According to the complaint filed in federal district court in New York, Quazi Mohammad Rezwanul Ahsan Nafis, 21, a student from Bangladesh arrested Wednesday and charged with trying to blow up the Federal Reserve Bank of New York in Manhattan’s Financial District, was the latest Islamist militant to try to follow the example of the radical cleric Anwar al-Awlaki and the English-language magazine, Inspire, created in his honor. Quazi Nafis, who came to the United States last January on a student visa, had big dreams. He didn’t want just to assassinate a senior, unidentified American official, or launch an attack on a military base in Baltimore that would kill only a single guard. He wanted to destroy something “very very very very big” and “shake the whole country” to its core, just as his “beloved Sheikh” Osama bin Laden had done, the complaint quotes him as saying. He also wanted to kill as many people as possible, including women and children—and perhaps even stop the U.S. election. Such an attack, he told an undercover agent pretending to be an al-Qaida activist in touch with al-Qaida abroad, would bring radical Islamists “one step closer to run[ning] the whole world.” Attacking such a high-profile economic target as the New York Fed, he reasoned, he would help “destroy America.” Finally, he boasted, he wanted his glorious deed and a video explaining his motivation to be posted on the Internet—and in Inspire.
Awlaki, the U.S.-born cleric of Yemeni descent and leader of al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, was killed in September 2011 in a U.S. drone attack in Yemen. So, too, was Samir Khan, Inspire’s chief editor, a Saudi-born militant raised in New York. But Awlaki and Inspire have continued influencing young Islamist militants throughout the English-speaking world—Nafsi being just the latest. According to the New York Police Department’s intelligence division, at least 12 men with links to New York City have been involved in various terrorist plots partly inspired by the radical sheikh or his jihadi-hip magazine.
Zarein Ahmedzay, an Afghan immigrant who attended Flushing High school, and Najibullah Zazi, another Afghan immigrant, pleaded guilty earlier this year to trying to blow up subways with two other Muslim militants in a plotted suicide strike in 2009. Partly because of their testimony, a jury took less than two days to convict co-conspirator Adis Medunjanin, Ahmedzay’s former high school classmate, in what authorities called the most serious terror threat since the September 11 attacks. Both Zazi and Ahmedzay testified that they and Medunjanin had sought terror training after being influenced by recordings of Sheikh Awlaki that they had downloaded on their iPods.
Awlaki was also a major inspiration for Mohamed Alessa, the American-born son of Palestinian immigrants who lived in North Bergen, New Jersey, and co-conspirator Carlos Almonte. Homegrown New Jersey wannabe jihadis, Alessa, 20, and Almonte, 24, were arrested at John F. Kennedy International Airport en route to Somalia with the stated intention of joining an Islamic extremist group to kill American troops there. They were described by friends in a sympathetic profile in the New York Times as “hapless blowhards, more pathetic than perilous,” but court papers in the case quote Alessa’s intense desire to kill American soldiers in Somalia—or, if he couldn’t link up with an al-Qaida-related group there, to murder non-Muslims at home in America. “My soul cannot rest ’til I shed blood,” Alessa is quoted as saying. To avoid suspicion, the complaint states, the “hapless blowhard” used a credit card, not cash, to buy round-trip, rather than one-way, tickets, on separate flights for the duo.
The NYPD’s intelligence division also cites the case of Zachary Chesser, a Muslim convert from Fairfax, Virginia sentenced to 25 years in jail in February 2011 for threatening and soliciting violent retribution against the writers of the satirical TV series South Park. Chesser acknowledged having posted on a jihadist website the creators’ personal contact information as well as speeches and sermons by Awlaki. Jesse Morton (a.k.a. Younus Abdullah Mohammad), a Muslim convert from New York, also received an 11-year sentence last June after threatening the South Park writers for their depiction of the Muslim prophet Mohammed.
Betim Kaziu, a Brooklyn resident of Macedonian descent, received 27 years in jail on terrorism charges last March after traveling overseas to try to buy weapons and join radical foreign-fighter groups. He, too, was radicalized partly by Awlaki’s sermons on the Internet. Faisal Shahzad, a Pakistani-American sentenced to life in prison for trying to blow up an explosives-laden car in Times Square in May 2010, said he had been inspired to carry out the attack by the death of innocent civilians in American drone strikes—and by Awlaki’s sermons.
Finally, consider the case of Jose Pimentel, a.k.a. Muhammad Yusuf, whom the New York Police Department had been monitoring since May 2009. Last November, the New York City resident was charged with plotting to build pipe bombs to blow up police cars and post offices, among other targets, including veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan. Pimentel, 27, a Dominican Republic–born American citizen and Muslim convert, had sent Inspire a 20-page ode to bin Laden for publication. “I will, God willing, destroy America in writing, until I can do so in the field,” he wrote in April 2011 in an e-mail that accompanied his article. Awlaki’s death by drone was the apparent trigger of his plot. Pimentel, investigators say, succeeded in buying and collecting the materials needed to build his pipe bombs by following a recipe he read in Inspire that showed how to build a bomb “in the Kitchen of your Mom.”
Nafis allegedly sought the same kind of notoriety in his quest to join a long list of martyrs for Islam. “All I had in my mind are how to destroy America,” the complaint quotes him as saying. “We will not stop until we attain victory or martyrdom.”
While the United States has decimated al-Qaida’s senior leadership and placed the violent Islamists themselves under enormous pressure, the actions of such young men, however desperate, attest to the continued appeal of Awlaki’s message. If the movement is “on its heels”—as the Obama administration’s recently abandoned talking points allege—Nafis and his cohorts apparently didn’t get the memo.