Officials: NYC Plot Operational, Not Just Aspirational

Najibullah Zazi is escorted off a New York Police Department helicopter by U.S marshals i i

hide captionNajibullah Zazi is escorted off a New York Police Department helicopter by U.S marshals after being extradited from Denver, Colo., on Friday. Zazi was flown to New York to face charges of plotting to use weapons of mass destruction against U.S. targets.

New York City Police Department/AP
Najibullah Zazi is escorted off a New York Police Department helicopter by U.S marshals

Najibullah Zazi is escorted off a New York Police Department helicopter by U.S marshals after being extradited from Denver, Colo., on Friday. Zazi was flown to New York to face charges of plotting to use weapons of mass destruction against U.S. targets.

New York City Police Department/AP

The man at the center of an alleged plot to blow up transportation targets in New York City appeared before a Brooklyn judge for the first time Tuesday. Najibullah Zazi is accused of plotting to use weapons of mass destruction against U.S. targets in what law enforcement officials say was the most serious terrorist threat against the U.S. since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

While the FBI arrested Zazi just a little more than a week ago, U.S. intelligence officials had been tracking him for months. They had been listening to Zazi's phone calls, tracking his e-mails and following his associates for months in a bid to uncover exactly what he was planning and who was helping him. The investigation blew up before they got answers to either of the questions.

Officials close to the case tell NPR that more arrests could happen as soon as this week.

"We still don't know what we don't know yet," one senior intelligence official with direct knowledge of the case said. "We just know that it was going to be a very bad attack. We don't get terrorists in this country who go get al-Qaida training and come back to attack here. That's what we were expecting was going to happen in a second wave of attacks after 9/11. So in that sense, Zazi isn't just unusual — he's scary."

The soft-spoken Denver airport shuttle bus driver was flown from Denver to New York on Friday. He allegedly admitted to authorities that he trained in explosives at an al-Qaida camp in Pakistan. Publicly, he has denied that he is a terrorist.

Whatever his defense may be, Zazi has come to embody everything U.S. intelligence officials worry about in a suspected jihadist. He was in the U.S. legally, so he could move about the country freely. He was raised and attended school in the U.S., so he understands American culture and customs and could blend in. Most frightening of all, they say, Zazi wasn't just an aspirational jihadist, he was also an operational one. Official say he didn't just dream up a plot, he actually began to launch one — unlike other terrorism suspects the FBI has arrested since Sept. 11, 2001.

As if to underscore the difference — and level of magnitude — between Zazi and other suspects, the FBI arrested two other men last week on terrorism charges. Officials say Hosam Smadi, a 19-year-old Jordanian student, wanted to blow up a bank building in Dallas to strike a blow for Osama bin Laden. American Michael Finton, a ginger-haired Muslim convert, allegedly wanted to blow up a federal building in Illinois to bring down the U.S. government. In both cases, the FBI had agents and informers pose as al-Qaida members, who provided the operational part of the plots. Smadi and Finton had the will, officials say, but the FBI provided the way.

"Smadi and Finton are the kind of terrorism cases we've been used to handling since 9/11," an FBI official familiar with the three cases said. "Zazi is not."

Life In America

Zazi was born on Aug. 10, 1985, in eastern Afghanistan and moved to the Peshawar region of Pakistan when he was a small boy. His father, Mohammed Wali Zazi, moved to the United States in 1991 and drove a taxi to make enough money to bring his family to America.

Zazi arrived in the U.S. eight years later and lived in the Flushing neighborhood of Queens, N.Y. He went to the local high school and prayed at a local mosque where, officials said, there was a good-sized Afghan population. He was 16 on Sept. 11, 2001. News reports quote neighbors as saying he was shocked by the downing of the World Trade Center towers and thought the attacks were un-Islamic. A short time later, he dropped out of high school to help support his family by working the morning shift at a coffee cart they had.

Zazi seemed to be living a rather unremarkable life in Queens until August of last year. That's when he flew to Peshawar, according to court records. While it is unclear what he did there, he allegedly told authorities he trained in weapons and explosives at an al-Qaida training camp.

Authorities began tracking Zazi when he came back to New York in January. Days later, he moved to Colorado, where his aunt and uncle lived. He told law enforcement officials that he moved there because it was cheaper than New York. He passed a background check and got a job driving a shuttle van at Denver International Airport.

The Alleged Plot

Prosecutors say Zazi had three e-mail accounts and on two of them, officials say, they found graphics files of notes in his handwriting on how to manufacture and handle different kinds of explosives. The notes laid out how to mix the same kind of explosives that were used in the 2005 London train bombings.

Investigators say Zazi began buying unusually large quantities of hydrogen peroxide and acetone products from beauty supply stores in the Denver area in June. Acetone is found in nail polish remover, and hydrogen peroxide is a component in many beauty products. Investigators say they have Zazi on surveillance cameras buying the chemicals. They also say he went to home-improvement stores in the Denver area to pick up more chemicals, and that others helped Zazi buy the products.

The Justice Department says that 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. To make explosives, hydrogen peroxide and acetone need to be boiled down. Zazi also was apparently trying to contact another individual around the same time to get advice on concentrations of the chemicals. Law enforcement authorities have been working around the clock to find the explosives. They don't know if Zazi merely made a test bomb or whether he mixed the chemicals and stashed them somewhere between Denver and New York. Zazi left Denver in a rental car and drove to New York on Sept. 9.

In a search of three Queens apartments linked to Zazi, investigators allegedly found 16 backpacks and a number of mobile phones. Some of his associates allegedly tried to rent a large moving truck in Queens, but the clerk declined to rent it to them when they tried to pay cash and didn't want to leave their IDs.

In the words of one former law enforcement official, it looked like the first time since Sept. 11, 2001, 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.

The big question swirling ahead of Tuesday's court appearance is why law enforcement officials moved in when they 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 case, it depends on whom you ask. New York police say with an upcoming presidential visit to the city and the U.N. General Assembly session, they couldn't afford to risk anything going wrong. FBI officials say privately they wanted to wait and track the group longer.

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Correction Sept. 29, 2009

The original broadcast version of this story incorrectly referred to Hosam Smadi, the suspect in an alleged plot to bomb a bank building in Dallas, as being Palestinian. Smadi is Jordanian.

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