The slender, bearded Pakistani man attended a Fort Lauderdale-area high school. He struggled to make a living by selling bicycles on Craigslist, working at the Swap Shop and doing maintenance at a local mosque.
But secretly, Raees Alam Qazi operated as a terrorist who plotted with al-Qaida to blow up a bomb in New York City last month, authorities said Tuesday, citing the defendant’s post-arrest statement to the FBI in late November.
Over the Thanksgiving holiday weekend, Qazi took a Greyhound bus from Fort Lauderdale to New York and rode a bicycle around Manhattan, surveying possible target sites such as Wall Street, Times Square and the theater district, authorities said.
FBI agents seized strings of Christmas lights, batteries and peroxide from his Oakland Park home — materials that were going to be used for either a suicide-style bombing or remote detonation, a federal prosecutor said.
Details about Qazi surfaced at his detention hearing in Fort Lauderdale federal court, where the prosecutor described him and his older brother as partners in a terrorism conspiracy to kill Americans to avenge for deadly drone attacks in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
“He was reaching out to al-Qaida,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Karen Gilbert argued at the younger brother’s detention hearing. “He wanted to avenge these deaths and kill people.”
The brothers, Qazi, 20, and 30-year-old Sheheryar Alam Qazi, both naturalized U.S. citizens from Oakland Park, were arrested Nov. 29 on charges of conspiracy to use a weapon of mass destruction and conspiracy to provide material support to terrorists.
The younger brother’s defense attorney, Daniel Ecarius, argued to no avail that his client has “strong ties” to his family and the community. He also said his client cannot travel to Pakistan because he has been on a “no-fly list for some time.”
Magistrate Judge William Matthewman ordered the younger brother to remain in detention before trial; the older brother had already agreed to detention and did not appear at the hearing.
“I really feel I’m legally constrained to detain this defendant,” Matthewman said, citing Raees Alam Qazi’s risk of flight, danger to the community and federal law requiring detention for this type of terrorism charge.
At the hearing, an FBI agent said that investigators first learned about the brothers’ terrorism plot after a confidential informant “bumped into” Raees Alam Qazi in July. That month, Qazi had also traveled to Peshawar, Pakistan.
The FBI conducted surveillance of the brothers’ home and cellphones, and learned about the younger brother’s alleged contacts with al-Qaida.
The older brother, who drove a taxicab, helped his brother financially, including buying a computer that was allegedly used to plan the attack in New York.
The older brother was recorded describing his brother as a “lone wolf,” like the Times Square bomber who was arrested in 2010.
Gilbert, the prosecutor, said Raees Alam Qazi researched how to make a bomb on the Internet, studying al-Qaida’s English-language online magazine, “Inspire.”
She said his goal was to get a job in New York to support himself and to buy materials for the bomb plot.
Qazi left for New York on Nov. 23, staying a few days to scout out target sites, but he abandoned his plan after he ran out of money. His older brother had to send him bus fare to return.
Upon his return to Fort Lauderdale on Nov. 29, the Qazi brothers were arrested in Oakland Park.
Raees Alam Qazi initially denied everything, then confessed to the bombing plot, according to Gilbert, who is working on the case with prosecutor Jared Dwyer.
During the hearing, an FBI agent summarized the government’s case, focusing on the younger Qazi’s trip to New York.
“Mr. Qazi said in his post-arrest statement that he rode around on his bike in New York City looking for targets, but he never specifically picked one,” FBI agent Kristine Holden said.
Until Tuesday’s hearing, the U.S. attorney’s office had revealed few details about the alleged bombing plot, saying only that it had been thwarted.
“Any potential threat posed by these two individuals has been disrupted,” Wifredo Ferrer, the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Florida, said in a statement issued after the brothers’ arrests.
“Since September 11, 2001, the top priority of the Department of Justice and this U.S. Attorney’s Office has been to deter and prosecute acts of terrorism.”
The Qazi case is being investigated by the FBI’s South Florida Joint Terrorism Task Force.
If convicted, the Qazis each face a sentence of up to 15 years in prison on the material-support charge, and a potential life sentence on the weapon-of-mass-destruction charge.