Federal authorities declined to pursue a case against an "al-Qaida sympathizer" accused of wanting to bomb police stations and post offices in New York City because they believed he was mentally unstable and incapable of pulling off the alleged plot, two law enforcement officials said Monday.
New York Police Department investigators sought to get the FBI involved at least twice as their undercover investigation of Jose Pimentel unfolded, the officials said. Both times, the FBI concluded that he wasn't a serious threat, they said.
The FBI concluded that 27-year-old Pimentel "didn't have the predisposition or the ability to do anything on his own," one of the officials said.
The officials were not authorized to speak about the case and spoke on condition of anonymity. The FBI's New York office declined to comment on Monday. New York City authorities said that the FBI was involved in the case, but did not specifically say they declined to pursue the charges.
"We just believed that we couldn't let it go any further. We had to act," said Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly.
New York authorities said Pimentel was motivated by terrorist propaganda and resentment of U.S. troops in Afghanistan and Iraq. Authorities said police had to move quickly to arrest Pimentel on Saturday — because he was approximately one hour from being able to detonate explosives.
"He was in fact putting this bomb together," Kelly said. "He was drilling holes and it would have been not appropriate for us to let him walk out the door with that bomb."
The suspect was being held after his arraignment on numerous terrorism-related charges. His lawyer Joseph Zablocki said his client's behavior leading up to the arrest was not that of a conspirator trying to conceal some violent scheme. Zablocki said Pimentel was public about his activities and was not trying to hide anything.
"I don't believe that this case is nearly as strong as the people believe," Zablocki said. "He (Pimentel) has this very public online profile. ... This is not the way you go about committing a terrorist attack."
Authorities characterized him in a different way. The unemployed U.S. citizen was born in the Dominican Republic and later converted to Islam. They said he was energized and motivated to carry out his plan by the Sept. 30 killing of al-Qaida's U.S.-born cleric Anwar al-Awlaki.
"He decided to build the bomb August of this year, but clearly he jacked up his speed after the elimination of al-Awlaki," Kelly said.
He plotted to bomb police patrol cars and postal facilities, targeted soldiers returning home from abroad, and also talked of bombing a police station in Bayonne, N.J., authorizes said.
New York police had him under surveillance for at least a year and were working with a confidential informant; no injury to anyone or damage to property is suspected, Kelly said. In addition, authorities have no evidence that Pimentel was working with anyone else.
"He appears to be a total lone wolf," the mayor said. "He was not part of a larger conspiracy emanating from abroad."
Pimentel, also known as Muhammad Yusuf, was denied bail. The bearded, bespectacled man wore a black T-shirt and black drawstring pants and smiled at times during the proceeding. His mother and brother attended the arraignment, his lawyer said.
Pimentel was accused of having an explosive device Saturday when he was arrested, one he planned to use against others and property to terrorize the public. The charges accuse him of conspiracy going back at least to October 2010, and include first-degree criminal possession of a weapon as a crime of terrorism, and soliciting support for a terrorist act.
Kelly said a confidential informant had numerous conversations with Pimentel on Sept. 7 in which he expressed interest in building small bombs and targeting banks, government and police buildings.
Pimentel also posted on his website trueislam1.com and on blogs his support of al-Qaida and belief in jihad, and promoted an online magazine article that described in detail how to make a bomb, Kelly said.
Among his Internet postings, the commissioner said, was an article that states: "People have to understand that America and its allies are all legitimate targets in warfare."
The New York Police Department's Intelligence Division was involved in the arrest. Kelly said Pimentel spent most of his years in Manhattan and lived about five years in Schenectady. He said police in the Albany area tipped New York City police off to Pimentel's activities.
New York City remains a prime terrorist target a decade after the Sept. 11 attack. Mayor Michael Bloomberg said there have been at least 14 foiled plots against the city, including the latest suspected scheme. The most serious threats came from Pakistani immigrant Faisal Shahzad who tried to detonate a car bomb in Times Square in May 2010 and is now serving a life sentence, and Najibullah Zazi, who targeted the subway system a year earlier. Zazi pleaded guilty to federal terrorism charges and is awaiting sentencing.
Asked why federal authorities were not involved in the case, Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus R. Vance Jr. said there was communication with them but his office felt that given the timeline "it was appropriate to proceed under state charges."
In another state terrorism prosecution, two men were arrested in May after they allegedly told an undercover detective about their desire to attack synagogues.
A grand jury declined to indict Ahmed Ferhani and Mohamed Mamdouh on the most serious charge initially brought against them — a high-level terror conspiracy count that carried the potential for life in prison without parole. They were, however, indicted on lesser state terror and hate crime charges, including one punishable by up to 32 years behind bars.
Attorneys for Ferhani said hate crime charges and a rarely used state terrorism law were misapplied to what they have called a case of police entrapment.
Alexis Smith, 22, who lives in an apartment in the same building as Pimentel, said she was shocked that he was a suspect in a terrorist plot. "He was always very courteous to us," she said, adding that Pimentel helped her carry groceries and luggage into the building.
"It's nice to know he was only working alone," she said.