Hellcats

NYC Terror Groupies Wanted to Be ‘Bad Bitches’ With Bombs

They worshipped domestic terrorists, and tried to follow in their footsteps. But when these two New York City women got serious about their homemade bombs, the FBI swooped in.

04.02.15 8:00 PM ET

A pair of Queens, N.Y., women indicted on terrorism charges Thursday were jihadist groupies who idolized, studied, and even befriended some of the world’s most notorious terrorists—all in the hopes they might one day “make history” and pull off a major attack in the United States, law enforcement officials allege.

A lengthy criminal complaint unsealed in federal court Thursday describes how Noelle Velentzas and Asia Siddiqui repeatedly called Osama bin Laden a hero, modeled themselves after terrorists like the Boston Marathon bombers, and even drew inspiration and bomb-making ideas from right-wing extremists who blew up the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City.

The pair are alleged to have assiduously studied how to build a homemade bomb, using textbooks and online articles to teach themselves basic chemistry and electrical engineering in the hopes they too could kill scores of people.

“Why we can’t be some real bad bitches?” Velentzas allegedly once told her co-conspirator after pulling a knife from her bra and showing Siddiqui how she would stab someone who tried to attack her.

But knife attacks were the least of the pair’s ambitions, officials allege. Over a nearly two-year period beginning in 2013, the women worked with an undercover law enforcement officer, who isn’t identified in the complaint, to build a bomb out of commercially available materials: a pressure cooker, propane gas cylinders, fertilizer, or household chemicals.

“The defendants plotted to wreak terror by creating explosive devices and even researching the pressure cooker bombs used during the Boston Marathon bombing,” Diego Rodriguez, the assistant director in charge of the FBI’s New York Field Office, said in a statement.

The pair also allegedly considered attacks against police officers and military personnel, preferring official targets over civilian ones because they perceived themselves to be fighting a war against the United States government. Following the murder of two New York City police officers in Brooklyn last December, in which the assailant shot the men while they sat in their patrol car, Velentzas allegedly remarked that killing a cop was easier than buying food, because one had to wait in line to do that. She is also alleged to have said that the funeral of one of the slain officers, Rafael Ramos, would have been a good target because it drew tens of thousands of his colleagues.

The women’s alleged plotting seems largely notional—it’s not clear they ever figured out how to build a bomb capable of killing large numbers of people. Much of what the women learned they found in introductory-level textbooks on chemistry and electrical wiring, as well as articles online. Velentzas allegedly studied how to use fertilizer for a bomb by reading an eHow article titled “What is Miracle Gro Made Of.” She is also said to have used her cellphone to watch YouTube videos about soldering wires and circuit boards. They also closely read The Anarchist Cookbook, a notorious 1971 volume that contains recipes for making homemade explosives.

“We read chemistry books with breakfast,” the undercover government officer working with the pair once remarked. “Like, who does that?”

“People who want to make history,” Velentzas replied.

In a statement Thursday, Dianne Feinstein, the vice chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said she was “particularly struck” that the alleged bombers had used The Anarchist Cookbook and Inspire, al Qaeda’s English-language magazine. “These documents are not, in my view, protected by the First Amendment and should be removed from the Internet,” Feinstein said.

But these volumes weren’t the only way Velentzas and Siddiqui worked on their alleged terror plots. They also steeped themselves in the culture of jihad and fantasized about joining the ranks of well-known terrorists.

Velentzas used a photo of Yahya Ayyash, a Hamas bomb maker killed in 1996, as the home page image on her cellphone. According to the complaint, Siddiqui “became close” with a notorious member of al Qaeda, Samir Khan, the founding editor of Inspire, which the women used to learn about bomb making. And authorities say Velentzas was Facebook friends with Tairod Pugh, the U.S. airman arrested last month after attempting to travel to Syria to allegedly wage jihad.

There were no indications that Siddiqui, who is 31, is related to Aafia Siddiqui, also known as Lady al Qaeda, who’s currently serving time in a U.S. prison for attempting to kill Americans in Afghanistan. But Asia idolized her and appears to have attended Aafia’s trial and wrote about it under a pseudonym.

“A stranger saw my name and smiled, saying how similar it was to Aafia Siddiqui,” she wrote. “Over the years, it has become my pride to even possess a name similar to such a prestigious member of society.” Asis also wrote “A Poem for Aafia” for the same site.

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The women studied earlier attackers and learned from their successes and mistakes, officials charge. For instance, Velentzas allegedly stated that she didn’t understand why people like Pugh were going abroad to wage war when there were more opportunities for “pleasing Allah” in the United States. And the pair tried to determine why another now-imprisoned terrorist, Faisal Shahzad, wasn’t able to detonate a bomb in his car parked in Times Square in 2010.

Velentzas may have connections to a controversial cleric not named in the complaint. An April 27, 2013, fundraiser hosted by the Islamic Circle of North America (ICNA), a nonprofit organization based with an office in Jamaica, Queens, lists a “Sister Noelle Velentzas” as a speaker, along with Siraj Wahhaj, the imam of the Al-Taqwa mosque in Brooklyn.

Wahhaj has a long history of ministering to radicals, including the 1993 World Trade Center bombers. And Ismaaiyl Brinsley, who shot and killed Ramos and his partner, Wenjian Liu, and later himself, had attended the Al-Taqwa mosque.

It appears Velentzas even stayed at the ICNA Relief USA Shelter, which has a 12-bed women’s shelter in at their Jamaica location, for a few months in 2008 and 2009. “She was homeless,” a staffer who asked not to be identified told The Daily Beast. In a statement, the shelter said Velantzas completed her studies to become a home health care provider and got a job.

“She was OK, you know?” added Moviz Siddiqi, a spokesman for the shelter.

The statement said she stayed for a short period of time in 2008 and 2009. “While she was staying in our shelter, our staff helped her get on her feet. ... Ms. Velentzas appeared to be a young woman who had experienced hardship in her life, but was working towards self-development and long term stability. She also appeared to be someone who had greatly benefited from the assistance ICNA Relief provides through our shelter system, so we asked her to speak about the experience of our shelter. She appeared at several fundraisers and was the subject of videos as well.”

Attempts to reach the board members of the nonprofit group were unsuccessful. Messages left for Wahhaj weren’t returned.

Velentzas, listed as 28 in the indictment, was inspired to convert to Islam when she was about 7 years old, said Moviz, who is not related to either Aafia Siddiqui or Asia Siddiqui.

“I’m surprised and upset because we are here to help everybody, doesn’t matter Muslim or non-Muslim,” he said. “It’s really surprising, you know. ... We don’t give money outside, we don’t send money outside, we don’t take money from outside,” Moviz said. ICNA is focused on the U.S. and on being part of U.S. society, he said.

The would-be jihadist duo were also gripped by paranoia and fretted constantly that the FBI had planted bugs in their home and figured out how to spy on their cellphones. It turns out their fears were well-founded. The FBI was keeping close tabs on the pair via the undercover officer and tracking their reading habits, including at a public library computer. It’s not clear from the complaint whether the authorities obtained information via electronic surveillance. But in any case, Velentzas realized that evidence could be mounting of a conspiracy, and seemed to cool her heels at various points and stopped short of picking a definite target.

“If [the government] was to put all the information about the three of us together, we legitimately, to these people, look like a cell,” Velentzas said during a meeting in February 2015.

Yet by that time, the group seems to have been as close as they ever got to acquiring the primary components of a bomb. Siddiqui allegedly kept in her basement apartment four propane gas tanks. “I got everything up in this joint” to build a device, Siddiqui allegedly told her co-conspirators.

—with additional reporting by M.L. Nestel and Katie Zavadski