WASHINGTON — A Pakistani-born Virginia man was arrested Wednesday and accused of casing Washington-area subway stations in what he thought was an al-Qaida plot to bomb and kill 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 and accused of 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.
Federal investigators said that, starting in April, Ahmed met several times with people he believed were al-Qaida operatives. During one of those meetings, investigators said, he agreed to watch and photograph a hotel in Washington and a subway station in Arlington, Va. He also was accused of recording video of an Arlington subway station on four occasions, and agreeing to get security information about two stations.
According to the indictment:
_Ahmed took video of four northern Virginia subway stations – Arlington Cemetery, Courthouse, Pentagon City and Crystal City, which is near the Pentagon – and monitored security at a hotel in the District of Columbia. In a series of meetings at hotels in northern Virginia, Ahmed provided the videos to someone he believed was part of a terrorist organization and said he wanted to donate $10,000 to help the overseas fight and collect donations in a way that would not raise red flags.
_In a Sept. 28 meeting in a Herndon, Va. hotel, Ahmed also suggested that terror operatives use rolling suitcases to blow up the subway instead of backpacks. During that same meeting Ahmed said he wanted to kill as many military personnel as possible and suggested an additional attack on a Crystal City subway station.
The indictment alleges he also handed over diagrams of the Arlington subway stations and gave suggestions about where to put explosives on trains 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. The Washington Post quoted an unidentified administration official as saying Ahmed drew the attention of law enforcement officials by seeking to obtain unspecified materials.
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. The profile listed Ahmed as a network planning engineer for Ericsson and said he previously worked with Verizon and Sprint.
In Reston, Va., Ericsson Federal Inc., issued a statement confirming that Ahmed had done contract work for the company, which promised cooperation with the federal investigation.
A check of legal records for Ahmed found several traffic offenses in Virginia, including speeding.
Officers with the FBI, the Virginia State Police and the Loudoun County Sheriff's Office left the brick town house where Ahmed lives on Wednesday afternoon. One took a photo of the entrance and another carried out a plastic bag containing used exam gloves.
In some ways, Ahmed and his family seemed like many other suburbanites.
Ahmed's wife, Sahar, joined the Hip Muslim Moms, a support group for women with children under 5 years old, and brought her young son to play dates with other mothers, said group organizer Esraa Bani. She had moved to the area and was looking for a mothers group when she joined. She was very quiet and kept to herself.
Next door neighbor Marc Otterbac described the family as "pretty reclusive," but said he talked with Ahmed and his wife on occasion. He recalled commenting once that a dinner they were cooking smelled good and the family brought him some saffron rice and chicken.
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."
Associated Press writers Eileen Sullivan, Matt Apuzzo and Sarah Brumfield in Washington, Brett Zongker in Arlington, Va., Kathleen Miller in Reston, Va., and Kasey Jones and Ben Nuckols in Baltimore contributed to this report.