Thursday, October 28, 2010

Man accused of Metro bomb plot

by Peter Finn, Spencer S. Hsu and Caitlin Gibson

Federal law enforcement authorities arrested a Northern Virginia man Wednesday in connection with an alleged plot to carry out terrorist bombings at stations in the Washington Metro system.

Farooque Ahmed, 34, of Ashburn conspired with people he thought to be al-Qaeda operatives to bomb the Arlington Cemetery, Pentagon City, Crystal City and Court House stations, according to a federal indictment.

An Obama administration official said Ahmed, a naturalized U.S. citizen born in Pakistan, first drew the attention of law enforcement officials by seeking to obtain unspecified materials. He later became the target of an undercover sting, officials said.

According to the indictment, federal agents posing as Islamic radicals began meeting with Ahmed in April. At the meetings, held in Northern Virginia hotels, he allegedly agreed to conduct video surveillance of the stations and suggested the best time to attack and the best locations to place explosives to maximize casualties. He is also accused of later turning over video and sketches he made of the stations.

Officials stressed that the public was never in danger. Still, Neil H. MacBride, U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia, said it was "chilling that a man from Ashburn is accused of casing rail stations with the goal of killing as many Metro riders as possible through simultaneous bomb attacks."

Muslim leaders in Northern Virginia said that, as of late Wednesday, no one had reported knowing or having interacted with Ahmed at local mosques. His arrest, however, touched off a conversation about whether Ahmed might have initiated a plot or whether law enforcement officials had floated the idea to him, as has been suggested in other FBI sting operations.

"It's a conversation that's definitely going on in the community," said Imam Johari Abdul-Malik, spokesman for Dar Al-Hijrah mosque in Falls Church. "At the same time, though, if you're dumb enough and sick enough to think you're working for al-Qaeda, then maybe your behind should be put in jail. If what the authorities accuse him of turns out to be true, I have very little sympathy for someone who plans something like that."

Ahmed was arrested in Herndon at 9:40 a.m. Wednesday after he was told to come to a meeting where he would discuss his surveillance activities, officials said. He later appeared in U.S. District Court in Alexandria on terrorism charges.

Sporting a full beard and wearing a gray polo shirt and bluejeans, Ahmed shook his head and let out a deep sigh in apparent disbelief as the charges against him were read. "Yes, yes," Ahmed said as the judge told him the charges were serious.

U.S. Magistrate Judge John F. Anderson ordered him held until a detention hearing Friday.

'Too close to home'

Ahmed, who holds a bachelor's in computer science from City University of New York, works in Northern Virginia for Ericsson, a telecommunications company, according to his LinkedIn profile. He was pursuing a graduate degree online in risk management and data security at Aspen University, according to the profile.

Kathy Egan, an Ericsson spokeswoman, confirmed that Ahmed is a Reston-based contractor for the firm but declined to release any other details about his employment. "We will cooperate with the authorities," she said.

Neighbors described Ahmed as pleasant but private.

Shaya Fitzgerald, 39, a physician's assistant who lives across the street from Ahmed's brick townhouse, said he has a young son and a wife who dress conservatively.

She "wore a full hijab, the whole thing. She seemed relatively young," Fitzgerald said. "My only impression of him was that he was not that sociable."

Ahmed moved to Virginia from Staten Island, N.Y. His wife, Sahar Mirza-Ahmed, is from Birmingham, England, and is an active member of "Hip Muslim Moms," a Northern Virginia playdate group for women with children younger than 5.

"I don't know what to do. This is too close to home. You don't know anybody," said Esraa Bani, an organizer of the mothers group. She said she wants people to understand what her group is really about: "We are hip, as in a lot of us are born and raised here. We're very savvy moms, working moms, tolerant moms. If we saw any signs of this, it's just not at all part of our demographic."

Phone messages left for Mirza-Ahmed were not returned.

Barbi Shires, Ahmed's next-door neighbor and a resident of the Ashburn neighborhood for 16 years, said that she occasionally exchanged greetings with Ahmed but that they never got together socially. She said that Ahmed's wife once brought over a traditional chicken dinner, soon after his family moved in, and that Ahmed once invited her into his home when she noticed that he was looking at the night sky through a telescope.

"He invited me over," Shires said, "and I looked at Jupiter through his telescope. . . . He was a very nice gentleman."

According to the indictment, Ahmed planned to attend the hajj, the annual pilgrimage to Mecca, next month and told the people who he thought were his co-conspirators that he would be ready to go overseas "to conduct jihad" in January.

Unlike other U.S. citizens implicated in recent terrorism plots, Ahmed does not appear to have received overseas training from al-Qaeda or any of its affiliates, intelligence sources said. In some previous investigations, however, evidence of connections to overseas organizations have surfaced several days after an arrest.

Series of cases

The arrest is the latest in a series of cases involving U.S. citizens, including another Pakistani American, who was convicted of planning to set off a car bomb in Times Square, that have raised concerns about an increasing number of Americans drawn to violent jihad.

Faisal Shahzad, a 30-year-old Connecticut resident, was sentenced to life in prison this month; the bomb he left in a car in Times Square in May failed to detonate.

Since last year, more than 6o U.S. citizens have been charged or convicted in terrorism cases, according to federal officials. And in some of those cases, suspects were caught in sting operations.

In one case, the suspect allegedly drove an FBI-supplied van that he thought contained a ton of explosives to blow up the Paul Findley Federal Building and Courthouse in Springfield, Ill. The suspect, Michael Finton, 29, is awaiting trial.

This month, a Jordanian man was sentenced to 24 years in prison for attempting to use a weapon of mass destruction to blow up a Dallas skyscraper. Hosam Smadi, 20, was arrested in September 2009 after leaving what he thought was a truck bomb but was really a decoy from FBI agents posing as al-Qaeda operatives.

Staff writers Greg Miller, Anne E. Kornblut, Jerry Markon, William Wan, Katherine Shaver, Ann Scott Tyson, Derek Kravitz and Kafia A. Hosh and staff researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.

Peter Finn, Spencer S. Hsu and Caitlin Gibson

Copyright - Original materials copyright (c) by the authors.

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