In what has been widely described in the media as the breakup of an “ISIS-inspired” plot, on April 2 the Department of Justice announced that Noelle Velentzas, 28, and Asia Siddiqui, 31, both of New York, had been arrested and charged with conspiracy to use a weapon of mass destruction. The defendants “plotted to wreak terror by creating explosive devices” for use in New York City and sought “bomb-making instructions and materials” for an attack, the Justice Department statement said.
Like other recent sensational “terror plots,” however, the criminal complaint unsealed yesterday demonstrates the key role of an undercover law enforcement informant in both formulating and facilitating the alleged plot. It doesn’t appear that Velentzas or Siddiqui actually planned or attempted to bomb any target, nor is there any evidence of discussions about how to create a bomb before the introduction of the informant into their lives.
It was only after the informant provided the pair with a copy of The Anarchist Cookbook — a manual with instructions on how to create an explosive device — that their amateurish efforts gained any traction.
According to the complaint, both Velentzas and Siddiqui are alleged to have “espoused jihadist beliefs” for a prolonged period leading up to these allegations. Siddiqui, in particular, is believed to have written letters and poems in support of extremist violence, and may have been under government surveillance as far back as 2006, when she is said to have made contact with the now-deceased former editor of Al Qaeda’s Inspire magazine, Samir Khan. While the exact nature of this contact is not specified, it is alleged that in 2009, Siddiqui had submitted poems online to the predecessor magazine of Inspire, entitled Jihad Recollections.
One of her poems, detailed in the complaint, appears to draw more on contemporary rap music than Islam, reading in part: “Hit cloud nine with the smell of turpentine, nations wiped clean of filthy shrines.”
Years later, in July 2014, FBI agents conducted an interview with Siddiqui when she arrived at LaGuardia Airport in New York, questioning her about her past links to Khan and online jihadist publications. Later that day, after leaving the airport, Siddiqui apparently met with the informant, whom she allegedly told she needed to go online and “delete stuff” from her email accounts.
After that meeting, the informant, Siddiqui and Velentzas began meeting regularly over the course of several months. Those conversations were secretly taped by law enforcement. It is only at this point that any discussion of creating or using a bomb came into existence. In a conversation with the informant on August 6, 2014, the two defendants are alleged to have discussed “science” in the context of making a bomb; Siddiqui asked Velentzas whether she was “good at science,” a question that Velentzas answered in the negative.
Over the coming weeks and months, the defendants and the informant continued to meet, citing the actions of other convicted terrorists approvingly, talking about events in the Middle East, and discussing the rudiments of bomb-making. During one conversation, Velentzas pulled a knife from her bra to demonstrate how to stab someone, saying, “Why can’t we be some real bad bitches?” She suggested that the three should refer to themselves as “citizens of the Islamic State.”
While Velentzas appeared to have latent sympathy with the Islamic State, contrary to sensational media reports she is not alleged in the criminal complaint to have had any contact with the group.
Throughout this time, both Velentzas and Siddiqui are alleged to have studied beginner books on chemistry and electrical wiring as part of an effort to learn bomb-making. A few weeks after making her comments about the Islamic State, while driving with the informant past the window of a hardware store, Velentzas, who claimed to be obsessed with pressure cookers, said: “Why is the hardware store sell [sic] a pressure cooker …. the devil is fucking with me.”
On November 2, 2014, months after their meetings began, the informant met with Velentzas while she was reading a book entitled Chemistry: The Central Science, a generalist academic textbook about the field of chemistry. The informant began providing Velentzas with advice on how she might be able to test explosives without arousing suspicion, and then suggested she read The Anarchist Cookbook as a more useful resource for creating explosive devices.
That same day, the informant went with Velentzas and Siddiqui to a local pharmacy and hardware store to look at materials needed to make an explosive, even helping locate items that might be helpful in such an endeavor. They are not alleged to have actually purchased any of these materials.
Over the following weeks, the informant repeatedly met with both defendants, even watching jihadist recruitment videos with them. On November 23, 2014, the informant brought a printed copy of The Anarchist Cookbook for Velentzas, even bookmarking the page containing bomb-making instructions.
At this point, according to the complaint, the informant and Velentzas had a discussion about “what they’re trying to achieve” with all the research about bombs. Velentzas then told the informant that she didn’t have any existing plans to do anything, and that “she would never want to hurt anyone.”
Over the next several weeks Velentzas seems to have become concerned about the informant’s background, searching the informant’s name in unnamed databases and browsing Web pages on topics such as “Identifying Informants/Undercover Police” and “Is S/he an Informant.”
Nonetheless, their discussions allegedly progressed, with the informant and Velentzas meeting to talk in greater detail about how to create a bomb, using information gleaned from The Anarchist Cookbook, and discussing whether it would be appropriate to target a gathering of police officers with such a device. At several points in the complaint, Velentzas indicates her reticence about doing anything that might harm “regular people,” even criticizing the Boston Marathon bombers for killing and injuring civilians. During this time, the informant also provided both Velentzas and Siddiqui with printed copies of Inspire, including selected passages about how to create explosives.
Around February 22, after months of discussion and cultivation, the informant and Velentzas went to Siddiqui’s residence, where they saw four propane gas tanks. Siddiqui said, “I got everything up in this joint … once we learn … I got everything up in this joint.”
A month later, Siddiqui is alleged to have said to the informant, “I’m all about jihad, you know what I mean.”
There were no further recorded meetings between members of the group. On April 2, both Siddiqui and Velentzas were arrested and charged with conspiracy to use a weapon of mass destruction, ostensibly utilizing the propane tanks seen in Siddiqui’s apartment in February.
Despite the bravado, it’s unclear whether Siddiqui and Velentzas ever regarded themselves as terrorists. At one point, speaking with the informant, Velentzas is recorded as saying, “I feel that the people that control things are very fucked up people …. if the government, was to put all the information about the three of us together, we legitimately, to these people, could look like a [terrorist] cell.”
Photo: Victor J. Blue/Getty