Two women accused of plotting to plant bombs in the United States, one of whom allegedly called Osama bin Laden her hero and praised the World Trade Center attacks, were arrested on terror charges in Queens by the Joint Terrorism Task Force early Thursday, federal officials familiar with the investigation tell NBC 4 New York.
The women, identified in court papers as 28-year-old Noelle Velentzas and 31-year-old Asia Siddiqui, are accused of conspiring to detonate an explosive device somewhere within the United States. The two suspects allegedly discussed possible targets online but there was no specific terror plot and no active explosive device, one official familiar with the case said. The women were alleged to have met with undercover officer posing as a would-be jihadist on many occasions since 2014.
Investigators allege Siddiqui was in possession of multiple propane tanks, as well as instructions for how to transform those tanks into explosive devices, at the time of her arrest, according to a criminal complaint. Less than two weeks ago, Velentzas, asked whether she had heard the news about the recent arrest of a former U.S. airman from New Jersey who tried to travel to Syria to join ISIS, said she didn't understand why people were traveling overseas to engage in jihad when there were more opportunities of "pleasing Allah" in the U.S, according to the complaint.
Both women, U.S. citizens who were until recently roommates in a Queens apartment, appeared in Brooklyn federal court later Thursday. Siddiqui's attorney, Thomas Dunn, said earlier his client planned to plead not guilty.
"I know it's a serious case, but we're going to fight it out in court," he said.
Neither suspect had a bail package to present Thursday. Shawn Maher, the attorney for Velentzas, has requested medical treatment in prison for his client.
Siddiqui has repeatedly contacted members of al-Qaida overseas to offer her support, the complaint alleges. She also sent a letter of support to Mohammed Mohamud, the man arrested in November 2010 after trying to blow up a Christmas-tree lighting ceremony in Portland, Oregon; the return address was linked to York College in Jamaica.
In 2006, Siddiqui allegedly became close with Samir Khan, who later moved to Yemen, became the editor of the propagandist magazine Inspire and moved up the ranks of the terror group on the Arabian Peninsula. In 2009, Siddiqui wrote a poem published in Jihad Recollections, Inspire's predecessor, that called for readers to engage in violent jihad and destroy enemies of Islam, court papers allege.
According to the complaint, she wrote that she "drop[s] bombs" as she swings on a hammock, "taste[s] the Truth through fists and slit throats" and that there is "[n]o excuse to sit back and wait -- for the skies to rain martyrdom."
Khan was killed in Yemen about three weeks after the 2001 World Trade Center attacks, having published articles outlining his grievances against the United States, championing himself as a "traitor" and detailing the challenges of suicide bombing, Kahn published bomb-making manuals, including an article titled "Make a Bomb in the Kitchen of Your Mom."
When federal investigators interviewed Siddiqui at LaGuardia Airport in July, she denied having any contact with Khan or other terrorists or terror networks. She also denied contributing to or having been published in any jihadist magazines.
Velentzas allegedly praised the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks and told the undercover officer that being a martyr through a suicide attack guarantees entrance into heaven. According to the complaint, Velentzas showed the officer her phone, which included a background picture of bin Laden holding an AK-47, and called the infamous terrorist and his mentor, Abdullah Azzam, her heroes, the complaint says.
Siddiqui told the undercover agent Velentzas "has been obsessed" with pressure cookers since the 2013 terror attack at the Boston Marathon, according to the complaint. Velentzas told the agent she had recently gotten a pressure cooker as a present.
"You can fit a lot of things in [the pressure cooker], even if it's not food," Velentzas told the agent, apparently referencing explosive materials, according to the complaint.
In June, Velentzas allegedly told the undercover agent she and Siddiqui needed to learn how to take someone's weapon from them and fight multiple people at once.
According to the complaint, she told the agent, "If we get arrested, the police will point their guns at us from the back and maybe from the front. If we can get even one of their weapons, we can shoot them. They will probably kill us but we will be martyrs automatically and receive Allah's blessing."
In recorded conversations between Velentzas, Siddiqui and the undercover agent, the women talked about learning "science" in order to build a bomb, the complaint says. Velentzas allegedly told the other two to deny being good at science if they were ever asked about it, because that could tip off investigators to their plans. She warned about other ways they could get caught, and complained that one man who was allegedly planning to attack Manhattan's Herald Square subway station was caught because he scouted out the location.
Velentzas asked the agent why an individual would attack the subway station. When the agent replied, "Because there's a lot of people," Velentzas said, "Yeah, but just regular people," the complaint says. Court documents say the agent believed that statement indicated she would prefer to attack military or government targets rather than civilians.
The women also looked into chemistry beginner books at a public library and talked about using communications like pre-paid phones that would not be traced back to them. Siddiqui took a course on electricity and met with Velentzas and the undercover agent in a park in September to talk about how they could use wires to cause an explosion remotely, the complaint says. They also discussed how to make homemade grenades, pipe bombs and pressure cooker bombs.
In that same meeting, Velentzas said they needed to learn the science behind bomb-building to avoid being like Faisal Shahzad, the man who drove an SUV full of explosives into Times Square on a warm Saturday night in May 2010. He wasn't able to detonate the bombs. Shahzad later pleaded guilty to a 10-count indictment and was sentenced to life in prison with no chance of parole.
Siddiqui recently told the undercover agent she didn't want to talk to the officer about her progress in learning how to build a bomb, according to the criminal complaint, though it wasn't clear if that expedited Thursday's arrests.
Police Commissioner Bill Bratton condemned the suspects' alleged "sustained efforts" to obtain bomb-making materials and instructions and applauded the multi-agency team that brought them in, calling the squad a "model for early detection and prevention of terrorist plotting."
"The defendants allegedly plotted to wreak terror by creating explosive devices and even researching the pressure cooker bombs used during the Boston Marathon bombing,” said Assistant Director in Charge Diego Rodriguez.
"We remain firm in our resolve to hold accountable anyone who would seek to terrorize the American people, whether by traveling abroad to commit attacks overseas or by plotting here at home," added U.S. Attorney Loretta Lynch of the Eastern District of New York.
Both women face life imprisonment if convicted.
The case comes less than two months after three Brooklyn men were arrested for allegedly plotting to join ISIS overseas. Those three men -- Abdurasul Hasanovich Juraboev, 24, Akhror Saidakhmetov, 19, and 30-year-old Abror Habibov, have pleaded not guilty to an indictment charging them with conspiracy to provide material support to a foreign terrorist organization and travel document fraud.
Juraboev and Saidakhmetov allegedly planned to travel to Syria through Turkey, and Habibov allegedly funded the operation.
According to court documents, Juraboev first came to the attention of law enforcement in August, when he posted on an Uzbek-language website that propagates ISIS ideology. His plans included attacks against President Obama or planting a bomb on Coney Island, officials said. Another suspect discussed shooting FBI agents and police officers, the indictment alleged.
It wasn't immediately clear if authorities believed there to be a connection between the arrest of the Brooklyn men in late February and the arrest of the women Thursday.
Both women are expected to next appear in court May 4.