NEW YORK (CBSNewYork) – A homegrown terror suspect was arrested in the Bronx on Tuesday, and FBI agents removed a massive amount of evidence from his apartment.
As CBS2’s Ilana Gold reported, people who knew Sajmir Alimehmeti, 22, said they saw a once-ordinary kid who gradually changed.
Alimehmeti made his first appearance Tuesday in U.S. District Court in Manhattan. He is accused of providing material to support ISIS and lying to the government to get a new passport so he could go to the Middle East.
Alimehmeti, 22, was arrested early Tuesday morning at his sixth-floor apartment on Knox Place.
Agents also took numerous pieces of evidence from Alimehmeti’s home. They said he had ISIS videos on his phone and on his computer.
Officials say Alimehmeti thought he was helping an ISIS supporter travel to Syria. That person was actually an undercover operative.
According to the complaint, Alimehmeti was also known as Abdul Qawii, tried to help someone he thought was traveling from New York to Syria to train and fight with ISIS. Alimehmeti also fraudulently sought to get a new passport, prosecutors said.
Alimehmeti tried going to England twice in 2014 and was stopped at the border both times, authorities said. The first time he was stopped he was found with camouflage pants and shirts and nunchucks in his luggage. The second time, authorities searched his computer and cell phone and found it contained numerous images of ISIS flags and IED attacks, according to the complaint.
After turning him away from the border and sending him back to the U.S., U.K. officials gave the FBI copies of what they found on his electronic devices, which included a picture of him in front of an ISIS flag, as well as several recordings by Anwar Al-Awlaki, a prominent Al Qaeda operative who was killed in 2011.
Alimehmeti allegedly told an undercover operative that he’d been using encrypted apps to communicate and, if his messages had been decrypted, he “would be done.”
Alimehmeti allegedly bought several knives, a 24-inch pocket chainsaw, handcuffs, gloves with metal knuckles, a mask and other military and survival-type gear, prosecutors said.
The FBI provided photos of numerous knives and military equipment purchased online since last summer.
“Alimehmeti is charged today with actions that show a clear intention to support a terrorist organization that is hell-bent on murder and mayhem,” said U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara.
“As alleged, Alimehmeti continued his quest to support ISIL’s deadly terrorist agenda, after being denied entry into Europe with a bag full of military gear,” said NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton. “When he returned home, to the Bronx, he allegedly turned to helping others join the terrorist organization as he built his own arsenal of weapons.”
“They had brought him out, and sat him in the car,” Alimehmeti’s neighbor Barbara told 1010 WINS’ Carol D’Auria. “I came out the door to see who it was exactly, but did not know about terrorism. Come on.”
Alimehmeti’s neighbor in the Norwood section of the Bronx said he watched Alimehmeti became more radical.
“When I met him, he was Christian as far as I knew,” neighbor Eddie Ayala said. “Then from one day to another, he started wearing traditionally Muslim garb, and then the beard, and so forth.”
Given that Alimehmeti allegedly had ISIS propaganda on his electronics, neighbor Ayala said he was glad he did not let the suspect use his wi-fi.
“One time, he asked me to use my wi-fi and I said, ‘No, I can’t do that, because you know they trace your IP number and stuff like that, so I don’t let anybody use my wi-fi.”
Another neighbor described Alimehmeti as a loner.
“I feel like he was just quiet and to himself, pretty much,” said neighbor Luis Rodriguez. “Not like he was angry one day, he would be happy, and just like mood swings.”
Friends said the suspect grew up a normal boy with his parents. But when he got in trouble with the law, Alimehmeti changed his appearance, friends said.
“When I first met him, he was dressed regular – you know, in regular clothes, I can say,” Rodriguez said. “And then probably a year or two ago, that’s when he started getting real into his religion.”
A third neighbor had no idea about any of what happened.
“I didn’t even know about him, and that’s scary,” neighbor Peter Midas told D’Auria. “Very scary.”
Alimehmeti’s friend, Laique Jamal, said he has known the suspect since he was a young child.
“He was a good Muslim kid, you know? He wasn’t no problem; no ISIS and all that, you know, all that dumb stuff,” Jamal said. “He wouldn’t kill his own people – I tell you that much.”
CBS2’s Christine Sloan talked with former FBI agent Manny Gomez, who explained what kind of person ISIS seeks out.
“They are looking for the disenfranchised younger person,” Gomez said. “What ISIS is selling them is an alternative means of having a significant lifestyle.”
Gomez said he is concerned about the weapons and other items that Alimehmeti is accused of buying after he couldn’t get into the U.K.
“This person obviously was going to plan something in the United States if he wasn’t able to get overseas to fight with ISIS,” Gomez said.
Gomez said 50 people a day worldwide are known to join ISIS. But when they get there and realize it is a life of murder, rape and assault, they want to come back.
Undercover agents said they had been meeting with Alimehmeti for months. Investigators said he agreed to help get the undercover agent overseas and said he showed them the ISIS videos in his apartment.
Alimehmeti could face 30 years in prison if convicted, CBS2’s Gold reported.