimentel case the 14th plot against the city since 2001. Most of these have been deemed “aspirational.” But some, such as the failed May 2010 attempt to set off a bomb in Times Square, were closer to being carried out.
Counterterrorism officials in the United States and Europe say “lone wolf” militants are of particular concern because they can become radicalised via the Internet and prepare for an attack without leaving traces that might draw attention.