A 21-year-old Bangladeshi man, who the FBI said came to the United States on a student visa this year to conduct a terrorist attack, was arrested Wednesday after he allegedly attempted to detonate what he believed was a 1,000-pound car bomb outside the New York Federal Reserve Bank.
Quazi Mohammad Reswanul Ahsan Nafis, of Queens, was arrested by members of the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force after he assembled what he thought was the bomb inside a van in a New York City warehouse, parked it next to the Federal Reserve and tried to detonate it with a cellphone from a nearby hotel, authorities said.
In a written statement that federal officials say was intended to assert responsibility for the bombing on behalf of al-Qaeda, Nafis quoted “our beloved Sheikh Osama bin Laden” and wrote that he wanted to “destroy America" and that he thought the best way to accomplish his goal was to target the country’s economy, federal officials said.
“Attempting to destroy a landmark building and kill or maim untold numbers of innocent bystanders is about as serious as the imagination can conjure,” acting Assistant FBI Director Mary Galligan said. “It is important to emphasize that the public was never at risk . . . because two of the defendant’s ‘accomplices’ were actually an FBI source and an FBI undercover agent.”
The sting tactic used to arrest Nafis, in which suspects are monitored almost from the inception of plots and provided with the means to carry them out, has increasingly been used by the FBI since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. Targets in such stings have included Washington’s Metro subway system, the Pentagon and, last year, the U.S. Capitol.
In this case, authorities said Nafis entered the country in January on a student visa under the guise that he was going to school in Missouri. He tried to recruit people to form a terrorist cell, saying he had overseas connections to al-Qaeda. He allegedly sought contacts of the terrorist network in the United States to assist him in an attack, according to the federal complaint filed in U.S. District Court in New York.
Nafis proposed several targets, including a high-ranking U.S. official and the New York Stock Exchange before settling on the Federal Reserve, authorities said.
“I don’t want something that’s like, small,” Nafis told an FBI undercover agent, who was posing as an al-Qaeda member and wearing a recording device. “I just want something big. Something very big. Very, very, very, very big, that will shake the whole country.”
Nafis also told the agent that he hoped his attack would disrupt the presidential election.
“You know what, this election might even stop,” Nafis allegedly said in a recorded conversation.
The FBI agent, whom Nafis first came in contact with in July, supplied him with 20 50-pound bags of purported explosives. Nafis then allegedly bought components for the bomb’s detonator and conducted surveillance in New York’s financial district on multiple occasions, according to the complaint.
During the investigation, Nafis allegedly told the undercover FBI agent that he had come to wage “jihad.” Nafis contacted a man in the United States, identified in the complaint as “Yaqueen,” who has been arrested by federal authorities on non-terrorism charges, the FBI said.
Nafis communicated with Yaqueen and the undercover agent on Facebook, officials said. Nafis discussed with them whether it was legal under certain Islamic rulings to wage jihad while on a student visa. Although Nafis said he had overseas connections to al-Qaeda, which could help with the planning and execution of an attack, law enforcement sources said they found no evidence of such connections.
On Sept. 23, Nafis urged the agent — who he thought was an al-Qaeda operative — to remind the group’s leadership that he had come to the country specifically to conduct the attack and that he had devised the plan himself, according to the complaint.
“Al-Qaeda operatives and those they have inspired have tried time and again to make New York City their killing field,” said New York City Police Department Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly, whose department was involved in the investigation.
Nafis, who faces charges of attempting to use a weapon of mass destruction and attempting to provide material support to al-Qaeda, appeared in federal court in Brooklyn and was ordered held without bail.
Civil rights activists have criticized similar stings, saying that since the Sept. 11 attacks, the FBI has identified individuals with radical views to build criminal cases when the suspects might have limited ability to carry out the attacks.
But law enforcement officials say that the stings are a critical tactic to head off terrorist attacks.
“We have an obligation to take action to protect the public when an individual expresses a desire to commit violence and recruits others for an attack,” Justice Department spokesman Dean Boyd said. “Allowing such individuals to proceed without a government response is not an option, given that they may take action on their own or find others willing to assist them.”