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Prosecutor Offers Chilling Portrait Of Terror Suspect

Terror suspect Najibullah Zazi may have wanted to carry out an attack in New York City on the anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks, a federal prosecutor told a judge Friday.

From Morning Edition

Federal prosecutor Tim Neff said Zazi "was in the throes of making a bomb and attempting to perfect his formulation."

"The evidence suggests a chilling, disturbing sequence of events showing the defendant was intent on making a bomb and being in New York on 9/11, for purposes of perhaps using such items," Neff said told U.S. Magistrate Judge Craig Shaffer.

At a hearing friday, Shaffer ordered Zazi to be transferred to New York City, a day after a federal grand jury unsealed an indictment against the 24-year-old airport shuttle driver that provided a frightening chronology of a possible terrorist plot against targets in the United States. Zazi and federal officials were en route to New York by Friday afternoon, NPR has confirmed.

The government has charged Zazi with conspiring to use "weapons of mass destruction" — bombs — against the U.S.

If the government's case is to be believed, Zazi, a legal immigrant from Afghanistan, attended an al-Qaida training camp in Pakistan, received training in explosives, brought a recipe for a homemade bomb back to the U.S., and started buying and preparing the chemicals he needed to build it.

While much is unknown about the plot — like who else might be involved, its intended targets and whether the explosives were actually mixed and are sitting somewhere — the very fact that a plan appeared to progress as far as this one appears to have done makes the case of Najibullah Zazi different from any other in the U.S. since that Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

That's because, as a general matter, terrorism plots in this country have been more aspirational than operational — motivated by malcontents, or ex-cons, or even testosterone. In many of the cases, the focus falls on FBI informants who, at times, appear to be goading action instead of simply tracking it.

"There have been so many of those kinds of cases you have the problem of a citizenry who think they have a country that keeps crying wolf," says Karen Greenberg, the executive director of New York University's Law and Security Center. "They are always saying they've dismantled this terrorism case or that terrorism case and then it turns out there is no there there. Now they have a case where they think there is some real danger."

In a court filing Thursday, prosecutors laid out details of the alleged plan as it unfolded. There were flights to Pakistan, training in al-Qaida camps, e-mailed bomb-making recipes, and chemical buying sprees at beauty supply shops in the Denver area. The combination alarmed authorities. They say Zazi had been planning the attack for more than a year. Zazi has yet to answer these latest charges, but he has said publicly he is not a terrorist.

"Training is one thing; improvised explosive devices is another particularly dangerous flag for American officials," says Greenberg. "The largest sentence ever given for terrorism trials was for being involved with an improvised explosive device."

That was a 2005 case involving a man named Gale Nettles, who plotted to blow up a federal courthouse with ammonium nitrate bombs and even bought the chemicals before he was arrested. Nettles was found guilty and sentenced to 160 years.

"So that gives you an idea of how seriously they take this kind of crime," Greenberg says.

If what the FBI says about Zazi is true, he would fall into that serious category. Investigators say he had the recipe for a bomb that he e-mailed to himself from Pakistan. They say they have surveillance tape from the beauty supply stores where he allegedly bought the ingredients he'd need to build the same kind of explosive used in the 2005 London train bombings.

Investigators say Zazi bought unusually large quantities of hydrogen peroxide and acetone products from beauty supply stores around Denver. And while that might sound like an odd place to buy bomb components, the fact is that acetone is found in nail polish remover, and concentrated peroxide is in a lot of hair products. Zazi allegedly bought a dozen bottles in August alone of a product called Ms. K Liquid 40 Volume. It is a hydrogen peroxide product.

The most troubling wrinkle revealed in the court papers was the real possibility that Zazi had co-conspirators. Law enforcement officials say they are tracking other men surveillance cameras caught buying chemicals with Zazi. So far only two arrests besides Zazi's have been announced. Zazi's father, Mohammed, was arrested for lying to federal authorities. He was released on bail in Colorado on Thursday. An imam from Queens, New York, Ahmad Afzali, was also arrested for lying to federal authorities. He also was released on bail Thursday.

The Justice Department revealed in its filing that the plot went beyond just buying chemicals. On Sept. 6, Zazi checked into a hotel in Aurora, Colo. The FBI tested his hotel room and found acetone residue in the vent above the stove. That's important because the bomb-making instructions Zazi was allegedly following called for heating up acetone and hydrogen peroxide to beef up their concentrations — the way one might boil down wine to get a reduction for a sauce.

He was also apparently trying to contact another individual to get advice on concentrations of the chemicals, officials say.

NPR's Dina Temple-Raston and the Associated Press contributed to this report.

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