Deconstructing FBI-NYPD’s Operation Which Allegedly Thwarted Terrorism Plot by Muslim Women in New York
Two Muslim women from Queens, New York, were arrested for allegedly conspiring to “prepare an explosive device to be detonated in a terrorist attack in the United States.” The FBI and the New York Police Department were both involved in a long-term undercover operation that began as early as 2013.
As with most alleged plots the government claims to have disrupted, government officials made statements about the danger posed by these “homegrown violent extremists.”
US Attorney Loretta Lynch, who may become the next Attorney General if she is ever confirmed, declared, “As alleged, the defendants in this case carefully studied how to construct an explosive device to launch an attack on the homeland. We remain firm in our resolve to hold accountable anyone who would seek to terrorize the American people, whether by traveling abroad to commit attacks overseas or by plotting here at home.”
FBI Assistant Director in Charge Diego Rodriguez said, “The defendants allegedly plotted to wreak terror by creating explosive devices and even researching the pressure cooker bombs used during the Boston Marathon bombing. We continue to pursue those who look to commit acts of terror and deter others who think they are beyond the reach of law enforcement.”
However, the women—a 28 year-old US citizen, Noelle Velentzas, and a 31 year-old US citizen, Asia Siddiqui—had not obtained any materials for explosive devices or apparently conducted research into the construction of explosives until an undercover officer began to target them.
The women had no plan prior to becoming a target of the sting operation. In fact, the person who proposed a target, according to an affidavit by an FBI special agent, was the undercover officer, who suggested the women attack a funeral for a police officer. But the women apparently never acted to make an attack on a police funeral happen because the charge they face is one of conspiracy. They never came close to detonating or fully constructing any explosive devices.
It was the undercover officer, who first downloaded The Anarchist Cookbook that includes instructions on making homemade explosives. Then, later, the undercover officer printed off The Anarchist Cookbook for Velentzas to read because Velentzas knew the undercover officer had a copy and she was interested in reading it.
Allegedly, Siddiqui had “repeated contact” with “members” of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). The affidavit claims Siddiqui was “close” with AQAP propagandist Samir Khan, a US citizen who was killed by a US drone strike in Yemen (along with Anwar al-Awlaki) in 2011. There are virtually no details included to support the claim that Siddiqui and Khan were close other than to note that Siddiqui sent Khan a poem in 2006, which he published to his blog. Yet, it is clear that Siddiqui’s alleged interactions or communication with Khan were what led the FBI to take an interest in her.
In the FBI special agent’s affidavit [PDF], there is zero evidence that Velentzas had any direct contact or interaction with any members of any terrorist organization, whether it be AQAP or the Islamic State.
There are numerous repugnant statements referenced in the affidavit, which the women allegedly made in the presence of the undercover officer. It does appear that both women sympathize and/or privately support terrorist attacks that have taken place on US soil in recent decades because they believe the US is at war with Muslims and Muslims around the world have a duty to fight back. But did having these ideological beliefs warrant this kind of preemptive prosecution? Were their views about the US “war on terrorism” manipulated by the undercover officer so they would act on their beliefs and move toward committing violence?
Did the Undercover Officer Blow the Operation?
The criminal complaint and affidavit from the FBI does not indicate whether the undercover officer was an FBI agent or an NYPD officer. In the FBI’s press release, NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton declared, “The work of the NYPD’s Intelligence Bureau, its undercover Detective, and the seamless collaboration with the Special Agents and Detectives of the Joint Terrorism Task Force and United States Attorney for the Eastern District should serve as a model for early detection and prevention of terrorist plotting.”
The undercover officer in the case appears to have been a detective from the NYPD. And that matters because it would seem that the officer involved blew the operation, the FBI panicked and swooped in to make arrests based on evidence they thought they already had on Siddiqui and Velenzas.
The last meeting the undercover officer had was on March 22, which was more than ten days before the complaint and affidavit in support of arrest warrants was filed.
According to the affidavit:
There are no additional details on this interaction, but it seems possible that Siddiqui grew suspicious of the undercover officer.
Throughout the affidavit, there are references to alleged statements or moments, where Siddiqui or Velentzas showed they were very aware of the powers of US surveillance state and how it is often directed at Muslim Americans like them.
Velentzas allegedly cautioned Siddiqui and the UC on August 6, 2014, about “various ways that they could be caught while learning about making explosives.” Specifically, she allegedly suggested the government “could have installed listening devices in ‘Muslim’ establishments,” and she allegedly “instructed the others to be careful when consulting YouTube videos concerning the making of explosives, as such videos could be a way for the government to track activities of those interested in making explosives.” She did not think practicing the development of explosives in the backyard was a good idea because it might “tip off local law enforcement.”
Two days later, Velentzas allegedly expressed dismay that the government “had sent an Egyptian informant after an individual who was planning an attack on the Herald Square subway station and that the government ‘got’ the individual because he was trying to scout out the location.” She later allegedly mentioned that “federal authorities watch Muslim demonstrations and added, “It’s war, it’s fucking war.” She also allegedly believed that the authorities might be watching and saying, “How long is it going to take [these women to] realize that protest don’t work?”
Between November 23 and December 8, Velentzas allegedly used her cell phone to “research” whether the undercover officer was, “in fact, an undercover officer and to learn how to detect the presence of hidden recording devices.” She accessed several web pages that purported to have information on identifying confidential informants and spotting undercover police.
On February 3, 2015, Velentzas allegedly stated the government could have them under surveillance and be preparing a case against them. She allegedly added the government might think Siddiqui had a “beef” with the government, the undercover officer was an “inconspicuous student studying about detonators” and she was an “outspoken political person who studies a lot of science and is very intelligent.” The UC would be considered a Muslim with two “terroristic-ass friends.” She allegedly thought if the government could put all the information together, “we legitimately, to these people, look like a cell.”
Whatever happened, from the affidavit, it seemed the undercover officer was slowly moving toward the moment where the women would try to set off a device. They would have been charged with more serious weapons of mass destruction charges. Instead, all the FBI managed to get from the operation (at this point) is a conspiracy charge that is fairly easy to slap on anybody, who talks as much as the women did to the undercover officer.
FBI Interested in Siddiqui’s Alleged Interaction with Samir Khan
The whole entire operation started as early as 2013 when the undercover officer began to meet with Velentzas yet it is unclear what was happening during that period or during the months before August 2014. The undercover officer appears to have only had a recording device in the meetings from August 2014 to March 22, 2015.
No indication of whether Siddiqui was targeted by an undercover officer prior to 2014 is in the affidavit. She was on the FBI’s radar after she wrote a letter expressing support for Mohamma Mohamud, who was arrested in an FBI sting operation on November 26, 2010, for attempting to “detonate a vehicle-borne improvised explosive device at a Christmas tree-lighting ceremony in Portland, Oregon.” (This case has been challenged as one of many examples of FBI entrapment.)
On July 10, 2014, FBI special agents interviewed Siddiqui at La Guardia airport in New York. She allegedly “denied having any contact” with Samir Khan or “other terrorist groups and also denied contributing or publishing in any jihadist magazines.” Later, that same day, she met with the undercover officer and shared that she had been questioned by FBI agents about Khan and “other topics.” She believed the FBI might have installed some kind of a “bug” in her computer so she could not speak freely in the car. She allegedly whispered to the undercover officer that she had known Khan and sent a poem to for publication on his blog.
The FBI and NYPD appear to have played off the women’s outrage toward the US government’s wars in the Middle East. On September 11, 2014, Velentzas allegedly told the undercover officer that she watched President Barack Obama speak about “bombing ISIS” and she was “disgusted by the United States and hated living in the United States.” She allegedly stated “attacks on ISIS were tantamount to attacks on her own state.”
Velentzas was allegedly not happy to be studying The Anarchist Cookbook to learn how to make explosives but believed they must because the government was “killing Muslims.”
The rhetoric the women allegedly used is very similar to the rhetoric in Mohamud’s case, where he declared in a video, “For as long as you threaten our security, your people will not remain safe. As your soldiers target our civilians, we will not help to do so. Did you think that you could invade a Muslim land, and we would not invade you, but Allah will have soldiers scattered everywhere across the globe.”
We Need to Acquire This “Knowledge” and “Be Ready”
When targets were allegedly talked about with the undercover officer, there was interest in government or military targets, not civilians. Velentzas allegedly stated that the Boston bombers had “erred in attacking regular people.”
Was all this interest in homemade explosives a part of stoking some kind of jihadist fantasy in their minds?
On November 23, 2014, Velentzas allegedly insisted they did not need a plan because plans could be foiled or stopped. She allegedly did not want to plan anything until the appropriate time. She never wanted to “hurt anyone but, as a Muslim,” she felt she had to “acquire this knowledge and be ready” because the government (she referred to them as infidels) had this “knowledge and use it to hurt Muslims and so the group needed to be prepared.”
Did they intend to be prepared for when they themselves were attacked by the government? If that is the case, they would be no different from the numerous sovereign citizens or militia members in the United States, who believe they must train and arm for war.
The government does not launch sting operations against mostly white and often Christian right wing elements with the same zeal that they have for operations carried out in Muslim or Arab American communities.
Violence is abhorrent and plotting or supporting any kind of attacks on the government or military definitely deserves to be condemned and opposed. But it should be recognized that there is a very legitimate rage in Muslim communities toward a US government, which continues to wage empire and bomb countries in the Middle East. They feel like their communities are under attack, and some think they have to do something about it.
Preemptively prosecuting people with this sort of ideological mindset—as the Justice Department did in the majority of its cases from 2001-2010—may be just as worthy of condemnation as the alleged statements and interest in constructing explosives in this case, especially when these sting operations seem to accelerate radicalization.
The government recognizes that its agenda of perpetual war is inflaming communities and creating the potential for blowback. Rather than confront and change the agenda, the government allows it to become more and more entrenched and chooses instead to target vulnerable Muslim or Arab Americans, who it can present to the public as violent terrorists that are part of a vast network of people who hate this country for its freedom.
Photo is a “field image” from FBI’s own government website and paired with the agency’s own press release. As such, the government photo is in the public domain.