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Shock, Anguish Uptown as Neighborhood Reacts to Terrorism Arrest

November 13, 2012

Carmen Sosa, mother of suspected terrorist Jose Pimentel, speaks to the media outside her apartment on West 137th Street (Photo by Lucy Pawle)

Read this on The Uptowner

Fighting back tears, Carmen Sosa apologized today for her son’s alleged actions. “I didn’t raise him that way,” she said of Jose Pimentel, 27, arrested Saturday on terrorism charges. “He changed.”

Speaking in the hallway outside the apartment they shared on West 137th Street, where he was arrested, Sosa said she was “very disappointed in my son.”  Police said Pimentel, an unemployed U.S. citizen of Dominican origin and apparently influenced by the jihadi writings of Anwar al-Awlaki, was plotting to bomb U.S. military personnel, police cars and precinct houses and uptown post offices.

Sosa explained that Pimentel began reading the Koran in 2001 and said his increasing radicalization had prompted her, two years ago, to move him back to New York from Schenectady, N.Y., where he had been living at her other home.  “I brought him here because I didn’t like the way he was acting,” she said.

Shock and disbelief were the primary uptown reactions to Saturday’s arrest.

Harlem and Washington Heights neighbors who knew Pimentel, reportedly under police surveillance since 2009, said he spent his days sitting alone outside the apartment building, smoking cigarettes.

“He seemed nice,” said Simon Islam, 36, who moved into the building five months ago with his wife and daughters. “He used to talk to everyone when they came in and out the building, but he was very quiet. He just used to smoke,” Islam said.

Juan Rey, whose mother lives in the building, described Pimentel as “a nice guy who used to open the door for people when they were carrying their groceries.”

David Rodriguez, who’d known Pimentel for a year, said he “never saw the look of terrorism in him.” Expressing astonishment at the arrest, he said Pimentel “could have blown the whole building up and no one would have known“ that he was the bomber. “His own grandmother wouldn’t know.” He described Pimentel as a regular guy in sweatpants and sweaters. “I never saw him praying; he wore regular clothes,” Rodriguez said. “I just can’t believe it.”

Pimentel sometimes welcomed Islam with “As-Salamu Alaykum” – a traditional Muslim greeting – and had explained to him how he’d converted to Islam from Catholicism. “He said he converted six or seven years ago,” Islam said. “Once I was drinking here with friends and cousins, and he pointed and said, ‘No, no. It’s not good.’”

But around the corner at Nadal1Deli, employee Mohammed “Alex” Alohdd pointed out that Pimentel didn’t fast during Ramadan. “He called himself a Muslim, but he wasn’t a proper Muslim,” Alohddi said. “I’ve known him for three years but I didn’t like him that much. I just didn’t feel good with him. He used to ask people outside for cigarettes.”

Senator Adriano Espaillat, Council Member Ydanis Rodriguez and Assemblyman Guillermo Morales at a press conference outside the 34th Precinct on Monday (Photo by Lucy Pawle)

At the Islamic Cultural Center of New York on East 96th Street, where Pimentel visited, according to his mother, Imam Omar Abu Namous echoed Aloddi’s sentiments. “These circumstances, that he used to come to this mosque, are only coincidences, and have no relationship whatsoever with his activities,” the imam said. He hadn’t  heard of the arrest and didn’t recognize Pimentel’s name, but said that if Pimentel had confided in a fellow parishioner, “they would have informed me and I would have informed the government.”

Emphasizing his opposition to fundamentalist ideology, the imam described the Islamic Cultural Center as fostering peace. He worried that Pimentel’s arrest would spark Islamophobia. “People have a deep misunderstanding about Islam,” Abu Namous.

At the Home Depot in the Bronx where Pimentel allegedly bought the components to make pipe bombs, an employee who identified himself only as Carlito said that staff are trained to spot suspicious customers. “We look for certain products and if they’re buying them in one cart, it raises a red flag,” he said. But the supplies that Pimentel used – PVC piping, bleach and chlorine among others – are inexpensive, everyday items, Carlito said. “Nothing like this has happened at this store, not that I know of,” said Carlito.

At Hamilton Grange Station, a post office on West 146th Street, sales and services employee Michelle Williams couldn’t believe what had happened. “I’m a little scared and I was surprised that it was in this neighborhood,” she said, “I didn’t think they would target post offices.”

Local politicians were swift to praise the police department’s actions. At a press conference outside the 34th Precinct, State Senator Adriano Espaillat talked of the dangers that young people face online. “It shows the Internet should be policed,” he said. He denied that terrorists were specifically recruiting Hispanics, but added, “This is outrageous and we must be vigilant.”

City Council Member Ydanis Rodriguez said that if found guilty, Pimentel “should be condemned by the full force of the law.” Though most families work hard to raise children “with strong values, for them be able to contribute to our city,” he said, “we need to work tight and we need to work hard,” to prevent such incidents from recurring.

At Pimentel’s arraignment in Manhattan Criminal Court last night, his attorney Joseph Zablocki said he believed the case against his client is not “nearly as strong as people believe.”

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