By Sadef Ali Kully
Queens has again been identified as the home of another young Muslim suspected of plotting a terrorist attack.
A 20-year old Flushing man was arrested and charged with conspiracy to provide material support and resources, including service and personnel, to the foreign terrorist organization Islamic State, federal authorities said.
The federal investigation into Munther Omar Saleh, an American citizen who was studying electrical circuitry at Vaughn College of Aeronautics and Technology in East Elmhurst, along with two unnamed conspirators, revealed Saleh had been allegedly planning to attack various city landmarks on behalf of the Islamic State, according to the criminal complaint filed by the U.S. attorney in Brooklyn.
Saleh is the latest arrest in terror-related crimes in Queens. In May, two women from South Jamaica, Asia Siddiqui and Noelle Velentzas, were charged with conspiracy to use a weapon of mass destruction, among other charges, according to Brooklyn federal prosecutors. They are awaiting trial.
Back in September 2008, al-Qaeda leaders in Pakistan recruited Najibullah Zazi, Zarein Ahmedzay and Adis Medunjanin, three friends who met at Flushing High School, to conduct a suicide bombing attack in the city. All three were convicted.
Saleh allegedly looked at images of city tourist attractions for targets and searched online for materials to build a bomb, according to the criminal complaint. He allegedly translated Islamic State propaganda into English and expressed support on Twitter for the Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris and the shooting outside a Mohammad cartoon contest in Texas.
On two consecutive days in March, a Port Authority police officer saw Saleh walking with a lantern on the New Jersey side of the George Washington Bridge and allegedly behaving suspiciously. Saleh even asked for ride to the city which the officer refused and the officer told him to go to the nearest bus terminal. But when the officer came back on the bridge to look for Saleh, he had disappeared and was not at the bus terminal, the complaint said.
After being approached by authorities, Saleh agreed to go to the Port Authority’s New Jersey office for an interview where he expressed disapproval of terrorist organizations and allowed authorities to search his computer.
Reminiscent of Medunjanin’s “failed suicide attack” on the Whitestone Expressway seven years ago, Saleh and two unnamed co-conspirators tried to dodge a federal surveillance team Saturday in their green Jeep Cherokee by speeding through a parking lot near the expressway with their lights off and pulling over. Around 4 a.m. Saleh and one of the co-conspirators exited their vehicle and ran toward the surveillance car. The co-conspirator, who was not charged in the complaint, had a folding knife in his waistband, according to the complaint.
Prosecutors said in the criminal complaint that evidence showed Saleh was “translating ISIL propaganda into English.” He conducted extensive online searches for materials for an explosive device, including Crock-Pots, beads, propane, vacuum cleaners, lamps and watches, it said.
Federal investigators said they watched him walk into a Queens spy store that sells microphone detectors and hidden cameras in May. He also allegedly searched online for disguises, including beards and wigs.
The complaint cites a conversation between a confidential informant and Saleh in May during which Saleh said, “Well, I’m in N.Y. and trying to do an op,” referring to an operation. He later cut off communication with the informant, saying he was “ordered by dawlah officials not to talk to anyone,” according to the court records.
The complaint said “dawlah” refers to the Islamic State. In Arabic, dawlah is translated as “dynasty” or “state.”
Since Saleh’s arrest and arraignment Saturday, Sanford Avenue and Bowne Street have swarmed with television news trucks and residents who were disturbed by the news that their young neighbor had been accused of terrorism.
“The people come here from all over and bring their culture and then they have a hard time,” said Frances Santaniello, 77, a Flushing resident since 1968. “I get looks for talking to men here because Muslim women are not supposed to talk to men. I am a Catholic.”
Santaniello said she knew Tony Saleh, the father of Munther Omar Saleh, who works at Met Food Market on Bowne Street across from the Saleh residence.
“I never met him, but I know everyone and I heard only good things about him and the family,” she said. “It’s sad that he made a mistake and it could be the biggest mistake of his life.”
Down the street, at the Deli & Pizza shop, Flushing residents were on the fence about the accusations.
“I know the other guy – he lives in my building and he is 17 years old,” said Luciano Reberte, a worker at the Deli & Pizza shop, about one of the suspected co-conspirators. “I see them both all the time walking around or on the subway. They looked normal.”
Reberte said that despite appearances, “you never know how they are in the home – nobody knows people’s private lives.”
“I know the father and the son – they are good people and they don’t deserve this,” a woman dressed in a nurse’s uniform, who did not want to be named, said, “His son didn’t do this – people judge you by the color of your skin in this country and now it is your name.”
There was confusion surrounding Saleh’s college as media outlets referred to him as a “Queens college student,” with many assuming he attended Queens College. The college put out a statement on Facebook “to clarify that Saleh is not a Queens College student.”
Vaughn College, for its part, said: “At this time, we cannot confirm or deny that this person is a student.”
Maureen Kiggins, the college’s director of public affairs, said, “We have not been contacted by law enforcement; should we be contacted, Vaughn College will cooperate.”
Contributed reporting by Madine Toure
Reach Reporter Sadef Ali Kully by e-mail at skull