Federal agents stand outside the apartment building where Najibullah Zazi lives in suburban Denver on Wednesday. Zazi's apartment was searched as part of what law enforcement officials say is one of the most sensitive U.S. terrorism investigations in years.
Federal agents stand outside the apartment building where Najibullah Zazi lives in suburban Denver on Wednesday. Zazi's apartment was searched as part of what law enforcement officials say is one of the most sensitive U.S. terrorism investigations in years. Jeff Brady/NPR
Law enforcement officials said raids earlier this week in Queens, N.Y., and another search of a Denver apartment last night are all part of one of the most sensitive U.S. terrorism investigations in years.
The seriousness of the operation in Queens was underscored by the dozens of agents swarming apartment buildings in full combat gear. The head of the FBI's office in New York was on the scene, personally directing the searches.
Agents expected to find bomb components — chemicals or timers or fuses. Instead, they turned up a frightened Muslim family and a bomb-making manual, and the key suspect they hoped to grab was already gone.
On Capitol Hill on Wednesday, New York Sen. Charles Schumer tried to soothe jangled New York nerves during a hearing with FBI Director Robert Mueller.
"Here's the one question I have: Could you assure New Yorkers and the American public that the situation is under sufficient control and there is no imminent danger to their safety?" he asked the director.
"I can say I do not believe there is any imminent danger from that particular investigation," Mueller replied.
Suspect Tries To Clear His Name
The man at the center of this particular investigation is Najibullah Zazi, an airport shuttle driver from Denver. He's 24, from Afghanistan, and apparently has been under surveillance by the FBI for some time.
On Wednesday, he voluntarily visited the FBI office in Denver in an effort to clear his name. He spoke with officials for several hours and gave them DNA and handwriting samples. He was not arrested.
Law enforcement officials suspected him of recruiting fellow Afghans for possible attacks in the United States.
"This gentleman has lived in the United States for years, has never had any entanglements with the law; [there's] never been any questioning of him, so at this point in time we just categorically deny that," his lawyer, Art Folsom, said.
Law enforcement officials say this case was so worrisome because the men involved looked like they could put together a credible attack. Officials said they seemed to have some training in explosives. They were very careful about what they said on the phone and in e-mails.
And that combination is what made the case so serious.
Why Law Enforcement Made A Move
In the words of one former law enforcement official, it looked like the first time since Sept. 11 that the FBI was tracking a cluster of people who might have all the tools they needed to launch a terrorist operation in this country. There were no arrests, and no bomb components were found, so the big question is why law enforcement moved in when it did.
"In a situation like this, the primary mission is to ascertain what is going on. You want to know the who, what, when, why and the where," said Peter Ahearn, the FBI's special agent in charge during a similar case in Lackawanna, N.Y., in 2001. "It is a pretty delicate balance, and making that decision really comes down to whether or not you really think you have a real threat, where the group or the person has the ability, the capability to act on that threat and you're going to have to take action."
In this week's case, understanding why officials moved when they did depends on whom you ask. New York police say that with a presidential visit to the city and the upcoming U.N. General Assembly session, they couldn't afford to risk anything's going wrong.
FBI officials say privately they wanted to wait and track the group longer.
Zazi's lawyer says neither the FBI nor any other law enforcement agency has filed any charges against his client. And that's true. But more than a dozen FBI agents arrived at Zazi's Colorado apartment Wednesday afternoon to conduct the search.