US citizens Noelle Velentzas, 28, and Asia Siddiqui, 31 were arrested early Thursday in New York and each charged with conspiracy to use weapons of mass destruction resulting from a multi-year undercover operation waged by the Federal Bureau of Investigation. If convicted, they each face a maximum sentence of life in prison.
According to the FBI, Velentzas and Siddiqui had been researching instructions on how to make homemade bombs and were considering detonating one inside the US as part of a domestic terrorist attack.
“The defendants allegedly plotted to wreak terror by creating explosive devices and even researching the pressure cooker bombs used during the Boston Marathon bombing,” Diego Rodriguez, the assistant director in charge of the FBI’s New York Field Office, said in a statement Thursday. “We continue to pursue those who look to commit acts of terror and deter others who think they are beyond the reach of law enforcement.”
The FBI had been investigating the pair since at least May 2013, according to a sworn affidavit used to justify the arrests of the women this week, and began collecting intelligence on the two beginning in August 2014 when Velentzas and Siddiqui started conversing with an undercover agent. Together, the three traded recipes for explosives taken from online articles, studied chemistry textbooks and discussed past acts of terror, according to the FBI, and were weighing an attack of their own. The agency claims the public was never in danger.
All three met regularly from Aug. 2014 up until recently, according to the complaint, and Velentzas acknowledged to the undercover agent in one tape recorded conversation that the trio, in the eyes of federal authorities, “look like a cell.”
Court documents suggest the defendants had shared a Queens, NY apartment, but Siddiqui reportedly moved out recently and, according to the affidavit, had begun acquiring the ingredients needed to make an improvised explosive inside her new residence. She was “currently in possession of multiple propane gas tanks, as well as instructions for how to transform propane tanks into explosive devices,” as of Wednesday this week when the affidavit was filed in support of the arrests conducted early the next day.
Authorities say that Siddiqui become friends in 2009 with Samir Khan, an influential Al Qaeda member who has since been executed by a US-launched drone strike, and allege that she wrote a letter in 2011 to Mohamed Mohamud, a Somali-American man currently serving a 30-year prison for a failed Portland, Oregon car bomb plot.
On her part, Velentzas, her ex-roommate, considered former Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden to be a personal “hero,” according to authorities, and had discussed becoming a martyr to “receive Allah’s blessing.” She was “Facebook friends” with Tairod Pugh, a US Air Force vet currently under indictment for attempting to provide material support to the so-called Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, and had confided in the undercover agent that she had been disgusted with the US, according to authorities.
READ MORE: FBI accuses Air Force vet of planning to join ISIS
The complaint unsealed this week alleges that the two women have espoused violent jihadist beliefs, according to the results thus far of the FBI’s lengthy investigation, and have repeatedly expressed interest in terrorist attacking committed within the US, perhaps more so in recent months amid the emergence ISIS. Velentzas told the undercover agent in one conversation that “attacks on ISIS were tantamount to attacks on her own state,” according to the complaint, and together the two watched videos of beheadings carried out by the extremist group.
When Pugh was arrested last month and accused of plotting a trip to Syria to join the ranks of ISIS, according to the complaint, Velentzas told the agent that there were more opportunities of “pleasing Allah” in the US than overseas, in her opinion.
“Identifying and disrupting such threats to public safety, whether at home or abroad, is the number one priority of the National Security Division and our partners in the law enforcement and intelligence communities,” Assistant Attorney General for National Security John P. Carlin said in a statement.
Last week, the FBI announced that two men had been arrested in Illinois and charged with conspiring to attack the US from overseas on behalf of ISIS. One of the men, a current member of the Illinois National Guard, was arrested last Wednesday at Chicago’s Midway International Airport while attempting to board a flight destined to Cairo. There, authorities say, he hoped to travel to Syria and join up with the extremist group.
A New York Police Department official confirmed to CBS News that the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force made the arrests Thursday morning with the help of the NYPD. Velentzas and Siddiqui were expected to appear in court later in the afternoon.