On April 2, two women from Queens, New York, were arrested on charges of conspiring to build a homemade bomb to be detonated in an attack in the United States, following the example of the bombers who killed three people at the Boston Marathon in 2013.
The cases against Noelle Velentzas, 28, and Asia Siddiqui, 31, offer rare insight into the actions of people accused of planning to commit a crime inspired by the ideology of groups such as Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), and also highlights the controversial practice of using undercover agents to build these cases, experts say.
Like the Tsarnaev brothers, who used a pressure cooker to build their weapon in the Boston marathon bombing, Velentzas and Siddiqui made several trips to Home Depot to acquire the necessary components to build a bomb, according to the criminal complaint, which includes an affidavit from the FBI agent who oversaw the sting operation. An undercover officer, who befriended the women and whose gender and name are not revealed in the complaint, relayed his or her interpretation of the accused to the FBI.
According to the complaint, the two women felt that the Tsarnaev brothers had erred in attacking “regular people” and instead admired a man who was charged with conspiring to hit a military base in New Jersey. A few months later, Velentzas said it would be better to attack "the enemy directly rather than people who are getting drunk or running in a marathon," the complaint paraphrased her as saying.
Quoting her directly, the agent said she believed that it’s preferable to strike "the head, the neck, the shoulders" of the "snake," but not the "tail."
Velentzas apparently considered her training to be self-defense against what she viewed as U.S. policies that harm Muslims. She studied chemistry on her own and the workings of liquid nitrogen to acquire the necessary knowledge on how to build the device. “Some women like to look at clothes. I like to look at electric equipment,” she told the agent while driving past the window of a Home Depot store in Queens they had visited before. She said she would never want to hurt anyone, but, as a Muslim, she should "be ready."
"I like to know how to defend myself, because I feel that the people that control things are very f---- up people ... They're kufar [infidels]."
At one point, the undercover agent downloaded The Anarchist Cookbook, a 1971 guide on homemade explosives, at Velentzas' suggestion and handed out the sections on explosives to the women. During a conversation with Velentzas and Siddiqui, the agent said, “We read chemistry books with breakfast. Like, who does that?” To which Velentzas responded, “People who want to make history.”
The agent's role in the women's eyes was ambiguous. At one point, when considering the possibility that they might be under surveillance, Velentzas characterized the agent as an inconspicuous student learning about detonators. "You [Siddiqui] got the beef, I got the knowledge, you [undercover agent] got the mechanics ... that's how it looks on paper," she said, according to the affidavit.
Later, Valentzas searched though 40 pages of online content on topics such as "How to Spot Undercover Police," while Siddiqui refused to inform the agent on her progress on the study of explosives.
The role of the undercover agent in capturing terror suspects is an issue deserving further scrutiny, experts say. It’s not clear whether Velentzas and Siddiqui would have acted in the same way if not for the involvement of the undercover officer, according to Katherine Brown, a defense studies lecturer at King’s College in London. “The relationship between having violent ideas, and then acting in a violent manner upon them, is unclear,” Brown said.
Rather than acting on directives from ISIL, she added, the women sounded as if they were inspired by their ideology, behaving as “lone wolves” who took their cues from online videos and manuals.
Siddiqui, who was allegedly in possession of multiple propane tanks and instructions on how to turn them into bombs, said that she submitted a poem in 2006 to a magazine called “Jihad Recollections,” a precursor to a website that now circulates ISIL propaganda. The poem describes dropping bombs to wipe nations clean of "filthy shrines” and "taste the Truth through fists and slit throats."
Mia Bloom, a professor of security studies at the University of Massachusetts, told the Associated Press the threat the women posed was overblown. “These are wannabe jihadis that sort of have this, at least in their head, projection of importance of significance," she said. "They want to build a bomb, but they don't know how to do it."
Some experts on radicalization argue that law enforcement officers should also work to prevent radicalization, rather than waiting until a suspect crosses a line and amassing incriminatory evidence in the process. “If there are enough indications to send an undercover officer to a person we’re losing [to extremism], then I ask myself the question, what could we have done to make sure the subject doesn’t further lose itself on the path of violence?” said Jessika Soors, anti-radicalization officer in Vilvoorde, a town in Belgium, a country that has the highest number of ISIL recruits per capita of all Western European nations.
Women represent a small but growing cohort of people who are adopting violent ideologies and joining ISIL. Out of 15,000 foreign fighters who left a Western country to join the war in Iraq and Syria, about 10 percent are women, according to King’s College’s Brown.
The Queens women didn't plan on leaving the United States. When the undercover agent said they couldn't be like the three British schoolgirls who left for Syria in February, because Siddiqui was "old" and Velentzas was "married," Velentzas responded, "You never know, there is other ways. ... There's other ways to do that."
The complaint quoted Velentzas as saying she didn't understand the actions of people who had tried to travel overseas to join ISIL, such as her Facebook friend, the U.S. airman Tairod Pugh from Neptune, New Jersey, who was charged in March with trying to provide support for ISIL. There were more opportunities of "pleasing Allah," here in the United States, she added.
Velentzas and Siddiqui are two of several recent cases of Americans facing criminal charges for their links to ISIL. Over the last few weeks, four Brooklyn men, the most recent one arrested on Monday, on charges of trying to support ISIL by helping to raise money to buy plane tickets to travel to Turkey and reach Syria.
With the Associated Press