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Fact-Check: How the NYPD Overstated Its Counterterrorism Record

The NYPD claims to have prevented 14 "full-blown terrorist attacks," but most of these cases were not real threats or had little to do with the NYPD.

| Wed Jul. 11, 2012 5:00 AM EDT

US officials (often anonymous) question credibility or seriousness of cases:

  • The case of Jose Pimentel, a Manhattan Muslim convert who was arrested in November 2011 on "rarely used state-level terrorism charges" after federal authorities took a pass on the case.

    Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance Jr. alleged that Pimentel had been "building pipe bombs to be used against our citizens." City authorities said Pimentel had no contacts with foreign terrorist groups and called him a "lone wolf."

    In a series of leaks, federal authorities expressed skepticism that Pimentel was a threat. A federal source told the New York Post that Pimentel was a "'stoner' who wasn't a real danger to anybody other than himself." Another source cited by the Post questioned his mental faculties, saying he had once tried to circumcise himself. A federal source told DNAinfo criminal justice editor Murray Weiss: "Let's just say there were issues whether [Pimentel] had the ability to do this without the intercession of the confidential informant." Weiss also noted that the informant went shopping with Pimentel at Home Depot to buy pipe bomb materials, and the bomb was constructed at the informant's apartment. Pimentel, who reportedly could not afford to even pay his cellphone bill, has pleaded not guilty.

  • The case of Ahmed Ferhani and Mohamed Mamdouh, alleged "Islamic extremists" and "lone wolves" who lived in Queens and were arrested in May 2011 after buying guns, ammo, and an inert grenade from an undercover police agent. The authorities alleged that the two men were planning to attack a New York synagogue because they were upset with how Muslims were being treated around the world.

    But the case was another example of an alleged plot that the FBI took a pass on. Citing federal law enforcement sources, WNYC reported that the FBI passed on the case because the bureau found the undercover operation "problematic" and the allegations "overhyped." And the website NYPD Confidential reported that Ferhani has a history of mental illness.

    The AP noted the case faltered early on when a grand jury declined to indict the two men on a high-level terrorism conspiracy charge. Both have pleaded not guilty to lesser terrorism charges.

  • Brooklyn Bridge: Ohio truck driver Iyman Faris pleaded guilty in 2003 to providing material support to Al Qaeda; he met with senior Al Qaeda leaders abroad and researched how to attack the Brooklyn Bridge. Terrorism analyst Peter Bergen has called Faris "an actual Al Qaeda foot soldier living in the United States who had the serious intention to wreak havoc in America" but "not much of a competent terrorist." Bergen wrote the plan Faris researched to sever the bridge's cables with a blowtorch as "akin to demolishing the Empire State Building with a firecracker."

    The plot never got off the ground. According to the Justice Department, Faris sent messages to Pakistan "indicating he had been unsuccessful in his attempts to obtain the necessary equipment." According to the DOJ, Faris also concluded after a trip to New York that the idea "was very unlikely to succeed because of the bridge's security and structure."

  • PATH Train: In 2006, 31-year-old Assem Hammoud was arrested in Lebanon. FBI officials announced that he and others—who had never met but communicated on the internet—had been plotting a suicide attack on subway tubes under the Hudson River.

    The Washington Post quoted US counterterrorism officials questioning the credibility of the plot, reporting that they "discounted the ability of the conspirators to carry out an attack." One official described the matter as "jihadi bravado," adding, "somebody talks about tunnels, it lights people up." A counterterrorism official told the Times, "[t]hese are bad guys in Canada and a bad guy in Lebanon talking, but it never advanced beyond that."

    Hammoud never visited the United States, and there were no charges brought against him here. In 2012, Hammoud was sentenced to two years in prison in Lebanon, which he had already served.

Cases in which an alleged idea for an attack was not pursued:

  • "Subway cyanide": This alleged plot, first detailed by journalist Ron Suskind in 2006, was reportedly for a chemical attack on the New York subway system. Suskind reported that a US intelligence source had said that Al Qaeda was considering such an attack in 2003 but ultimately abandoned the idea. There is no evidence that the NYPD or any other law enforcement agency played any role in Al Qaeda's decision to abandon the idea. There were also reported doubts about the quality of the intelligence and the credibility of the alleged plot.

    "None of it has been confirmed in three years," a US official told the Times, "who these guys were, whether they in fact had a weapon, or whether they were able to put together a weapon, whether that weapon has been defined and what it would cause or whether they were even in New York."

  • "NYSE/ Citi HQ": A British citizen named Dhiren Barot or Issa al-Hindi was arrested in the United Kingdom in 2004 and pleaded guilty two years later to conspiracy to murder. He had attended terrorist training camps and had contacts with September 11 mastermind Khalid Sheik Mohammed, according to the government. He had taken video and photos of landmark sites in New York City in 2000 and 2001 including the New York Stock Exchange and the headquarters of Citigroup.

    An appeals court later reduced his sentence from 40 to 30 years, citing the "uncertainty" as to whether Barot's conspiracy would ever have amounted to an actual attempted attack, and the court's conclusion that one of the ideas for an attack in the United Kingdom was "amateurish." The appeals ruling also noted that after September 11, Barot's plans for any attack in the United States "may have been 'shelved'" to focus on the UK. The court also noted that there was no evidence that Al Qaeda leadership had endorsed any of the ideas. Prosecutors also accepted that there was no money or equipment lined up for any of the ideas.

    There is no evidence the NYPD had any role in the investigation that led to Barot's capture.

  • Garment District: Uzair Paracha, a young Pakistani living in the United States, was convicted in 2005 of providing material support to Al Qaeda. Prosecutors said that Paracha had tried to help a Pakistani Al Qaeda member named Majid Khan gain entrance to the US, including a scheme to fool immigration authorities into letting Khan into the country.

    The NYPD list says that "Paracha is reported to have discussed with top al Qaeda leaders the prospect of smuggling weapons and explosives—possibly even a nuclear device—into Manhattan's Garment District through his father's import-export business." But the indictment against him makes no mention of any such plot.

    Instead the NYPD appears to be referencing a claim by Khalid Sheik Mohammed to American interrogators that Paracha's father, who is currently a Guantanamo detainee, discussed a plan with KSM to smuggle explosives into the United States through an import business he co-owned in Manhattan's Garment District.

    KSM said he wasn't sure of the son's involvement and neither the father nor son has been charged with anything related to it.

    According to the government's detainee assessment on the father, Saifullah Paracha, KSM said he wanted to use the explosives "against US economic targets" but New York is not mentioned. KSM told interrogators that another man was to "rent a storage space in whatever part of the US he chose" to hide the explosives. There is no claim in the detainee assessment that the idea ever got beyond discussion. Saifullah Paracha has denied the accusation. Mohammed also later told the Red Cross that in the period when he made the claims about the Paracha, shortly after his capture in March 2003 when he was apparently being subject to torture, he gave "a lot of false information" to interrogators.

  • Long Island Railroad: Bryant Neal Vinas, an American Muslim convert from Long Island, was arrested in 2008 in Pakistan by authorities there. In 2009, then 26, he pleaded guilty to providing material support to and receiving training from Al Qaeda. He told the court he "consulted with a senior Al Qaeda leader and provided detailed information" about the Long Island Railroad in a discussion of a possible attack.

    But in a trial in 2012 in an unrelated terrorism case, Vinas testified that to his knowledge the railroad idea was not pursued beyond discussion. Published reports do not mention any NYPD role in the case.

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