Inspire magazine—the now-defunct al Qaeda glossy published for English-speaking militant Muslims—didn't send out rejection letters. So we'll probably never know why it ignored a 20-page ode to Osama bin Laden submitted by an aspiring young writer in New York. But the writer's intentions were clear.
"I will, God willing, destroy America in writing, until I can do so in the field," he wrote last April in an email accompanying his article.
Law enforcement officials say the writer was Jose Pimentel, aka Muhamad Yusuf, whom the New York Police Department had been monitoring since May 2009. This week Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. charged Mr. Pimentel with building pipe bombs to blow up police cars, post offices, veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan, and other targets.
The email, described by law enforcement officials in interviews, is part of a vast investigative file containing over 400 hours of surveillance audio and video tapes, interviews and other material amassed by the NYPD. Prosecutors will use it to try to convict the 27-year-old Mr. Pimentel—a Dominican Republic-born American citizen and convert to Islam—on terrorism, conspiracy and weapons charges. The suspect, who has pleaded not guilty, faces 25 years to life in prison if convicted.
His arrest was announced at an unusual Sunday night press conference by the mayor and top city officials. Police Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly called Mr. Pimentel a "classic case" of a "lone wolf" terrorist. But the klieg lights had barely dimmed when anonymous "law enforcement authorities" began attacking the NYPD's case and its methods.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation, along with federal prosecutors, had declined to join the case, reported the New York press corps. Anonymous officials told this newspaper that there were "too many holes in the case" and that the FBI's unwillingness to join it indicated "it's not a strong case." Anonymous officials "briefed on the case" told the New York Times that Mr. Pimentel was poor, unemployed and "unable to pay his cell phone bill." The Times reported he had made some of his threats after smoking marijuana and showed signs of being mentally "unstable," and there was "concern" that the NYPD's "confidential informer" might have "played too active a role" in helping Mr. Pimentel build his bomb.
Furious that anonymous officials have raised questions about its confidential informant and methods, the NYPD is defending its case. Ever aware that 3,000 people were killed in New York on 9/11, Deputy Commissioner Paul Browne told me Wednesday that the department "apologizes to no one in preventing terrorists from killing more of us." The arrest, he said, had stopped Mr. Pimentel from "walking out the door and detonating bombs on the streets of our city." The "ill-willed, ill-informed detractors" who were undermining the case "should stop and just say 'thank you,'" Mr. Browne added.
I spoke with several law enforcement officials who described—on condition of anonymity—more of what police have learned about Mr. Pimentel since he came across the NYPD's radar some 30 months ago.
First, these officials tell me that police have relied on information supplied by two confidential informants, at least one undercover officer, analysts from its cyber-terror unit, and 24/7 physical surveillance. They say the most intensive surveillance began after Mr. Pimentel started buying and collecting the materials needed to build his pipe bombs according to a recipe he read in Inspire. The article instructed wannabe jihadists to build a bomb "In the Kitchen of your Mom." Mr. Pimentel sought to avoid raising red flags by getting his bomb components in a dozen separate trips from six separate locations on three separate days, they added.
Mr. Pimentel told the police, and law-enforcement officials confirmed to me, that he had five issues of Inspire, as well as a more sophisticated bomb manual and a guide to firing rocket-propelled grenades. He had also posted incendiary articles on TrueIslam1.com, his website, which Google has now taken down.
Hundreds of hours of recorded conversations between him and an informant show "a lot of listening" by the informant, officials tell me, and repeated statements of violent intent by Mr. Pimentel. Officials say that in May 2010, he repeated loudly in Arabic that "America is my enemy." In June 2010, he discussed the possibility of grabbing a police officer's revolver to "just start shooting everyone." They add that by October, he was discussing assassinations as a way to influence U.S. behavior. He also began a physical-fitness regime of jogging, push-ups and pull-ups to prepare for jihad.
Officials have told me that though he had no steady job since his work as a cashier at Circuit City in Schenectady prior to his return to New York City in early 2010, Mr. Pimentel had enough money to buy his bomb components. One witness told the cops, they add, that he had flashed a $100 bill when he made some purchases.
Although a crude bomb can be built with the sulfur scrapings from about 80 match heads, Mr. Pimentel scraped the heads of some 750 matches, officials say. The police arrested him after they say he drilled holes in each of three elbow joints that he had bought, the action that legally made the pipes a weapon. "Waiting any longer would have been dangerous," said Mr. Browne.
Born in 1984 in the Dominican Republic and raised Catholic in Harlem, Mr. Pimentel converted to Islam in New York City in 2004. Officials tell me that in 2005 he moved to Schenectady and lived with his sister. In that year he was charged with identity theft and possession of stolen goods in connection with his illegal purchase of over $2,000 in goods with the stolen credit card numbers of customers at the Circuit City store where he worked. After pleading guilty, he was sentenced to five years probation.
He first came to the NYPD's attention in May 2009, after Albany police reported that an informant warned them of Mr. Pimentel's stated desire to go to Yemen for terrorism training. Lacking money for the trip, he returned to New York City in early 2010 to live with his mother and grandmother in Washington Heights. He did odd jobs and occasionally got money from his uncle.
Meanwhile, law enforcement officials tell me the informant from Schenectady traveled to see Mr. Pimentel and introduce him to a friend, who was another informant working for the NYPD. Simultaneously, they say, the NYPD established cyber coverage of him, discovering online essays such as "Seven Reasons to Nuke the USA."
As early as September 2009, law-enforcement officials say, Mr. Pimentel told the Schenectady informant that he had tried to contact the radical cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, then a fugitive in Yemen and the key inspirer of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. Awlaki was killed in September in a U.S. drone attack—the event, said Commissioner Kelly at Sunday's press conference, that apparently prompted Mr. Pimentel's leap from violent speech, which is protected under the Constitution, to the crime of violent action.
The NYPD kept the FBI fully informed of this growing radicalization, David Cohen, the former CIA official who heads the NYPD's intelligence division, told me. Another official says that an agent from the FBI's Joint Terrorism Task Force had been part of an NYPD-led intelligence "working group" that tracked the Pimentel inquiry and circulated bulletins every few days about what they consider his increasingly violent threats. That official told me the NYPD continued handling the investigation after the FBI tried to insert its own operative into the mix (who was supposed to interact with Mr. Pimentel in cyberspace). After that effort failed, the FBI had little choice but to defer to the NYPD, the official told me.
"They tried to work their own source in and failed," he said. He added, alluding to the charge that the FBI's non-involvement casts doubt on the investigation: "If three pipe bombs exploding in New York City is not a threat, what is?"