The three men arrested by the FBI over the weekend in connection with an alleged plot to attack sites in New York and other U.S. cities are scheduled to appear in federal court later Monday.
Law enforcement officials say the man at the center of it all is an Afghan national named Najibullah Zazi, 24, who drives an airport shuttle bus in the Denver area and was arrested Saturday. Also arrested were his father, Mohammed Wali Zazi, 53; and Ahmad Wais Afzali, 37, the imam of a mosque in Queens, N.Y.
Zazi and his father are expected to appear in court in Denver, while Afzali will appear in a New York court. All three men have been charged with lying to federal authorities, an offense that carries an eight-year sentence.
It is clear the younger Zazi is of the most interest to the FBI, and officials close to the case told NPR that more charges are coming. His charging documents suggest as much. They were released Sunday by the Justice Department and, among other things, state that Najibullah Zazi admitted he trained in explosives at an al-Qaida camp.
Zazi has publicly denied involvement in a terrorist plot and says the arrest is a mistake.
Law enforcement officials say the investigation was meant to play out much longer than it did. They felt compelled to move in when Zazi reportedly rented a car a few days before the anniversary of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and drove cross-country from Denver to New York City. Authorities feared some sort of plan was swinging into action.
The alleged plot is of particular cause for concern because it represents the first time since the 2001 attacks that the U.S. has had to deal with a group with the capacity and expertise to launch a credible attack. Zazi apparently knew how to put together an explosive device.
The FBI has yet to level terrorism charges against the men. On Friday, the younger Zazi was involved in some sort of negotiation to cooperate with the FBI in the case. NPR learned this from officials involved with the case as well as someone familiar with Zazi's side of the story.
Law enforcement officials said Friday that Najibullah Zazi talked with prosecutors and said he was willing to say he'd trained in explosives in an al-Qaida camp but balked at admitting having had a role in any attack or plot. But the two sides couldn't agree on what Zazi would plead guilty to. By Saturday, whatever they might have been discussing in terms of a plea or a cooperation agreement was off the table. Zazi decided not to show up as scheduled for a fourth day of interviews. He was arrested a short time later.
Despite having acknowleged a link to al-Qaida, Zazi was allowed come and go from FBI headquarters because authorities said they hoped to draw out more suspects. From the investigators' perspective, allowing Zazi to remain free provided more opportunity for others who may have been involved to make a mistake and, for example, try to contact him.
There have been other arrests below the radar. Six or seven Afghan friends of Zazi's were taken into custody last week. The Afghans were living in Queens, and Zazi had stayed with them during a recent trip to New York. The FBI raided the apartment he stayed in and several other apartments soon after Zazi returned to Colorado.
It is unclear exactly what they were charged with, but apparently the arrests were in connection with attempts to rent a U-Haul truck a couple of weeks ago.
Some of the men went to a U-Haul rental place in Jamaica, Queens, and asked to rent their biggest truck, according to authorities. They didn't have a valid credit card but said they wanted to pay cash. When U-Haul representatives requested personal identification, the men apparently balked. While it isn't illegal to rent a U-Haul for cash, the men allegedly denied ever having been there when questioned by the FBI. The manager of the U-Haul outlet reportedly identified the men involved from photographs the FBI showed him.
Some of the evidence collected against Zazi was laid out in the charging documents. Zazi was under wiretap and other electronic surveillance for some time, and officials say they have a taped conversation of him speaking with a known al-Qaida operative in Afghanistan.
Authorities reportedly found images on his computer of handwritten notes that laid out how to make a bomb and, in particular, how to put together fuses. Zazi said he downloaded that information by accident when he pulled a religious text off the Internet. But law enforcement officials say the notes are in his handwriting.
The Queens apartment searches last week yielded 16 backpacks, cell phones, batteries, a bomb-making manual and a scale that police say could be used for measuring concentrations needed for a hydrogen peroxide bomb. No explosives were found.
Officials say they also found credit card receipts for items such as chemicals purchased at home improvement stores in the Denver area. One of the chemicals is used to clean concrete and masonry — and is a common ingredient in homemade bombs.
The FBI is seeking surveillance video from those stores to try to identify other possible suspects.