NYSE Terror Plotter Gets 15-Year Term for Aiding al-Qaeda

A former Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc. employee who admitted to helping al-Qaeda scout the New York Stock Exchange for a possible terrorist attack was sentenced to 15 years in prison, amid growing concerns of sleeper terror cells in Europe and the U.S.

Wesam El-Hanafi’s effort to fight for al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and Somalia was rejected by the group’s leadership in Yemen, which instead sent him and his co-defendant Sabirhan Hasanoff back to New York, Assistant U.S. Attorney John Cronan said today in Manhattan federal court.

The two were ordered to carry out covert missions, including a possible attack on the New York Stock Exchange and another on a “large American dam,” Cronan said.

El-Hanafi, 39, today apologized for his crimes, telling U.S. District Judge Kimba Wood that his four years in custody had changed him and he now rejected al-Qaeda’s “terrible ideology.”

“I didn’t just make the wrong choices, I made the worst choices,” he said. He told the judge his attorneys “have helped me understand that I am better than the worst thing that I have done. And that I can choose to live the rest of my life being that better person. That is what I choose.”

Security forces across Europe have been fanning out in a bid to round up Islamic State extremists, following murders of 17 people in three days of attacks in and around Paris, including nine at the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo.

Sleeper Cells

As many as 20 sleeper cells with a total of 120 to 180 people may be ready to strike in France, Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands, CNN reported, citing a western intelligence source whom it didn’t name.

El-Hanafi, a former information technology specialist at Lehman Brothers, traveled to Yemen in February 2008. There he met with two members of al-Qaeda and swore an oath of allegiance to the terrorist group, according to prosecutors. While living in Brooklyn, El-Hanafi had sent at much as $67,000 to al-Qaeda, hoping to establish his credentials with the group, the government said.

He was important to al-Qaeda because as a U.S. citizen, he could travel freely in America, work secretly for the terrorist group and evade suspicion, prosecutors said. Much of the evidence which the government collected against the pair hasn’t been declassified, according to the U.S.

His belief in an extremist ideology began in 2003 and continued until 2009, a period during which he met an al-Qaeda leader known as the doctor, who dispatched fighters to locations around the world, Cronan said.

Little Information

“The doctor stated that he had contemplated an attack on the New York Stock Exchange, but that he had very little information about the site, including its location, size and security,” Cronan said in a memo to the court.

El-Hanafi admitted he provided the terrorist group with encryption software that allowed secure communications, camera equipment to record attacks and radio-controlled toy cars which could be modified to conduct remote-controlled bombings of U.S. and coalition forces, prosecutors said.

El-Hanafi, disappointed to have to go back to the U.S., sent back a report on the stock exchange that was so “rudimentary it was useless” to al-Qaeda, Wood said.

The report he provided on the exchange said it “was bordered by four streets which were blocked off to vehicular traffic and someone would have to walk into the building,” to carry out an assault, the judge said.

Health Issues

Wood previously sentenced El-Hanafi’s co-conspirator to 18 years in prison. She said El-Hanafi deserved leniency because he suffers from hypertension and deep-vein thrombosis.

El-Hanafi sued the U.S. government and federal prison employees, claiming his health problems stemmed from having his movements restricted while in detention and lacking proper medical treatment. Most of his claims were thrown out, except for those relating to the provision of medical care.

Prosecutors today urged the judge to sentence El-Hanafi for his crimes and not to consider his claims about the treatment he got in custody.

“He was living the American Dream and then he turned his back on the U.S. to pledge allegiance to the greatest of its enemies,” Cronan said today.

The case is U.S. v. El-Hanafi, 10-cr-00162, U.S. District Court, Southern District of New York (Manhattan).

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