NEW YORK (AP) — A Bangladeshi man snared in an FBI terror sting considered targeting a high-ranking government official and the New York Stock Exchange before authorities say he raised the bar by picking one New York City's most fortified sites: The Federal Reserve.
In a September meeting with an undercover agent posing as a fellow jihadist, Quazi Mohammad Rezwanul Ahsan Nafis explained he chose the Federal reserve as his car bomb target "for operational reasons," according to a criminal complaint. Nafis also indicated he knew that choice would "cause a large number of civilian casualties, including women and children," the complaint said.
The bomb was phony, but authorities alleged that Nafis' admiration of Osama bin Laden and aspirations for martyrdom were not.
FBI 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 a fake 1,000-pound the bomb inside a vehicle parked next to the Federal Reserve Wednesday in lower Manhattan, the complaint said.
The bank in New York, 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.
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.
As a result, 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.
Authorities emphasized that the plot never posed an actual risk. There was no allegation that Nafis actually received training or direction from a real terrorist group.
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 and that he admired "Sheikh 'O'" — a reference to bin Laden, the criminal complaint said. Nafis was living in Queens at the time.
The defendant later sought assurances from an undercover agent posing as an al-Qaida contact that the terrorist group would support the operation.
"The thing that I want to ... ask you about is that, the thing I'm doing, it's under al-Qaida?" 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.
Before trying to carry out the alleged plot, Nafis went to a warehouse to help assemble the bomb using inert material, according to a criminal complaint. He told the undercover agent he was influenced by radical U.S.-born cleric Anwar al-Awlaki.
He also asked an undercover agent to videotape him saying, "We will not stop until we attain victory or martyrdom," the complaint said.
Nafis appeared in federal court in Brooklyn on Wednesday to face charges of attempting to use a weapon of mass destruction and attempting to provide material support to al-Qaida. 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.
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 Manhattan. 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.