By Jill Colvin, Carla Zanoni, Tom Liddy and Michael Ventura
MANHATTAN — A would-be "lone-wolf" terrorist was arrested and charged with plotting to use homemade pipe bombs — crafted with Christmas lights, among other materials — to attack police patrol cars, post offices and military personnel returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, city officials announced at a press conference Sunday night.
Jose Pimentel, 27, who's also known as Muhammad Yusuf, had three bombs in progress when he was arrested Saturday, Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly said, adding that the NYPD had been investigating him for roughly 12 months.
Prosecutors said he was "approximately one hour away from completing these explosive devices" when cops swooped in.
“We had always planned to take him into custody before he could detonate a fully-operational bomb," Kelly said.
Pimentel allegedly planned to test the effectiveness of his bombs by planting them in mailboxes and detonating them so that “the public would know there were mujaheddin in the city to fight jihad here," Kelly said.
Pimentel was arraigned late Sunday night in Manahttan Criminal Court on various terrorism and weapons possession charges, and was ordered held without bail. He appeared wearing a black v-neck T-shirt, black gym pants, black sneakers and glasses.
He smiled and looked incredulous as prosecutors said they had an air-tight case against him, citing "hours and hours" of video and audio recordings allegedly plotting against the U.S. government and discussing potential targets for his attacks.
Pimentel lived with his uncle in an apartment on West 137th Street in Hamilton Heights, near City College, but he was arrested at the Washington Heights apartment of a criminal informant working with law enforcement, authorities said. Prosecutors said a "library" of extremist Al Qaeda materials was seized from Pimentel's apartment.
Pimentel was apparently inspired by radical cleric Anwar el Awlaki, Kelly said. He added that Pimentel was unemployed, had spent most of his life in Manhattan, and had contemplated changing his name to "Osama Hussein," after his "heroes" Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein. He was also overheard "talking about traveling to Yemen for training before returning to New York to become a martyr in the name of jihad," Kelly said.
"I just want to say I love him and I didn't raise him that way," his mother, Carmen Sosa, 56, said outside the Hamilton Heights apartment Monday morning. "He changed.
"He was very calm, praying a lot, sleeping a lot, reading the Koran."
She said he spent a lot of time on his computer. When she asked what he was doing, he said, "I'm doing business."
Despite being inspired by Al Qaeda, authorities believed Pimentel was just a "lone wolf," and not part of a larger international conspiracy.
"He didn't have many friends," Pimentel's uncle, Luis Severino, said Sunday night. They had been sharing an apartment for more than two years, Severino said, but added that he rarely saw his nephew.
His mother said she'd moved from New York to Schenectady with her son two years ago because she was worried he was getting too involved in his religion.
"I brought him here because I didn't like the way he was acting," she said.
"We haven't had much contact," Severino said in Spanish. "I work during the day. When I would get home at night, he would take off who knows where."
A neighbor named Sean who declined to give his last name said Pimentel "seemed like a nice guy. The kind of guy who would nod at you and say, 'hello.'"
The criminal complaint against Pimentel said he maintained a website that promoted radical Islam and contained a link to an article called "How to Make a Bomb in the Kitchen of Your Mom" that was published in "Inspire," an online magazine created by el Awlaki and Al Qaeda.
The bombs Pimentel was allegedly making were being crafted according to the guidelines set out in the article, Kelly said. Components of those homemade bombs were displayed at the press conference, and included an elbow pipe used in plumbing, a small, travel alarm clock and a box of Christmas lights.
Kelly said that Pimentel intended to pack the pipes with a mixure of sugar and the explosive powder shaved from more than 700 match heads, and had planned to glue nails to the outside of his bombs to create more deadly shrapnel.
Some of the materials were purchased at a Home Depot in the Bronx, according to the criminal complaint. An alarm clock, which would have been used as a timer for the bomb, was purchased at a 99 cent store in Manhattan.
The NYPD kept tabs on Pimentel through use of an informant who video-taped him assembling pieces of the bombs including scraping matches for the explosive powder, the complaint said. The informant told police Pimentel wanted to use the bombs to kill Marines and soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, according to the document. Police also tapped Pimentel's phone.
Kelly said police moved in on Pimentel when they thought he was close to testing one of his bombs, which authorities believed was to be at an undisclosed postal facility in Upstate New York.
“We weren’t going to wait around to figure out what he wanted do with his bombs," a law enforcement source told the New York Times.
At the press conference, Bloomberg showed a video of a car exploding that was detonated by three bombs similar to the one Pimentel was allegedly constructing. The video meant to demonstrate the power of that type of bomb.
At his arraignment, prosecutors cited a four-hour interview with Pimentel made after his arrest at approximately 3:30 p.m. Saturday, where they said he admitted to purchasing the bomb-making materials and told police that "It was his intention to detonate the explosive device."
But Joseph Zablocki, Pimentel's court-appointed attorney, said the NYPD and the DA's office were overstating their counter-terror achievement by trumpeting the arrest of his client.
Pimentel, he said, was out in the open about his extremist views, "almost as if he was inviting the D.A.'s office to come and investigate this case because he did not believe that there was anything occurring that was actually against the law."
If he was really serious about doing harm, he wouldn't have been so flagrant, Zablocki said.
"This is not the way to go about committing terrorist attacks," he said, accusing the NYPD's counter-terrorism division of wasting money on its extensive investigation and arguing it should be going after real "sleeper cells" plotting attacks.
Pimentel, a naturalized citizen who was born in the Dominican Republic, lived in Manhattan for many years before moving to Schenectady, where he lived for five years, Kelly said. He then moved back to the city in 2009, Kelly said.
The NYPD was first tipped off about Pimentel by police upstate, a police source said.
The move was triggered by Pimentel splitting up with his wife, Kelly added without offering details about their relationship or why it ended.
"The arrest ... of an individual suspected of planning to commit a terrorist act in New York demonstrates once again the effectiveness and bravery of our men and women in law enforcement," Gov. Andrew Cuomo said in a statement. "As families across our state gather this holiday season, we will continue to remain in close contact with our federal and local law enforcement partners to ensure the safety of all New Yorkers."
Pimentel is next set to appear in court on Nov. 25.