BOGOTA, Colombia (AP) — Police hauled a handcuffed Cuban man into court in Colombia’s capital Thursday for allegedly plotting to kill U.S. diplomats in the name of the Islamic State extremist group.
A judge ordered the suspect, Raul Gutierrez, held without bail on terrorism and conspiracy charges. He was arrested earlier in the week in the western city of Pereira in a coordinated investigation involving police in Spain and the FBI, officials said.
Authorities said they intercepted communications from late February in which Gutierrez allegedly discussed plans to make and detonate a homemade bomb in a restaurant in Bogota where he had sought work as a dishwasher and which is frequented by U.S. diplomats. In another message sent over the Telegram instant messaging service, he also allegedly expressed a willingness to blow himself up for Allah and the IS group, officials said.
Gutierrez, who pleaded not guilty at the hearing, seemed alternately annoyed and flattered by the media attention.
“I’m not a terrorist, I told you man,” he barked at a pack of journalists as he was rushed into court by police with riot shields and assault rifles.
He said he had lived in the U.S. but is now fighting against American dominance in the “new world order,” adding that despite his arrest the “seed has been planted.”
Asked by a reporter why he hated the United States, Gutierrez shot back: “For the same reason we all hate them — because they are thieves and conquerors and killers.”
Gen. Jorge Nieto, head of Colombia’s police, declined to discuss the evidence in the case in detail except to say a number of electronic devices were seized that lend credence to the hypothesis that Gutierrez was planning a terrorist attack.
Gutierrez had been expelled from Colombia twice before.
In 2015, he entered the country legally on a visa with the aim of eventually making his way to the U.S., a Colombian official told The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the case on the record. Authorities later discovered he had been issued the visa based on false statements and deported him to Cuba, the official said.
But he returned in 2016, entering the country illegally by land from neighboring Ecuador, which doesn’t require Cubans to have visas like Colombia and many other nations do, the official said. Authorities caught up with Gutierrez in Pereira, and in 2017 he was expelled again.
He is believed to have returned to Colombia a third time at the start of this year.
The U.S. Embassy in Colombia is one of the biggest in the world, serving as the main hub for close anti-narcotics and counterinsurgency cooperation between the two staunch allies.
While the winding down of Colombia’s half-century conflict with leftist rebels has led to huge security improvements in recent years, U.S. diplomats still face a number of restrictions on their movements reflecting the dangers that persist in a country with a long history of terror attacks — some of them directed at American targets — and widespread criminality.
Spanish police said in a statement that they had been monitoring the online activities of Gutierrez and that over a period of several weeks he showed signs of indoctrination in radical Islam, such as putting the word “jihadist” on his social media accounts and wearing clothes identifying him as a militant.
Prosecutors on Wednesday said Gutierrez had received precise instructions in communications with people from Spain and Morocco on carrying out an attack targeting Americans.
The U.S. Embassy did not immediately make any statement related to the case, and the FBI declined to comment.
Associated Press writers Aritz Parra in Madrid and Sadie Gurman in Washington contributed to this report.