Najibullah Zazi arrives at the federal building for questioning by the FBI in Denver on Sept. 17.
Najibullah Zazi arrives at the federal building for questioning by the FBI in Denver on Sept. 17. Ed Andrieski/AP
Investigators in the terrorism case against Najibullah Zazi claim to have amassed stacks of evidence against the former Denver-area shuttle bus driver.
They say he allegedly trained at an al-Qaida camp in Pakistan last year. They have surveillance video from a Denver-area beauty supply store, which they claim shows Zazi pushing a shopping cart full of bomb-making ingredients — such as hydrogen peroxide and acetone — up and down the store aisles. The FBI also says it found chemical residue consistent with a favored homemade bomb-making recipe in a hotel room Zazi rented just days before the anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks.
Zazi, for his part, has said this is all some kind of mistake. Authorities say he admits training in explosives at an al-Qaida camp in Pakistan last year, but he has maintained that he never intended to put that expertise to use. He was formally charged with conspiring to use weapons of mass destruction in a federal court in Brooklyn earlier this week. He pleaded not guilty.
Officials say FBI agents in Denver and New York had been tracking Zazi for some time — and experts analyzing the case say the way law enforcement gathered evidence against Zazi and possible co-conspirators may be a textbook case of how to conduct a terrorism investigation. The FBI used a blend of wiretaps and subpoenas, search warrants and local police, among other things, to build its case.
"I think what's striking about the Zazi case is not so much that new tools were being used, but that old tools were being used in a comprehensive fashion," says Sam Rascoff, who used to work terrorism cases for the New York Police Department's intelligence unit. "And that they were being stitched together in a thoughtful, strategic way, so that one tool naturally gave way to another."
Prosecutors have already informed Zazi's lawyer and the judge in the case that much of the evidence they'll present at trial came from a wiretap. They also said some of the evidence will include classified information — which means the case is likely to be complicated.
If you have ever watched The Wire on television, you know a little something about Title III wiretaps. Named for a section in the criminal code, Title IIIs are generally used to catch mobsters or drug dealers. To get this kind of wiretap, police must convince a judge that the wire is likely to pick up evidence of a crime.
The wiretap used on Zazi was different. In his case, officials tell NPR they asked a judge for what's called a roving FISA wire tap. (FISA stands for Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.) Roving wiretaps are standard fare in narcotics cases. They allow investigators to link a wiretap with a person, rather than just a specific phone number. It allows for a broader array of electronic surveillance, including disposable cell phones, e-mail and text messages.
FISA wiretaps are meant to be aimed at foreign targets — people who work for or are representing a foreign entity. FISA wiretaps used to be all about espionage, but, according to former FBI Assistant Director Tom Fuentes, that changed to include terrorism. The foreign entity in this case would be a group like al-Qaida. "In certain cases, obviously, an act of terrorism against the United States affects national security, and so under certain circumstances terrorism also qualifies," he said.
Law enforcement officials close to the Zazi case tell NPR that the FBI applied to a special court for the wiretap months ago. Sources say officials acted after Pakistani intelligence allegedly told them that Zazi had met with al-Qaida operatives there.
When Zazi returned to the United States from Pakistan in January, the FBI was tracking him — not on a daily basis, but in a way that they could keep tabs on him. Sources say the wiretaps were vital to the investigation. For example, officials tell NPR the wiretap picked up a Zazi phone conversation about chemical mixtures for explosives. In another intercept, officials allege he was frantically calling and texting several people about bomb-making. That information led officials to use another tool — physical surveillance.
At the end of the summer, sources say, Zazi surprised agents by renting a car and starting to drive cross-country. FBI agents followed him on the 27-hour drive. And, just to make sure they tracked Zazi closely, they asked local law enforcement for help along the way. Zazi was pulled over several times for speeding. He apparently got a ticket in Kentucky. And the FBI knew about it.
When Zazi neared New York City on Sept. 10, the New York police pulled him over on the George Washington Bridge. Officials familiar with the case tell NPR that was an orchestrated operation between the FBI and NYPD. They wanted to make sure there weren't any chemicals or a bomb in Zazi's car. They told Zazi it was a routine search and, just to underscore the point, pulled over other cars on the bridge as well.
"The stop was, at least allegedly, for a random drug check point," said Zazi's lawyer, Art Folsom. "They searched his vehicle, they found nothing, and then sent him on his way. He thought this was just one of those law enforcement things that happens every now and then. He didn't think anything of it at that point."
Authorities got a better look at Zazi's car a day later, using a special provision of the Patriot Act known as a "sneak and peek." They broke into the car and swabbed it for chemicals. They found Zazi's laptop in the car and mirrored the hard drive. And then they very carefully put everything back just where they found it.
Sources close to the case say it was clear Zazi didn't know about the "sneak and peek" because when he returned to Denver, he switched out his hard drive and voluntarily handed his computer over to the FBI when they began questioning him. When they searched that drive, investigators didn't find the same files they had in New York. They say among the missing files was a recipe for making hydrogen peroxide and acetone bombs. It is unclear how Zazi explained the discrepancy.
When the FBI did pin Zazi down about the bomb-making instructions, he said he had accidentally downloaded them from the Internet. Officials close to the case tell NPR the instructions were in Zazi's handwriting. The notes allegedly had been scanned and then sent to one of three e-mail accounts Zazi controlled. Officials believe Zazi e-mailed them to himself from Pakistan.
A Range Of Tools
Evidence in the case is still closely held, partly because officials are still tracking a handful of other men they believe were helping Zazi in the plot.
Rascoff, the former NYPD official, said that even with the limited evidence revealed so far, the Zazi investigation shows how many tools can be brought to bear in a domestic terrorism case.
"They can use electronic surveillance, which is just a fancy term for eavesdropping on phone calls and looking into e-mails; undercover agents and confidential informants who are on the inside of organizations; and they can use physical surveillance, what you and I would call casing a joint or following a person," Rascoff says. And in the Zazi case, investigators seemed to have used them all.
Law enforcement officials are quick to say they aren't done yet. Officials haven't explained where the chemicals and bomb materials ended up. And they tell NPR more arrests are coming.