A federal judge Thursday branded a young South Florida man as a “terrorist” — “evil in nature and evil in your deed” — before sentencing him to the maximum 35 years in prison.
U.S. District Judge Beth Bloom compared the locally hatched plot by Raees Alam Qazi to blow up New York City landmarks to the deadly 2013 Boston Marathon bombing, saying “your intentions will never be understood.”
Bloom also sentenced his older brother, Sheheryar Alam Qazi, to the maximum 20 years in prison for “supporting your brother’s devotion to al-Qaida.”
Raees Qazi, 22, and Sheheryar Qazi, 32 — naturalized U.S. citizens from Pakistan who lived together in Oakland Park before their arrests in 2012 — pleaded guilty in March to conspiring to provide “material support” to terrorists. Both also pleaded guilty to assaulting U.S. marshals while they were in custody last year.
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The younger brother also pleaded guilty to attempting to support a foreign terrorist organization, al-Qaida.
At Thursday’s sentencing hearing, the judge asked the brothers — who cut plea deals in the hope of receiving slightly lower sentences — if they wanted to say anything. Both men declined.
Bloom, who is new to the federal bench, chastised the men for becoming enemies to “a country that opened its doors” to them.
She reminded Raees Qazi that he received a high school education and took college classes in the Fort Lauderdale area. “You chose to engage in conduct that can only be defined as evil and reprehensible,” she said.
She reminded Sheheryar Qazi that he was married and sent his son to preschool in the same area.
During the hearing, Bloom highlighted not only the brothers’ bombing plot, but also their assault on two U.S. marshals last year while they were in custody. One was placed in a choke hold, and the other was struck in the face.
Bloom praised the FBI for having “prevented what could have been the tragic loss of many lives” in New York.
Signifying the importance of the case, several federal officials, including U.S. Attorney Wifredo Ferrer, issued statements declaring that “national security remains our number one priority.”
According to court records, Raees Qazi played the lead role as he traveled to New York over the Thanksgiving weekend in 2012 to carry out the plot, riding a bicycle around the city to survey targets such as Wall Street, Times Square and the theater district.
“The investigation revealed that Raees Alam Qazi, the younger brother, was going to initiate the attack and that he was financially and emotionally supported by his older brother, Sheheryar Alam Qazi,” according to a factual statement filed with their plea agreement. “Although Sheheryar Alam Qazi likely did not know all of the details of the planned operation, he encouraged his brother to succeed in this task.”
In court papers, both sides recommended that the younger brother receive a prison sentence almost double that of the older brother — 32 years and 17 years, respectively — because of the different roles they played in the plot. In Miami federal court Thursday, prosecutors Karen Gilbert and Adam Fels and defense attorneys Daniel Ecarius and William Barzee reiterated their recommendation, but the judge opted for harsher punishment for both brothers, calling it “just.”
Ecarius objected to his client’s 35-year sentence, but Barzee did not object to 20 years for his client.
In exchange for the pleas, prosecutors dismissed other charges in the brothers’ indictment, including conspiring to use a weapon of mass destruction and attempting to murder a federal employee. Those offenses carried up to life and 20 years, respectively.
According to court records and prior testimony, investigators first learned about the brothers’ terrorism plot in the summer of 2011. Raees Qazi also traveled to Peshawar, Pakistan, through the end of that year.
The FBI, meanwhile, conducted surveillance of the brothers’ Oakland Park home and cellphones, and learned about the younger brother’s alleged contacts with al-Qaida.
Gilbert, the prosecutor, said that in August 2012, Sheheryar Qazi told an FBI informant in a recorded conversation that his brother was “hooked up with al-Qaida.” Gilbert also described Sheheryar Qazi’s wife as an “unindicted co-conspirator” who was fully aware of the alleged plot.
Sheheryar Qazi, who had worked for Yellow Cab, helped his brother financially, including buying a computer from an FBI informant. Raees Qazi researched how to make a bomb on the Internet, studying al-Qaida’s English-language online magazine, Inspire, according to the factual statement.
“Raees Alam Qazi participated in online computer forums discussing violent jihad and he maintained two YouTube channels in which he discussed various topics, including Anwar al-Awlaki and Inspire,” the factual statement said. Al-Awlaki was a radical U.S.-born al-Qaida spiritual leader killed by a drone strike in Yemen in 2011.
Sheheryar Qazi was also recorded describing his younger brother as a “lone wolf,” like the Times Square bomber who was arrested in 2010 in an attempt to attack the Comedy Central building.
The younger brother was recorded talking to another FBI informant, confirming that he was ready to carry out the “will” of his al-Qaida “handlers.” In September 2012, Raees Qazi confided that he was on a “different course” for his jihad — that he would not be using an “assault rifle” or “rocket-propelled grenade,” but would be doing “different things.”
On Nov. 23, 2012, Raees Qazi traveled with a friend in a van from Fort Lauderdale to New York and rode a bicycle around Manhattan, surveying possible landmarks to blow up, according to the FBI. 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 Qazi initially denied everything, then confessed to the bombing plot.
FBI agents seized strings of Christmas lights, batteries and peroxide from the brothers’ Oakland Park home — materials that prosecutors said were going to be used for either a suicide-style bombing or remote detonation.