Guilty Plea In NYC Terrorism Bomb Plot

A former Denver-area man pleaded guilty in a major terrorism case Monday. Najibullah Zazi is accused of training with al-Qaida and plotting to bomb transportation targets in New York. He faces life in prison without parole.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

A one-time shuttle bus driver says he is guilty of terrorism in New York City. And the attorney general took the chance to say that vindicates civilian courts. Najibullah Zazi pleaded guilty within the criminal justice system. Attorney General Eric Holder argued that shows the system can handle terror suspects.

Attorney General ERIC HOLDER (Department of Justice): In this case, as it has been in so many other ones, the criminal justice system has proved to be an invaluable weapon for disrupting plots and incapacitating terrorists, one that works in concert with our intelligence community, and in concert with our military. We will continue to use it to protect the American people from terrorism.

INSKEEP: That's Eric Holder's argument, which we'll examine in a moment. NPR's counterterrorism correspondent Dina Temple-Raston has been following this story from New York.

Dina, good morning.

DINA TEMPLE-RASTON: Good morning.

INSKEEP: Before we get to the meaning of this case, the larger meaning perhaps, what exactly did Zazi admit to here?

TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, just to remind our listeners. Zazi's the Denver-area airport shuttle bus driver who's accused of training with al-Qaida to launch an attack against the New York City subway. And about five months after he was arrested, it looks like he's admitted to just about everything he was accused of.

The charges included conspiracy to use weapons of mass destruction. By that they mean bombs he apparently made. And then providing material support for a terrorist organization, which in this case was al-Qaida. And he faces life in prison. And he's scheduled to be sentenced in June.

INSKEEP: Well, given that he faces life in prison, he didn't get a dramatically reduced sentence here. Why did he plead guilty?

TEMPLE-RASTON: Now, what we understand from two sources familiar with the case, that he pled guilty to protect his parents. His father was recently rearrested and then released on $50,000 bail. He was facing obstruction charges. And apparently Zazi was recently told his mother could face criminal immigration charges. And that was enough to, I think, motivate him to provide more information and plead guilty.

INSKEEP: Did you learn something from the plea agreement you didn't know before?

TEMPLE-RASTON: Yeah. There are some new details. We found out, for example, that Zazi actually brought some of the chemicals he needed to make the bombs to New York City, but dumped them just after he was pulled over by the New York Police Department on a so-called traffic stop.

We found out where he trained in Waziristan. We also found out that he originally wanted to fight with the Taliban, and then was recruited by al-Qaida once he arrived in Pakistan.

And when we know what his motive was. In court yesterday, he told the judge that he was willing to sacrifice himself to bring attention to what he saw as the plight of civilians in Afghanistan with the U.S. military there. And Zazi's from Afghanistan.

INSKEEP: Ok. And now let's talk about that larger debate, because the administration is under fire for reading suspect's their rights in terrorism cases, for keeping them in the civilian courts. Does this guilty plea affect the debate in significant way?

TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, that's clearly what Attorney General Eric Holder was trying to say yesterday. You know, I spoke to one former FBI official who told me that what's missing from this debate over Mirandizing a terrorism suspect is how much investigators really learn by building a rapport with defendants.

And that's what the criminal justice system allows them to do. Just talking to them before they're charged, as they did with Zazi, gives investigators a really good idea of how hard a case they are, whether they really want to die for the cause or perhaps aren't as hard over as they first seem.

And that's what seemed to happen with Zazi. He seemed much more focused on the Taliban. Al-Qaida actually recruited him. And it looks like they didn't have him ideologically, really strongly in their grip. And that's why he seems to have pleaded guilty.

INSKEEP: Very, very briefly, though. Did they miss out? Did prosecutors miss out on intelligence information because they read him his rights?

TEMPLE-RASTON: It doesn't seem like it. It seems like we got an idea of the whole plot. And he seems to be cooperating and giving them more detail.

INSKEEP: Dina, thanks very much.

TEMPLE-RASTON: You're welcome.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's counterterrorism correspondent Dina Temple-Raston in New York City. Najibullah Zazi has pleaded guilty to a terrorism plot in New York.

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