A Manhattan man accused of building homemade bombs to wage holy war in New York City pleaded guilty Wednesday to a terrorism charge less than a week before his scheduled trial in a rare state-level terrorism case.
Jose Pimentel softly answered questions in New York State Supreme Court in Manhattan and shook his head at times as he acknowledged he'd tried to craft a pipe bomb in 2011, with the idea of using it to make a violent impact on U.S. foreign policy.
He sought, according to a statement a judge read on his behalf, to "try to undermine public support for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan."
Pimentel pleaded guilty to attempted criminal possession of a weapon as a crime of terrorism. Authorities have called the case a dramatic example of the threat of homegrown, one-person terrorism plots, but his lawyers have portrayed it as an example of overzealous policing in the years since Sept. 11, 2001.
With the plea, Pimentel, 29, was promised a sentence of 16 years in prison. He could have faced a minimum of 15 years to life if convicted. Jury selection had been due to start Monday.
"Today's guilty plea further supports the fact that, increasingly, the threat of terrorism comes from radicalized local actors living in our community," Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus R. Vance Jr. said.
But Pimentel's lawyers have suggested he would never have progressed from posting online to trying to make pipe bombs if police hadn't sent a series of informants to engage with him.
While he admitted his guilt, "the question that will not be answered, at least not in a court of law, is who exactly is recruiting whom in this war" against terrorism, said one of his attorneys, Susan Walsh.
Pimentel, also known as Muhammad Yusuf, converted to Islam around 2004.
He maintained a website with articles praising Osama bin Laden, describing Sept. 11 victims as legitimate targets and listing reasons to "nuke the USA," prosecutors said in court papers. He clashed with his former wife because of his beliefs about Islam, and his mother had thrown him out of her apartment over his views, prosecutors said.
His vitriol deepened in 2011, when he was recorded talking about assassinating a judge, killing returning soldiers and bombing a police station or the George Washington Bridge, officials said; he also talked about targeting Jews, Assistant District Attorney Deborah Hickey said. He was arrested that November as he assembled bombs from clocks, Christmas tree lights, match-head scrapings and other items, prosecutors said.
One informant and an undercover officer had gotten nowhere with Pimentel, his lawyers said. But then police sent another informant, a fellow Hispanic Muslim convert who smoked marijuana with Pimentel while they talked about jihad, accompanied him to buy bomb makings and opened his apartment to Pimentel to put the materials together.
"If you work on someone with professional witnesses, if you acquiesce to marijuana use, you wear people down," Walsh said last month.