More Arrests Could Come In Zazi Terrorism Case
RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Renee Montagne.
STEVE INSKEEP, host:
And I'm Steve Inskeep.
The man at the center of a terrorism investigation appears in a federal court in Brooklyn today. Prosecutors believe Najibullah Zazi was planning to blow up transportation targets in New York City. This is one of several cases developing all at once, and NPR's Dina Temple-Raston has been following all of them from New York. Dina, Good morning.
DINA TEMPLE-RASTON: Good morning, Steve.
INSKEEP: We are going to talk about that New York case, but let's talk about the others first. There is a case in Dallas and another in Illinois. What's allegedly been going on?
TEMPLE-RASTON: Right, well the FBI announced these two other arrests last week and Zazi sort of eclipsed all of this, but there was a 19-year-old Palestinian named Hosam Smadi who allegedly wanted to blow up a skyscraper in Dallas. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: Hosam Smadi is Jordanian.]
And then there was this 26-year-old American named Michael Finton who was in Illinois, and he was charged with conspiring to blow up a federal building in Springfield, Illinois. But investigators are saying that neither one of these cases actually rises to the same level as the Zazi case does. This is that New York case of Najibullah Zazi.
INSKEEP: Why not? Blowing up buildings sounds pretty serious.
TEMPLE-RASTON: No, you are right. Blowing up buildings does sound serious, but when you get into the details of these plots they get a lot less dramatic. Let's start with the Dallas case. The FBI started tracking Smadi after he posted these very angry emails in the Jihadi chat room. So FBI agents went undercover, claimed to be al-Qaida and befriended him. And then, over the next six months, Smadi met with undercover agents and mused about possible targets to attack. You know, he'd considered banks and the Dallas airport, and then he settled on this office tower in Dallas called Fountain Place.
Then last week, undercover officers actually provided him with a Ford Explorer and they told them it was full of explosives. So, he drove it into the parking lot under this tower and then drove several blocks away with an undercover agent, and then dialed a number on a cell phone he had been told would detonate the explosives.
Now the explosives were fake, so the bomb never went off. And then Smadi was arraigned on charges of knowingly trying to use weapons of mass destruction to blow up this 60-story building. The key thing here, is that he didn't have the ability to do this on his own, he needed help.
INSKEEP: So, if the story is true, he certainly had the intent, but never had the explosives, he just had words, basically, and undercover agents.
INSKEEP: What about this plot in Illinois, regarding a federal building in Springfield?
TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, the suspect in that case, his name is Michael Finton, he converted to Islam while he was in an Illinois prison. And according to the criminal complaint against him, he first popped up on the FBI's radar screen a couple of years ago in 2007 after they searched his car and turned up a letter that said he had dreams of becoming a martyr. Again in this case, you had agents posing as al-Qaida operatives. They supplied a van full of fake explosives, and they allowed Finton to think that when he parked the van under the Paul Findley Federal Building in Springfield, Illinois, the whole place would go up as soon as he dialed the cell phone. And of course it didn't. And he was charged with plotting to blow up the federal building.
INSKEEP: Now, we get back to this case of Najibullah Zazi, and we do see the difference here, don't we? Because with these other two guys, according to the federal story, their only connection to al-Qaida was federal agents posing as al-Qaida, but they think Najibullah Zazi had a real connection.
TEMPLE-RASTON: Exactly. Apparently he told authorities that he had trained in explosives in an al-Qaida camp last year in Pakistan. That, just in a nutshell, is what makes him different from just about any other terrorist case since 9/11 attacks, that we've had in this country. You know, in general, in this country, terrorist threats tend to be aspirational as opposed to operational. So, a would-be terrorist sees a building like the Sears Tower, for example, and says I want to blow that up - but they don't have the means, they don't know how to do it. They don't even know how to start going about doing that.
And Zazi was different, because he had training. They also allege - the prosecutors allege that his plan was operational because he was already buying, allegedly, chemicals to build a bomb. And this is without the FBI inserting anyone into the process. He had bomb making instructions, allegedly, on his computer. He'd gone to beauty supply stores in the Denver area, bought chemicals that tracked with what the bomb recipe he had - needed to make the bomb.
He allegedly rented a hotel room and they found traces of chemicals above the stove. That's important, because the chemicals have to be cooked down and concentrated to be made into this explosive. All this stuff, and in addition to that, perhaps even a handful of accomplices. We're waiting to hear whether or not there are going to be some additional arrests this week.
INSKEEP: Thanks very much. That's NPR's Dina Temple-Raston in New York City this morning.
TEMPLE-RASTON: Thank you.