NEW YORK — Five days before his trial was to start, a Manhattan man accused of planning to wage a personal jihad against the United States with pipe bombs pleaded guilty Wednesday to reduced charges in a deal with prosecutors.
Jose Pimentel was facing state terrorism charges for building an inexpensive pipe bomb in an informer’s apartment, and starting to work on two others, according to an indictment. Prosecutors said they had evidence that he meant to detonate bombs in New York City in retaliation for the death of Anwar al-Awlaki, a radical Muslim cleric in Yemen.
But on Wednesday, Pimentel appeared in state Supreme Court in Manhattan to plead guilty to the reduced charges of a single count of attempted criminal possession of a weapon in the first degree as a crime of terrorism. As part of the plea deal, he agreed to serve 16 years in prison and five years of probation when he is sentenced on March 25; he had faced 15 years to life in prison under the original charges of weapons possession and conspiracy as crimes of terrorism.
Pimentel’s lawyers had contended that their client was entrapped by the police. They describe him as a down-on-his-luck young man who was easily enticed by the informer to build bombs after being plied for months with free food and marijuana.
One of the defense lawyers, Susan Walsh, said Pimentel had decided it was not worth risking an even lengthier prison term on the hopes that the defense team could prove that Pimentel had been lured into making the bomb. “The fundamental question that will not be answered, at least in the court of law, is who exactly is recruiting whom in this war on terror,” Walsh said outside court.
Pimentel, 29, dressed in an orange jump suit, seemed calm as he changed his plea to guilty before Judge Thomas Farber. He wore wire-rim glasses, a short cropped beard, and a black Islamic skullcap.
Farber said the plea agreement was a three-page document that included a signed admission by Pimentel. In that admission, the defendant admitted he had built a pipe bomb with an informer named Abdul in November 2011, after getting the instructions from Inspire magazine, an online jihadist publication. In the letter, he said he intended to set off the bombs “to undermine the support of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.”
Deborah Hickey, the assistant district attorney handling the case, said the state had evidence that Pimentel intended to attack returning soldiers, Army recruitment offices, police officers, and Jews. Hickey said the sentence was appropriate, because it was more than the minimum sentence he might have received had a jury convicted him on the top count of the indictment.
Pimentel, a Dominican native who converted to Islam, was arrested in November 2011. The arrest stemmed from a lengthy sting operation in which police used an undercover officer, two confidential informers, and hundreds of hours of recorded conversations.
The case in state court was unusual because the federal authorities typically handle terrorism prosecutions. But the FBI, which had monitored Pimentel, decided not to pursue charges, and the Manhattan district attorney, Cyrus R. Vance Jr., took on the task.
No evidence has been produced in court that Pimentel had co-conspirators or was taking instructions from terrorist organizations abroad. He has been described as a lone wolf.
At a news conference, Police Commissioner William J. Bratton said Pimentel was typical of the homegrown, self-made terrorist that organizations like Al Qaeda had tried to inspire through jihadist websites and anti-Western propaganda. “This young man really was self-radicalized,” Bratton said.