Terror Suspects To Appear In Federal Court
REBECCA ROBERTS, host:
This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Rebecca Roberts in Washington. Now to three men arrested over the weekend in connection with an alleged terrorist plot in the United States. They are appearing in federal court today. The central figure in the case is Najibullah Zazi, a 24-year-old Afghan national who lives in Colorado. He, his father and an imam from Queens, New York, were arrested late Saturday night on charges of lying to federal authorities. The story involves a number of complicated threads, starting with police raids last week in Queens where several backpacks, cell phones and bomb-making manual were discovered, to search of Zazi's Colorado apartment and a car he rented to drive cross country to New York, to his admitted trip to a weapons training camp in Pakistan.
Lots of question still surround the case including just how far along the alleged plot was and what the possible targets might have been. If you have questions about this complex story and its significance, give us a call, 800-989-8255. The e-mail address is email@example.com.
Dina Temple-Raston has been reporting this story for NPR since it first broke a week ago. She's with us from our bureau in New York.
DINA TEMPLE-RASTON: Good morning. Hi. How are you?
ROBERTS: So, these guys, especially the younger Zazi, are thought to be part of an alleged terrorist plot to blow up targets, possibly in transportation hubs like train and subway systems, but they've not been charged with engaging in terrorism. They've been charged with lying to federal authorities. Why is that?
TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, all they've been charged with now is just enough to keep them behind bars without the FBI or the government having to show how much evidence they really have on them. The government wants to reveal as little as possible because it's shoring up the case in its continuing investigation.
You know, some people have wondered why Zazi admitted to training at an al-Qaida camp, for example. Authorities let him come and go from FBI headquarters in Denver. And that's because they were trying to get him to tell them everything he knew. Zazi actually sat down with the FBI for three straight days in lengthy interviews and they were even, at one point, we reported on Friday, working on a cooperation agreement. And then, Zazi decided to stop talking.
Now, you know, there's a saying in law enforcement that as long as he's talking let him keep walking. So, arresting someone, as you might well imagine, has this chilling effect on conversation. You know, authorities just learn more when someone is talking.
ROBERTS: But is there a conflict there between the FBI investigation and local law enforcement who want to nip the potential plot in the bud?
TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, there are different priorities. If you were to talk to the NYPD or the FBI and ask them if there is conflict, of course, they always say no. But if you think about it, the NYPD's number one concern is to make sure that nothing happens in New York. And the FBI's number one concern is to take care of the entire country. And just by those, you know, two things the - those are in conflict.
And what happens is the FBI in this particular case would have liked to have seen it run a little bit longer to get more people, to make sure that they had every one who is involved covered. And through a series of sort of confusing events, it ended up that this case got basically blown early and they ended up having to move in much before they wanted to.
ROBERTS: Well, without getting too far into the weeds of the confusing events, refresh us about who these three men are and what led up to their arrests.
TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, all this sort of started when this airport shuttle driver from the Denver area, Najibullah Zazi, hopped into a rental car in Denver and drove to New York City. And it was just days before the 9/11 attack's anniversary.
And the FBI had been tracking him for some time. They had him up on wire taps. They knew he had attended an al-Qaida camp and had explosives training, and that's actually something he's apparently admitted to. So when he made this trip to New York, naturally, it really rattled authorities who were sort of on high alert anyway in the run-up to the 9/11 anniversary. They thought that they might have missed something, that maybe he was involved in some plot they didn't know about.
And then when Zazi was tipped off that the FBI was tracking him, he hightailed it back to Denver. And that was when the FBI and the New York Police Department started having this feeling that the case was blown. And members of the FBI and the NYPD raided a series of apartments in Queens - that happened about this time last week - and they were looking for bomb components. And they didn't find any explosives but they did find a bunch of backpacks and cell phones and batteries and a bomb-making manual. So, the dots aren't all connected, but at least there are some dots there.
ROBERTS: And how worried are authorities about the backpacks and cell phones and bomb-making manual?
TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, they are worried. They're worried about that, they're worried about something else that's come to light, which is some of the men who are associated with Zazi, some Afghans from Queens, New York, tried to -allegedly tried to go and rent a 26-foot U-Haul truck just before Zazi got to New York. And the worry is, of course, that if you're trying to rent a truck, theoretically, you'll have something to go into it. And these men didn't want to use credit cards to rent the truck. They wanted to pay cash. And when the manager of the U-Haul franchise had asked them for their IDs and said if they wanted to pay cash, he needs to keep their IDs. So they balked and decided not to get the truck. Clearly, that's worrisome. That kind of truck filled with explosives could do a lot of damage. And that's what's worrying the FBI. It's not just finding these backpacks but having this other episode of the truck.
ROBERTS: Let's hear from Mike in Avon, Minnesota. Mike, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.
MIKE (Caller): Hello.
ROBERTS: Hello. You're on the air.
MIKE: Yes. I can't believe that a person with this background has the ability to get a job driving an airport shuttle bus. You would think that someone was asleep at the wheel. How can he be involved in daily commuting or business that involves a U.S. airport?
ROBERTS: Dina, do you want to…
TEMPLE-RASTON: Do you want me to answer that question?
TEMPLE-RASTON: Yeah. Well, it's - that's a good question. First of all, his background was not something that worried them until he started traveling back and forth to Pakistan. And in particular, they were concerned about a trip he made in January and then another he made in August. But by that time, they were watching him and they were watching him very carefully. And I think the idea was that when you're looking at one of these potential or alleged plots, you don't just want to get one guy. You want to make sure that you get everyone who might be involved. They had him up on wiretaps. They felt that they were keeping him on a pretty short leash. And then, naturally, when he drove to New York on what is an incredibly sensitive date for counterterrorism officials, they sort of moved in.
ROBERTS: And he doesn't have a criminal record that we know of that would have necessarily flagged the shuttle bus company that hired him.
TEMPLE-RASTON: We - he has no criminal record that we know of. And more than that, you know, he has what counterterrorism officials worry about, which is a clean passport. In other words, he could move around this country really easily, because according to his lawyer, he was all set to apply for a green card next month. He was going to be eligible and he wanted to do so. And that's what worries the FBI officials is that you get someone here in this country who could move around easily who might have this kind of training that he allegedly had, and it makes it very difficult to keep track of these people.
ROBERTS: Let's hear from John(ph) in Edina, Minnesota. Welcome to the program, John.
JOHN (Caller): Thank you. My question is: it seems that the federal authorities often use the charge of lying to a federal agent to arrest the suspect in a wide variety - while the real object of the investigation is a criminal activity of some other sort - in this case terrorism. I seem to be call that the terrorist that came in from Canada was lying - was arrested on charges of lying. And I think the guy from - here in Minnesota that was one of the bombers, the same thing. Could you comment on that practice of arresting people on charges of lying to the authorities and the holding them that way, please? Thank you.
TEMPLE-RASTON: Sure. Well, I think the person you're talking about in Minnesota is one of the Somali kids who came back from the camps with Al-Shabaab, which is a militia group in Somalia. And he actually wasn't a bomber as far as we know.
But basically, there are a couple of different ways that they get these people behind bars. One is this idea that if they do talk to FBI officials and double - and backtrack on their story because that's illegal. That's one way to put them away without showing all the kinds of evidence that you might have on them. Or allows you - basically, buys you the time to collect the evidence that you're looking for and finish your investigation. The other thing often they use - and I was a little bit surprised that they didn't do this in Zazi case -is something they call material support with terrorist organization.
Now, Zazi actually trained at - in al-Qaida camp in Pakistan as he's allegedly admitted to. I was sort of surprised in the complaint that they didn't slap material support charges on him too. And what I was told as the reason they didn't is they were providing the minimal amount of information for any other suspects who might be out there and see this, you know, arresting papers. And in addition to that, it gives him a little bit more wiggle room if he wants to cooperate.
ROBERTS: Let's hear from Steven(ph) in Oklahoma City. Steven, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.
STEVEN (Caller): Hello.
ROBERTS: Hi, Steven. You're on the air.
STEVEN: Okay. I was wondering, do they have a reporting system for the U-Haul or the rider system when they are trying to rent it without ID? Because the renting of a big truck brings back a lot of memories for those of us here in Oklahoma City.
TEMPLE-RASTON: Exactly. In fact - and I'm glad you asked this. This is exactly what the FBI was worried about that there would be some sort of - you know, everyone is very focused on these backpacks and the cell phones and how this might be some sort of Madrid-style train bombing from 2004. You'll recall there were some young men who got on trains with backpacks full of explosives. But what was more worrisome is the possibility of having a 26-foot truck full of explosives driven somewhere in a populated area. That would do much more damage than these backpacks would. And that's one of the reasons why the FBI is looking around so fervently to figure out if there are other people involved in this.
I mean, the part of it, of course, is that if you have a truck or you need to rent a truck and you're expecting to have some sort of attack, one FBI official told me, you know, the truck is the last thing you get. You get the truck after you have the explosives. And they haven't found any sort of explosives yet. That said, this may well have been some sort of dry run or it might have been completely innocent. But right now, some of the people involved in that trying to rent the truck are being questioned by police and FBI agents because they claim they had never been there and the manager of the U-Haul truck franchise recognized them from photograph the FBI brought.
ROBERTS: My guest is NPR's counterterrorism correspondent Dina Temple-Raston, with us from our bureau in New York. If you have questions about this unfolding alleged domestic terrorist plot, you can join us at 800-989-8255, or email firstname.lastname@example.org. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
Dina, what do you know about the court actions today, the hearings that these gentlemen just have?
TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, they're ongoing. Here in New York, there's one gentleman who's an imam of a mosque here in Queens, New York. It's unclear whether he's going to be kept or not. There are some stories going around that he is, in fact, an informant for the NYPD. And while he had tipped off Zazi, there's some questions about what his motivation to tipping off Zazi were - was. Maybe he was trying to help Zazi, maybe he was trying to get closer to him. But apparently, when FBI agents came to his mosque and started asking about Zazi, he gave Zazi a call - or Zazi's father a call and said, look, FBI agents were here asking about you. This is one of the reasons why Zazi hopped on in their plane and went back to Denver. That's problematic. That's here in New York.
And then a little bit later today, there are going to be - Zazi and his father, who will be appearing in Denver. Both of them are charged with lying to federal authorities. I suspect that his father is probably going to be released. His father lied about getting a phone call from this imam in Queens warning his son. And the feeling is the father is being used as leverage to try and get his son to cooperate.
ROBERTS: And what about the imam?
TEMPLE-RASTON: And the imam - the feeling is that he made a dumb mistake and isn't involved. But it's still really unclear as to what his role was. There are some people out there who were saying - some law enforcement people out there - who were saying he was somehow involved in the U-Haul truck rental part of this. But then you could see a scenario, he thought of himself as a super informant that he felt he should go and be there when they were trying to rent the truck so that he could tell authorities more about it. So it's really unclear now this part of it how he fits in. So I don't want to cast aspersions without knowing.
ROBERTS: Let's hear from Richard in Rochester Hills, Michigan. Richard, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.
RICHARD (Caller): Hi. I can't hear myself. So I was just wondering if - is that knowing that there's a network of al-Qaida operatives or supporters in jail, you know, prisoner network. And I'll take my comment, answer off the air. Thank you.
ROBERTS: Thanks, Richard.
TEMPLE-RASTON: I'm sorry, is the question whether or not there are al-Qaidas within our prisons?
ROBERTS: And is there a network among them, a prison network among al-Qaida informants or operatives?
TEMPLE-RASTON: It's really unclear. I think that people are still trying to figure that out. I mean, there - al-Qaida has really changed a lot since 2001. Now, it's more of an idea than it is a group. I mean, in this case - what's unusual about this case among other things is that you have what might be al-Qaida involved directly as opposed to an indirect or franchised group of al-Qaida. So there could be a lot of people in prison who say that they, you know, agree with the ideas of al-Qaida, but they've never had any contact with the group whatsoever.
ROBERTS: And we should be clear that there's no specific information about a specific attack, where it might be, when it might be. And do you have the sense that those details are being kept from the press? Or did - those details are not known by law enforcement?
TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, this gets back again to this whole idea that they wanted this investigation to go on much longer than they ended up having the time to do. I mean, this investigation got blown, so they moved in earlier than they wanted to. The idea is that you let an investigation go on and have these people watch so that not only can you get all the people involved but also know what the plot is.
Remember, a couple of months ago, there was a number of ex-cons who decided that they hated America and they hated the Jewish religion, so they were going to try and bomb some synagogues in Riverdale, just sort of a suburb of New York City. And in that case, they had an FBI informant who sold them what they thought were plastic explosives. They actually built what they thought were bombs and they brought them to the stairs of the synagogue and actually put them there and then the NYPD came in and arrested them. So there wasn't too much ambiguity about what they wanted to do or what they're - what they thought they were doing.
And that is the difference here. I mean, we don't see a case that was allowed to spin out to its, you know, natural conclusion. And when Zazi drove across the country, the big concern was that there was something that the FBI was missing, that there was such earnestness in his driving across at this particular time that they thought maybe there was some sort of plot that had been hidden from them and he was going to swing into action. This is all allegedly. I mean, this is what the law enforcement is saying. If you listen to Zazi and his lawyer, aside from the training he's supposedly admitted to, you know, he's not a terrorist and he doesn't have links to al-Qaida.
ROBERTS: NPR's counterterrorism correspondent Dina Temple-Raston with us from our bureau in New York. Thank you so much, Dina.
TEMPLE-RASTON: You're very welcome.
ROBERTS: And stay with NPR for the latest on this investigation. You can also follow Dina's stories and reporting on this case at npr.org.
Tomorrow, President Jimmy Carter sums up the anger against President Obama as racism; others disagree. We'll talk about the intersection of politics and race. Join us for that conversation.
I'm Rebecca Roberts. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
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