Two South Florida brothers are likely to spend decades behind bars after pleading guilty Thursday to plotting with terrorists to blow up New York City landmarks.
Raees Alam Qazi, 22, and Sheheryar Alam Qazi, 32 — naturalized U.S. citizens from Pakistan who had lived together in Oakland Park before their arrests in 2012 — admitted that they conspired to provide “material support” to terrorists.
In addition, the younger brother also pleaded guilty to attempting to support a foreign terrorist organization, al-Qaida.
Raees Qazi played the lead role as he traveled to New York over the Thanksgiving weekend in 2012 to carry out the plot, including riding round the city on his bicycle to survey target sites 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 agreements.
“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.”
The difference in their roles will mean the younger brother could receive a 32-year sentence, while the older brother might get 17 years in prison. Those are the terms of a joint recommendation between federal prosecutors Karen Gilbert and Adam Fels and defense attorneys Daniel Ecarius and William Barzee.
Another factor in their sentencings scheduled for early June: Both brothers also pleaded guilty that they conspired to assault U.S. marshals last year while they were in custody.
U.S. District Judge Beth Bloom, however, will have the final say on their punishment.
In exchange for their pleas, prosecutors plan to dismiss 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 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 also 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. There, he rode a bicycle around Manhattan, surveying possible landmarks to blow up, according to the FBI. 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 Qazi initially denied everything, then confessed to the bombing plot, according to Gilbert.
FBI agents seized strings of Christmas lights, batteries and peroxide from the brothers’ Oakland Park home — materials that were going to be used for either a suicide-style bombing or remote detonation, Gilbert said.
Earlier this year, the Qazi brothers were additionally accused of attempting to murder two U.S. marshals while they escorted them in April 2014 within the U.S. courthouse complex in Miami. On Thursday, both brothers pleaded guilty to conspiring to assaulting the federal officers.
The brothers “attempted to use lethal force” on U.S. marshals “while exclaiming ‘Allahu Akbar,’ an Arabic exhortation meaning ‘God is Great,’ ’’ according to the U.S. attorney’s office.