Law enforcement officials tell NPR that the searches they made of several apartments in the New York City borough of Queens earlier this week were part of one of the most sensitive terrorism investigations in years. Members of a Joint Terrorism Task Force in Denver and New York had been tracking what they feared was a group in America that had not only the expertise but also the ability to launch serious attacks against the U.S.
Details about the case have been closely guarded because the investigation is ongoing. On Wednesday night, police were searching the home of a Denver man at the center of the case.
FBI Director Robert Mueller has reassured lawmakers that the country is safe.
"I can say I do not believe that there is imminent danger from what I know of that particular investigation," he said Wednesday in testimony.
The Search For Bomb Components
The case broke into the open Monday when officers in full combat gear from the New York Joint Terrorism Task Force swarmed several apartments in Queens. Officials said that they were searching for bomb components like chemicals and timers that could be used on targets in the New York area. The apartments belonged to some Afghan nationals whom the terrorism task force had had under surveillance for some time.
No arrests were made and law enforcement officers didn't find the bomb components they were looking for, though two officials said they did find in one apartment some manuals for bomb construction.
The man at the center of investigation appears to be a Denver resident and airport shuttle driver named Najibullah Zazi. He is an Afghan native who used to live in the same Queens neighborhood that was searched. He moved to Denver several years ago. His lawyer, Art Folsom, told NPR that Zazi had driven cross-country back to New York several days ago to work out some problems he was having with a vending cart business he had with a friend.
Law enforcement officials said they were aware of a number of cross-country trips Zazi had made to New York. They said he had been under surveillance for some time, and the chatter they had picked up between Zazi and his friends in Queens had made law enforcement edgy. The men appeared to be talking about bombs and attacks, but they were very careful about what they wrote in e-mails or what they said on the phone. As a result, the terrorism task force had recently inserted an informant into the group.
The Ability To Organize, Attack
What made this cluster of Afghans so worrisome to law enforcement was that it appeared they possessed some sort of expertise — an ability to organize and launch an attack, which is often lacking among the so-called terrorist cells that are often discovered in the U.S. That expertise is what made this case so important. One former law enforcement official described it as the first time since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks that the FBI thought it had a group with that kind of capability.
Since there were no arrests, and no bomb components found, the big question is why law enforcement moved in when it did. The New York Police Department's Terrorism Squad says that there was too great a risk, that given all that was happening in the city — from President Obama visiting this week to the opening of the annual session of the United Nations General Assembly later this month — it didn't feel it could risk allowing the investigation to spin out further.
FBI officials say privately that they feel the operation was launched prematurely. Agents wanted to wait.
Adding to the complexity of the situation was the use of an informant whom officials both at the NYPD and at the FBI say might have compromised the investigation. Officials said an informant working for NYPD had started showing pictures of Zazi, the man from Denver, around the neighborhood in Queens. He was canvassing neighbors for information, asking them what they might have known about him. Some officials say that tipped off Zazi and his Afghan friends.
Zazi's lawyer, Folsom, said his client isn't a terrorist and doesn't understand why the FBI would think otherwise. He said his client wasn't aware that the FBI had been watching him — and until yesterday, when his name was linked to the case — he had no idea he was under suspicion. Folsom said the FBI hasn't interviewed his client, but he would be happy to talk to investigators anytime.
So far, the case has produced more smoke than fire. Law enforcement officials are still trying to evaluate what they've got. They have characterized this as a very important case, but the investigation is continuing.