The mother of a "lone wolf" accused of plotting to attack police stations and post offices with homemade bombs apologized to New Yorkers on Monday, even as questions arose about why federal authorities — who typically handle terrorism cases — declined to get involved in what city officials called a serious threat.
The mother of Jose Pimentel spoke to reporters outside her upper Manhattan home the day after her son was arraigned in state court on terrorism-related charges.
"I didn't raise my son in that way," Carmen Sosa said. "I feel bad about this situation."
She also praised the New York Police Department, saying, "I think they handled it well."
Officials with the NYPD, which conducted the undercover investigation using a confidential informant and a bugged apartment, said the department had to move quickly because Pimentel was about to test a pipe bomb made out of match heads, nails and other ingredients bought at neighborhood hardware and discount stores.
Two law enforcement officials said Monday that the NYPD's Intelligence Division had sought to get the FBI involved at least twice as the investigation unfolded. Both times, the FBI concluded that Pimentel lacked the mental capacity to act on his own, they said.
The FBI thought 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 and the U.S. attorney's office in Manhattan both declined to comment on Monday.
Pimentel's lawyer, Joseph Zablocki, said his client was never a true threat.
"If the goal here is to be stopping terror ... I'm not sure that this is where we should be spending our resources," he said.
Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly defended the handling of the case Monday, saying the NYPD kept federal authorities in the loop "all along" before circumstances forced investigators to take swift measures using state charges.
"No question in my mind that we had to take this case down," Kelly said. "There was an imminent threat."
Added Kelly: "This is a classic case of what we've been talking about — the lone wolf, an individual, self-radicalized. This is the needle in the haystack problem we face as a country and as a city."
Authorities described Pimentel as an unemployed U.S. citizen and "al-Qaida sympathizer" who was born in the Dominican Republic. He had lived most of his life in Manhattan, aside from about five years in the upstate city of Schenectady, where authorities say he had an arrested for credit card fraud.
His mother said he was raised Roman Catholic. But he converted to Islam in 2004 and went by the name Muhammad Yusuf, authorities said.
Using a tip from police in Albany, the NYPD had been watching Pimentel using a confidential informant for the past year. Investigators learned that 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, police said.
Pimentel was under constant surveillance as he shopped for the pipe bomb materials. He also was overheard talking about attacking police patrol cars and postal facilities, killing soldiers returning home from abroad and bombing a police station in Bayonne, N.J., authorizes said.
The arrest marked the second time this year that the police department took the unusual step of working with a state prosecutor to bring a terrorism case. In May, two men were indicted on charges they told an NYPD 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 terrorism 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.
State prosecutors insist that there's ample evidence that Pimentel went well beyond merely talking about terrorism — and that he was acting on his own initiative.
"The people whom we're prosecuting have well crossed that line," Adam Kaufmann, head of the district attorney's investigative division, said Monday. "They've gone from sort of espousing an idea to creating a plan to act upon it."
At an arraignment where Pimentel was ordered held without bail, prosecutors said investigators have "countless hours" of audio and video in this case. And in a criminal complaint, an intelligence division detective alleges Pimentel told him after the arrest that he was about an hour away from finishing the bomb and felt Islamic law obligates all Muslims to wage war against Americans to avenge U.S. military action in their homelands.
A former federal prosecutor praised the police and state prosecutors for going through with the investigation and charges.
"A person who puts out conspiratorial information and then takes steps to build a bomb should not be walking the streets of New York," whatever his mental state or his interactions with an informant, said Michael Wildes, a former assistant U.S. attorney in Brooklyn who worked on terrorism-related cases. "Considering the facts that have been revealed to the public, the decision was done well, in this instance, to go ahead with this case and for the FBI not to be the lead agency."
Publicly, NYPD and federal officials claim they have a strong working relationship. But behind the scenes, there has been tension ever since the department mounted its own aggressive anti-terrorism effort, including undercover investigations targeting potential homegrown threats.
The effort is needed, NYPD officials say, because the 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.