A Pakistani-born American was arrested Wednesday and accused of casing Washington area subway stations in what he thought was an al-Qaida plot to bomb and kill DC area commuters.
The bombing plot was a ruse conducted over the past six months, the FBI said, but 34-year-old Farooque Ahmed readily handed over video of northern Virginia subway stations, suggested using rolling suitcases rather than backpacks to kill as many people as possible and offered to donate money to al-Qaida's cause overseas.
The public never was in danger because FBI agents were aware of Ahmed's activities and monitored him throughout, the agency said. And the people that Ahmed thought were al-Qaida operatives were actually individuals who worked on behalf of the government, according to a federal law enforcement official who requested anonymity to discuss details of the case.
Ahmed was indicted under seal by a federal grand jury in Alexandria, Va. on Tuesday, and the charges were made public Wednesday. He is accused of attempting to provide material support to a designated terrorist organization, collecting information to assist in planning a terrorist attack on a transit facility, and attempting to provide material support to carry out multiple bombings to cause mass casualties. Ahmed, a naturalized citizen, lives in Ashburn, Va., outside Washington.
During a brief court appearance in federal court in Alexandria, Ahmed did not enter a plea and was ordered held without bond. He told U.S. Magistrate Judge John Anderson he couldn't afford to hire a lawyer. Prosecutors said they planned to use some classified information as evidence in the case.
U.S. Attorney Neil MacBride said in a statement that it was "chilling that a man from Ashburn is accused of casing rail stations with the goal of killing as many Metro riders as possible through simultaneous bomb attacks."
Ahmed's arrest comes as the U.S. has been struggling with an uptick in Americans plotting terrorist attacks in the past 18 months.
Last week, a Hawaii man was arrested for making false statements to the FBI about his plans to attend terrorist training in Pakistan. In August, a Virginia man was caught trying to leave the country to fight with an al-Qaida-affiliated group in Somalia. And in May, Faisal Shazhad, a naturalized citizen also from Pakistan, tried to set off a car bomb at a bustling street corner in New York City. U.S. authorities had no intelligence about Shahzad's plot until the smoking car turned up in Manhattan.
The FBI has made several cases with agents working undercover: Last year, authorities arrested a Jordanian national after he tried to detonate what he thought was a bomb outside a Dallas skyscraper. In an unrelated case, authorities in Springfield, Ill., arrested a man after he tried to set off what he thought were explosives in a van outside a federal courthouse. In both cases, decoy devices were provided to the men by FBI agents posing as al-Qaida operatives.
Investigators say that starting in April, Ahmed began meeting with someone he thought was an al-Qaida courier who put him touch with others who asked him if he'd willing to do surveillance of stops on the subway system, known as the Metro.
Court documents say he watched and took picture at four stations, all in Virginia, and made sketches. He suggested putting bombs in rolling suitcases for simultaneous explosions in 2011, the FBI says. The three stations he picked out would help "kill as many military personnel as possible," according to court documents, apparently because of the use of those lines by people going to and from the Pentagon.
"At no time was the public in danger" as "the FBI was aware of Ahmed's activities from before the alleged attempt began and closely monitored his activities until his arrest," the department said.
The department said the indictment laid out this timeline of events:
- On April 18, "Ahmed allegedly drove to a hotel in Dulles, Va., and met with a courier he believed to be affiliated with a terrorist organization who provided Ahmed with a document that provided potential locations at which future meetings could be arranged."
- On or about May 15, "at a hotel in Herndon, Va., Ahmed allegedly agreed to watch and photograph another hotel in Washington, D.C., and a Metrorail station in Arlington, Va., to obtain information about their security and busiest periods."
- On or about July 19, "in a hotel room in Sterling, Va., Ahmed allegedly handed a memory stick containing video images of a Metrorail station in Arlington to an individual whom Ahmed believed to be affiliated with al-Qaida."
- On that same day, "Ahmed allegedly agreed to assess the security of two other Metrorail stations in Arlington as locations of terrorist attacks."
- On or about Sept. 28, "in a hotel room in Herndon, Ahmed handed a USB drive containing images of two Metrorail stations in Arlington to an individual whom Ahmed believed to be affiliated with al-Qaida."
- On or about Sept. 28, "Ahmed provided to an individual whom he believed to be affiliated with al-Qaida diagrams that Ahmed drew of three Metrorail stations in Arlington and provided suggestions as to where explosives should be placed on trains in Metrorail stations in Arlington to kill the most people in simultaneous attacks planned for 2011.
At the White House, press secretary Robert Gibbs said President Barack Obama was aware of the investigation before Ahmed was arrested. Gibbs also offered assurances that the public was never in danger.
In a statement, David Kris, assistant attorney general for national security, said the case "demonstrates how the government can neutralize such threats before they come to fruition."
"Farooque Ahmed is accused of plotting with individuals he believed were terrorists to bomb our transit system, but a coordinated law enforcement and intelligence effort was able to thwart his plans," Kris said.
There are no indications Ahmed was connected with larger terrorist groups like al-Qaida, according to a U.S. counterterrorism official, who requested anonymity to discuss an intelligence matter.
Nonetheless, the arrest came as unsettling news for some Washington area commuters.
"As I look around, I think about how vulnerable we are," said 45-year-old McCarthy Council, who lives near the Pentagon City Metro station. "I'm just going to stay off the Metro system for now."
Mary Brereton, 55, a personal trainer who lives in nearby Alexandria, Va., said she's more worried about the safety of Metro's trains after a deadly crash last year than about a terrorist attack.
"Who was it who said, 'If we live in fear every day, then 9/11 was a success?'" she said. "You just can't."
Andrew Ames, a spokesman for the FBI Washington field office, declined to comment on how authorities learned about Ahmed.
Ahmed faces up to 50 years in prison if convicted.
A LinkedIn page that was created for Farooque Ahmed identifies him as a network planning engineer with a bachelor's degree in computer science from the City College of New York in 2003, during the same period that other records showed he had been living in New York. In Reston, Va., Ericsson Federal Inc., issued a statement confirming that Ahmed had done contract work for the company, which company promised cooperation with the federal investigation.
Officers with the FBI, the Virginia State Police and the Loudoun County Sheriff's Office left the brick townhouse where Ahmed lives on Wednesday afternoon. One took a photo of the entrance and another carried out a plastic bag containing used exam gloves.
Margaret Petney, who lives on the same block as Ahmed in Ashburn, said Ahmed moved in about a year and a half ago with his wife and young child, and that they wore traditional Muslim clothing.
"They didn't seem to be too friendly with anybody," Petney said. "You never know who lives around you."
NBC's Pete Williams contributed to this report.