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PoliceOne Analysis: The Pimentel arrest and Federal authority

Concluding that local authorities should avoid pursuing terrorism charges just because federal officials might not agree may underestimate the capabilities, effectiveness, and professionalism of state and municipal counterterrorism units

The recent arrest and arraignment of accused terrorist Jose Pimentel in New York City shows that often times local or state officials may not see eye-to-eye with federal authorities on terrorism charges, but such a disagreement should not be seen as a criticism of the NYPD’s ability to investigate or arrest terrorists.

Pimentel, a petty criminal born in the Dominical Republic, was known in some circles by his Islamic name, Muhammed Yusef. Inspired by the late Anwar al-Awalki. Pimentel was on the cusp of transitioning between adherence to a radical da’wa to violent jihad when arrested, thwarting what City authorities believed to have been an impending terrorist bomb attack.

Pimentel’s mother had since apologized to New Yorkers for her son’s actions.

Characterized as a "Stoner"
According to both the New York Times and other press reports the FBI and Department of Justice have been unwilling to take the case for a variety of reasons, one of which may have been the questionable confidential informant involved in the case. Tom Hays of the Associated Press has written that federal officials told him that Pimentel reportedly did not have the “predisposition or the ability” to carry out a terrorist attack.

Some in the press and the public may see this as an over-reach by New York City officials, especially in light of the NYPD’s controversial relationship http://rt.com/usa/news/nypd-cia-muslims-undercover-911-073/ with the Central Intelligence Agency in monitoring and recruiting local Muslims in what may be one of the most aggressive (and possibly effective) locally-initiated counterterrorism operations in the country.

What this may be instead is an understandable disconnect between local and federal officials on exactly what constitutes terrorism.

A Little History
This issue is not new, and Rand Corporation researchers Kevin Jack Riley and Bruce Hoffman noted as early as 1995 that “many state and local law enforcement organizations consider a wider range of activities and acts as terrorist, or potentially terrorist, than does the FBI.”

This would not be the first time such a disconnect occurred. In March 2007, a traffic stop in Goose Creek (S.C.) led to the detention and charging of two University of Southern Florida (USF) students, Yousef Megahed and Ahmed Mohamed, on charges of terrorism because of what local officials believed to have been bomb material stored in their car’s trunk.

Tampa’s local Joint Terrorism Task Force reportedly searched a Temple Terrace home, once rented by the World and Islam Studies Enterprise, as a result of the boys’ arrest. The Enterprise was founded by convicted jihad supporter Sami al-Arian, a political influence peddler and one-time faculty member at USF. USF was also the academic home of Ramadan Abdullah Mohammad Shallah, who left the university in 1995 to become a leader of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, a terrorist organization. He remains on the FBI’s most wanted terrorist list.

However, soon after the young men’s arrest the FBI raised doubts about the original charges because, in what was reportedly an expert opinion, the material found in the trunk was not a complete bomb and could have well been the low-grade fireworks the two men claimed it was.

Unluckily for Mohamed, a YouTube video surfaced of him demonstrating how to make a bomb detonator out of a remote control car and he was found guilty of federal charges of “providing material support to terrorists” in August 2008.

Megahed was eventually acquitted but was re-arrested by federal authorities three days later on an immigration warrant claiming he was part of a terrorist cell despite his recent acquittal. A federal immigration judge dismissed the government claims in August 2009.

In fact, federal authorities do not always agree among themselves on what constitutes terrorism. The Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse has noted that federal prosecutions reflect only about 25 percent of those charged with terrorism. They concluded that the low numbers likely show the disagreement on the definition of terrorism, weak or insufficient admissible evidence, lack of criminal intent, or that the act itself was not a federal offense.

Local Authorities’ Authority
In Pimentel’s case, jumping to the conclusion that federal authorities are not interested in prosecuting him is premature. The investigation is ongoing and it would be fair to say all the evidence is not yet in. As in other cases, federal authorities could pick up the prosecution on federal charges once the investigation nears completion.

Additionally, concluding that local authorities should avoid terrorism charges just because federal officials may not agree may underestimate the capabilities, effectiveness, and professionalism of the NYPD counterterrorism unit.

Federal authorities do not and should not hold a monopoly on terrorism and the law. If Pimentel was as close to making and detonating his three pipe bombs New York mayor Bloomberg and Commissioner Kelly have said, they had no option other than Pimentel’s arrest and indictment, even without federal support.

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