Fordham Law


Alleged Federal Reserve bomb plotter Quazi Mohammad Rezwanul Ahsan Nafis' ties probed

Karen Greenberg on CBS News, October 18, 2012

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Investigators are probing the connections of a Bangladeshi man who allegedly tried to detonate what he thought was a 1,000-pound bomb outside the Federal Reserve building in Manhattan Wednesday, CBS News senior correspondent John Miller reports.

Quazi Mohammad Rezwanul Ahsan Nafis, 21, appeared in federal court in Brooklyn to face charges of attempting to use a weapon of mass destruction and attempting to provide material support to al Qaeda. Wearing a brown T-shirt and black jeans, he was ordered held without bail and did not enter a plea. His defense attorney had no comment outside court.

On "CBS This Morning" Thursday, Miller reported that Nafis had made statements that he was in contact with a Qaeda network before he arrived in the United States in January. But there was no allegation that Nafis actually received training or direction from the terrorist group.

In conversations recorded by the FBI, Miller reports Nafis allegedly said he admired the radical U.S.-born cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, who inspired the "underwear bomber," Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, and the accused Fort Hood shooter, Maj. Nidal Hasan. Even after Awlaki was killed in a drone strike, his magazine, called Inspire, supplied Nafis with the outlines for his plot.

"There are still individuals and groups, indeed, around the world who have bought into the al Qaeda narrative, who have some kind of vague blueprint in their mind, which involves New York and the United States and explosives and to wish to do harm," Karen Greenberg, director of the Center on National Security at Fordham University School of Law, told CBS News.

A U.S. official told CBS News that Nafis considered targeting President Obama before settling on the Federal Reserve building just blocks from the World Trade Center site, but those considerations never got beyond the discussion stage.

Authorities are investigating whether Nafis was acting alone. Miller, a former assistant director of the FBI, reports that the bureau's agents are talking to at least five of Nafis' friends and associates.

One man who voiced his support during the plotting of Nafis' alleged plans to engage in terrorism was picked up in San Diego late Wednesday afternoon, Miller reports. That man faces deportation hearings.

Before trying to carry out the alleged terrorism plot, Nafis went to a warehouse to help assemble a 1,000-pound bomb using inert material, according to a criminal complaint. He also asked an undercover agent to videotape him saying, "We will not stop until we attain victory or martyrdom," the complaint said.

In July, he contacted a confidential informant, telling him he wanted to form a terror cell and that he admired "Sheikh 'O'" -- a reference to Osama bin Laden, the criminal complaint said.

The defendant had sought assurances from an undercover agent posing as an al Qaeda contact that the terrorist group would support the operation.

"The thing that I want to do, ask you about, is that, the thing I'm doing, it's under al Qaeda?" he was recorded saying during a meeting in bugged hotel room in Queens, according to the complaint.

In a September meeting in the same hotel room, Nafis "confirmed he was ready to kill himself during the course of the attack, but indicated he wanted to return to Bangladesh to see his family one last time to set his affairs in order," the complaint said.

In Bangladesh, Nafis' family was stunned at the allegations, saying he was incapable of such actions and he went to America to study business administration, not to carry out any attack. They denied he could have been involved.

"My son couldn't have done it," his father, Quazi Ahsanullah, said weeping.

On Wednesday, agents grabbed the 21-year-old Nafis -- armed with a cellphone he believed was rigged as a detonator -- after he made several attempts to blow up the bomb inside a vehicle parked next to the Federal Reserve, the complaint said.

Authorities emphasized that the plot never posed an actual risk. However, they claimed the case demonstrated the value of using sting operations to neutralize young extremists eager to harm Americans.

"Attempting to destroy a landmark building and kill or maim untold numbers of innocent bystanders is about as serious as the imagination can conjure," said Mary Galligan, acting head of the FBI's New York office. "The defendant faces appropriately severe consequences."

Prosecutors say Nafis traveled to the U.S. on a student visa in January to carry out an attack. In July, he contacted a confidential informant, telling him he wanted to form a terror cell, the criminal complaint said.

In further conversations, authorities said Nafis proposed several spots for his attack, including the New York Stock Exchange — and that in a written letter taking responsibility for the Federal Reserve job he was about to carry out, he said he wanted to "destroy America." Other communications took place through Facebook, the complaint said.

A Twitter account with the suspect's name and photo had six followers and two messages and was linked to a Facebook page that had been taken down.

CBS News has learned that Nafis was enrolled at Southeast Missouri State University for the spring semester earlier this year and that he was pursuing a degree in cyber security; he is no longer enrolled there.

University spokeswoman Ann Hayes told The Associated Press that Nafis requested a transfer of his records in July and the university complied, though she couldn't say where the records were transferred.

On Wednesday, federal officials were at the New York home where Nafis was staying, a red brick building in the Jamaica neighborhood of Queens. Owner Rafiqul Islam said Nafis was staying with his second-floor tenants, and he was told he was related to the family. The tenants didn't answer their door and their apartment was dark.

Islam said Nafis had only lived there about a month or so.

"I didn't notice anything, he spoke to me very quietly," he said. "He said he was going to be studying here."

Neighbor Jose Santos, 19, said he would see Nafis at the same grocery store.

"He seemed like a regular nice guy to me," Santos said. "I'm just shocked right now to see that he tried to plant a 1,000-pound bomb. That's crazy."

Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly said the case is one more reminder that New York remains a target:

"New York continues to be very much in the mind frame of terrorism. This individual came here with the express purpose of committing a terrorist attack; he was motivated by al Qaeda. We see this threat as being with us for a long time to come."

Kelly said security is always a precaution and there are about a thousand officers in the counterterrorism division. He didn't specify if any additional measures were being taken.

The bank, located at 33 Liberty St., is one of 12 branches around the country that, along with the Board of Governors in Washington, make up the Federal Reserve System that serves as the central bank of the United States. It sets interest rates.

The Federal Reserve is one of the most fortified buildings in the city, smack in the middle of a massive security effort headed by the New York Police Department where a network of thousands of private and police cameras watch for suspicious activity.

The department uses sophisticated programs that can search for suspicious activity, like an object in one place for a long time, at the building modeled after London's "ring of steel." The analytic software also is designed to take video and catalog it according to movements, shapes and colors, so officers can set parameters to search the system for, say, a suspicious van.

The Fed is also home to the world's largest accumulation of gold, according to the bank's website. Dozens of governments and central banks store a portion of their gold reserves in high-security vaults deep beneath the building. In recent years, it held 216 million troy ounces of gold, or more than a fifth of all global monetary gold reserves, making it a bigger bullion depository than Fort Knox.

The federal case was the latest where a terrorism plot against the city turned out to be a sting operation.

Four men were convicted in 2009 in a plot to bomb synagogues and shoot down military planes with missiles — a case that began after an FBI informant was assigned to infiltrate a mosque in Newburgh, about 70 miles north of New York City. The federal judge hearing the case said she was not proud of the government's role in nurturing the plot.

In 2004, a Pakistani immigrant was arrested and convicted for a scheme to blow up the subway station at Herald Square in Midtown. His lawyers argued that their client had been set up by a police informant who showed him pictures of Iraq abuse to get him involved in an attack against civilians.