The 5-year-old was asleep beside her mother when there came a pounding on the front door and federal agents swarmed in with guns drawn from the early morning darkness.
The girl remained in the bedroom and was at least spared the sight of her mother, Noelle Velentzas, being led from their Queens home in handcuffs early Thursday, charged with joining another woman in a conspiracy to build a terrorist bomb.
But that still left her husband, Abu Bakr, to explain to the child why mommy would not be walking her the one block to and from Public School 123Q, as she did every day.
The father says he cannot make sense of it himself and has no idea how to make sense of it to the 5-year-old or to her 11-year-old sister.
“That is the hardest part,” Bakr told The Daily Beast on Friday afternoon.
He had known his wife to become angry about what she took to be unjust treatment of Muslims, but he never imagined she would even think of building a bomb.
He also knew that she carried a knife in her bra, but he figured this was just for protection in the streets.
He insisted that the Noelle Velentzas described in the criminal complaint is not the loving wife and devoted mother he knows.
“She is the most beautiful woman I have ever met!” he declared through tears.
He said this at the Majid Al-Hamdulillah, a big but gentle man standing in Muslim attire in the mosque that he and his wife have attended daily for the past five years. The imam there, Charles Aziz Bilal, reported that the whole community seemed stunned by the arrests of Velentzas and her friend, Asia Siddiqui.
“Shocked,” Bilal said. “Amazed.”
The imam suggested that the only possible explanation was that the two women had been “set-up” with the help of an undercover cop who is repeatedly cited in the criminal complaint filed by the Joint Terrorist Task Force.
And there does seem to be a moment when the undercover cop plays a somewhat more active role than some might believe was appropriate.
“The UC noted that there have been more than 25,000 police officers in one place at the funeral for Police Officer Rafael Ramos, a New York City Police Department officer who was killed sitting in his police vehicle,” the complaint states. “Velentzas complimented the UC on coming up with an attractive potential target.”
But there are numerous recordings cited in the complaint where Velentzas seems to be the initiator. She sounds completely unlike the person described by her husband, the imam and several neighbors who would often see her with her kids.
This disparity between how she is widely perceived and what she is alleged to have plotted is no less dramatic than the difference between the role and the reality of the undercover cop, who has devoted years of her life to preventing terrorist attacks.
Velentzas may have been an undercover of another kind, someone who appears to be the ideal mom while secretly aspiring to become a jihadi warrior.
And that would make this a kind of tale of two undercovers.
The woman who struck neighbors as being such a devoted and contented mom as she escorted her younger daughter up and down a block where three houses fly American flags was allegedly recorded describing herself as “an awake person in a mental concentration camp.”
“It’s a very lonely path,” said the woman who outwardly seemed to enjoy all the comforts of an ideal family.
She predicted that this lonely path could very well take her away from a life in which she appeared destined to spend her years on this quiet street and become a grandmother.
“I might get old here,” she was recorded saying. “Or I’m going to be in solitary confinement, and get raped or tortured or I’m going to be killed in the street.”
At one point, she was recorded speaking of a pressure cooker—such as was employed in the Boston marathon bombing—that police would find unused in her kitchen after her arrest. She seems to confirm that her husband gave it to her with only innocent intentions.
“Velentzas stated to the UC that she had recently received a pressure cooker as a present and joked about cooking something in the pressure cooker, then laughed and added, ‘food’—a reference to explosive materials,” the complaint says.
She was asked in a recording why a Quran had been left atop the cooker.
“A Freudian slip,” she said.
The complaint reports that this mom turned alleged undercover jihadi first met the undercover cop in 2013. Velentzas’ husband believes the undercover cop is the same woman who would come by their home on Sundays.
The two women would be joined by Velentzas’ friend and onetime roommate, Asia Siddiqui. The friend is alleged to have been involved with jihadis long before Police Commissioner Ray Kelly had the idea of training a female undercover. That would seem to make it difficult for Siddiqui to argue entrapment.
Siddiqui was said to have been close to a future senior member of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and she had voiced support for a man who was arrested for attempting to bomb a Christmas tree lighting ceremony in Portland, Ore. She once submitted a poem to a jihadi magazine.
“Truth through fists and slit throats,” one line reads.
Velentzas, Siddiqui and what was apparently an undercover cop are said to have plotted in the living room, speaking lowly at their hostess’ urging.
Her husband remained in the kitchen after putting in a week as a home improvement contractor known in the community for doing good work at a fair price. He does not seem to have suspected that there might be two different kinds of undercover under his roof—and that the truth about the woman who turned out to be a cop would be less astonishing than what the government would say about his own wife.
Velentzas was recorded describing herself as a “peaceful person.” She was also recorded speaking excitedly of watching a video in which a 20-year-old jihadi detonated a huge, truck-borne suicide bomb.
“So cool,” Velentzas said. “Best video on the Internet.”
On occasion, the women met at Siddiqui’s house. Siddiqui had allegedly amassed a small stash of propane tanks and there was some talk of a car bomb. The apparent undercover cop also spoke about the three British schoolgirls who had set off to join ISIS.
“This could be us, but we old and she married [sic],” Siddiqui was recorded saying and pointing to Velentzas.
“You never know, there is [sic] other ways,” Velentzas said.
One day, Velentzas made her fierceness known by pulling the knife from her bra and saying there was no reason why they could not be “bad bitches.”
At another point Velentzas spoke about training for the possibility they would be caught.
“If we get arrested, the police will point their guns at us from the back and maybe from the front,” she was recorded saying. “If we can get even one of their weapons, we can shoot them. They will probably kill us but we will be martyrs automatically and receive Allah’s blessings.”
She does not seem to have anticipated that she would be sleeping next to her younger daughter when the moment came.
Siddiqui was also arrested and remanded after appearing in Brooklyn federal court on Thursday afternoon.
Early Friday afternoon, a knock brought nobody to the door at the tidy three-story house where Velentzas lived with her husband and children. A light rain was falling on the newly tilled flowerbeds where the first crocuses were poking up. A bag of potting soil on the front step served as a reminder of the recordings in which Velentzas spoke about making fertilizer bombs like that used to such devastating effect by Timothy McVeigh in Oklahoma. What looked like an American flag was among several furled flags leaning against a side wall.
A neighbor named Carmen Perez stood outside her house four doors up the street and spoke of the many times she had watched Velentzas walking her younger daughter to and from school.
“She looked like a good mother,” Perez said.
Velentzas’ husband was at the mosque, where he spoke tearfully of his wife’s beauty and of first meeting her through a mutual friend and of now raising two daughters on his own.
The women at the mosque are consigned to worship in an area behind a door marked “Sisters Only.” An opaque beige curtain separates the main prayer area from where Velentzas would sit with her daughters, a photo of Osama Bin Laden holding an AK-47 on her cell phone.
Much more than a curtain seems to have concealed Velentzas’ true self from even her husband, who now must find a way to explain to his children what he himself seems unable to comprehend.
Velentzas and Siddiqui will be back in court in May.