NEW YORK (CBSNewYork/AP) — A man accused of building homemade bombs to wage holy war in New York City pleaded guilty Wednesday to a terrorism charge less than a week before his scheduled trial in a rare state-level terrorism case.
Jose Pimentel, wearing a knitted skull cap, softly answered a judge’s yes-or-no question as he entered his plea to attempted criminal possession of a weapon as a crime of terrorism. Authorities have called the case a dramatic example of the threat of homegrown, one-person terrorism plots but that his lawyers had portrayed as an example of overzealous policing in the years since Sept. 11, 2001.
As CBS 2’s Tony Aiello reported, police call Pimentel a “lone wolf” terrorist who wanted to kill soldiers, police officers, and Jews. The NYPD grabbed him in Washington Heights, in the act of assembling a pipe bomb.
“The threat has changed from external actors like al Qaeda coming into the United States to lone wolves like what you saw in Boston and what I believe we saw in the case today, who become self-radicalized,” Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance said at a Wednesday press conference following the plea. “This, I think, reveals the threat that New York still has a high level of alert in terms of not just foreign terrorists but domestic terrorists, and that state prosecutors and the NYPD… are going to be on the front lines of finding these individuals, principally because the NYPD and our office is on the front lines.”
While Pimentel was mostly expressionless during his guilty plea, he did show a brief smirk as Assistant District Attorney Deborah Hickey outlined his attempts at jihad.
“The concern about the ‘lone wolf’ – this case is the classic case of the importance of having the capabilities to not only focus on the international threat, but the hometown threat; the homegrown threat,” said NYPD Commissioner William Bratton.
With the plea, Pimentel, 29, was promised a sentence of 16 years in prison. He would have faced a minimum of 15 years to life if convicted of the top charge, a high-level weapons possession offense as a terrorism crime. Jury selection had been due to start Monday. Pimentel is scheduled to be sentenced on March 25.
Pimentel, also known as Muhammad Yusuf, is a Dominican immigrant who was raised in the U.S. and converted to Islam around 2004.
He maintained a website with articles praising Osama bin Laden, describing Sept. 11 victims as legitimate targets and listing reasons to “nuke the USA,” prosecutors said in court papers. He repeatedly attacked his former wife for disagreeing with his militant beliefs about Islam, and his mother had thrown him out of her apartment over his views, prosecutors said.
In 2011, Pimentel “crossed the line from violent rhetoric on his Internet sites to building pipe bombs to be used against our citizens,” Vance said when Pimentel was indicted.
“Most of them, fortunately, don’t get beyond looking at their computer screens and dreaming. This individual went clearly beyond that and toward action,” Bratton said on Wednesday.
Vance likewise said Pimentel was clearly bent on destruction. The prosecutor said Pimentel downloaded an al-Qaeda magazine titled, “Make a Bomb in the Kitchen of Your Mom,” and went shopping in the Bronx for items to make pipe bombs.
Police re-created one of the bombs, and blew up an old car in a spectacular show of flames to demonstrate its destructive potential.
Pimentel was recorded talking about assassinating a judge, killing returning soldiers and bombing a police station or the George Washington Bridge, officials said. He was arrested that November as he assembled bombs from clocks, Christmas tree lights, match-head scrapings and other items acquired at dollar shops and hardware stores, prosecutors said.
“Police cars, he spoke about a Post Office at one point,” said NYPD Chief of Intelligence Thomas Galati. “His real target was for military people. He spoke about returning GIs; that he would like to try and blow up people who were returning.”
After his arrest, Pimentel’s mother apologized to the people of New York.
“I’m very disappointed with what my son was doing,” Carmen Sosa said at the time.
Sosa did not attend court on Wednesday.
Meanwhile, Pimentel‘s lawyers have suggested he would never have progressed from Web postings to allegedly making pipe bombs if police hadn’t sent a series of agents to engage with him.
One informant and an undercover officer got nowhere with Pimentel, defense lawyers Lori Cohen and Susan Walsh said. Then police sent another informant, a fellow Hispanic Muslim convert who smoked joints with Pimentel while they talked about jihad, accompanied him to buy bomb makings and opened his apartment to Pimentel to put the materials together.
“If you work on someone with professional witnesses, if you acquiesce to marijuana use, you wear people down,” Walsh said last month.
The defense had indicated his trial would examine the New York Police Department’s intelligence-gathering on Muslims, which came under scrutiny in stories by The Associated Press that showed how the department infiltrated Muslim student groups, put informants in mosques and monitored sermons as part of a broad anti-terrorism effort.
Entrapment defenses, or arguing that police induced crime, face a high legal burden. It’s not enough to show that police or their agents created an opportunity for law-breaking; a defendant has to convince jurors that police used methods that risk getting an innocent person to commit a crime.
Most terrorism cases are federal, but Pimentel was charged under a New York state law passed shortly after Sept. 11, 2001, and seldom used since.
Pimentel’s attorneys said he decided to plead guilty to avoid a possible life sentence at trial.
“Mr. Pimentel made a decision not to gamble, and he will be released from prison as a relatively young man,” Walsh said Wednesday.
The guilty plea marks the third terrorist conviction won by the Manhattan DA’s office, Cornell reported.
One case involved a Bronx gang leader whose conviction was overturned when appeals courts said his crimes weren’t what the law had in mind.
In another, the Manhattan DA charged two men with plotting to blow up synagogues. Both pleaded guilty. One is serving 10 years in prison, and the other is serving five.
After Pimentel’s arrest, two law enforcement officials said the FBI had passed on his case because agents felt he wasn’t inclined or able to act without the informant’s involvement; the officials were not authorized to speak about the case and spoke on condition of anonymity.
Then-Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly said federal authorities were apprised of the investigation, but circumstances ultimately compelled investigators to act fast and use state charges.
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