Facts And Fictions About Alleged Zazi Plot After Denver man Najibullah Zazi was arrested in connection with a possible al-Qaida plot, confusion about the level of danger is rife. NPR's counterterrorism correspondent Dina Temple-Raston explains why the alleged bombing plot may be the most serious terrorism threat to the U.S. since 9/11.
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Facts And Fictions About Alleged Zazi Plot

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Facts And Fictions About Alleged Zazi Plot

Facts And Fictions About Alleged Zazi Plot

Facts And Fictions About Alleged Zazi Plot

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After Denver man Najibullah Zazi was arrested in connection with a possible al-Qaida plot, confusion about the level of danger is rife. NPR's counterterrorism correspondent Dina Temple-Raston explains why the alleged bombing plot may be the most serious terrorism threat to the U.S. since 9/11.


This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

Since Najibullah Zazi allegedly told federal authorities that he trained at an al-Qaida base in Pakistan, the charges against him have escalated from lying to conspiracy to deploy weapons of mass destruction. Federal officials call Zazi's case the most serious terrorism investigation since 9/11. They say he had the know-how on his computer, that he purchased chemical ingredients of a bomb and they found backpacks and batteries and cell phones, but they still don't have any actual bombs or much in the way of evidence that he ever built one. Tomorrow, Zazi appears in court in Brooklyn for the first time. We'll talk about the case with NPR's Dina Temple-Raston.

Later in the program, Iran's secret nuclear facility buried inside a hollowed out mountain on a revolutionary guards' base near Gum. David Sanger of the New York Times will join us. But first, if you have questions about the Zazi case and why authorities take it so seriously, give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. And you can join the conversation on our Web site, that's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Dina Temple-Raston is NPR's counterterrorism correspondent. She joins us from our bureau in New York. Always nice to have you on the program, Dina.


CONAN: And in the last month we saw a few terrorist plots, alleged terrorist plots, in Dallas in Springfield, Illinois, and now this one in New York. What makes the Zazi case different?

TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, it's much more serious. The other plots in Dallas and in Illinois are much more typical plots we've seen in the past. And by that, I mean, there's somebody who has an aspiration to do some sort of plot but doesn't have any of the skills. And then the FBI seems to get involved, either with agents being undercover or an informant. And that sort of moves the plot along or provides the expertise that the plot would have. Let me give you an example, one of the - in two of these plots were actually, there were arrests last week.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

TEMPLE-RASTON: There was a Jordanian in the Dallas area who wanted to blow up a skyscraper in Texas. And there's some question as to whether or not he might have had some mental problems. But he came here on a student visa after his mother died in Jordan in 2007. And he seemed pretty affable and helpful and his neighbors say he seemed like a nice guy. But he would go into these Jihadi chat rooms and talk big, you know, about how we wanted to lead the Jihadi lifestyle. And the FBI sort of caught on to him in this chat rooms and they approached him posed as al-Qaida members, and in the end provided him with an Explorer with fake bombs in it, which he then drove under this skyscraper in Dallas. That's an example of the type of terrorist plots we've seen in this country.

CONAN: And the difference with the Zazi plot is that he does actually seem to have al-Qaida connections of his own.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, Zazi is different on a fundamental level. And that is not only did he have these real ties to al-Qaida, he admitted apparently to FBI agents that he had attended an al-Qaida camp in Peshawar, Pakistan and had explosives training. There's a rather famous explosives training camp there. In fact, most of the bombers for the London bombing in 2005, and the foiled plot of the airliners that were going to be blown up over the Atlantic, those people went to that same camp in Peshawar. And in addition to that, you know, he had now - came back to the United States with expertise. He didn't need someone to provide an Explorer with a bomb in it. He allegedly actually knew how to build one himself.

CONAN: Well, that information was on his computer and from what I've read he said it may have been, you know, something that was attached to a holy book that he downloaded, well, he didn't know anything about it. It was just something that was there.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Yes, but since then we've learned - you're exactly right. But since then we've also learned that those notes that were on his computer -imaged on his computer - were in his own handwriting.

CONAN: His attorneys though have also pointed out that, well, there seems to be all these statements by federal prosecutors about this but they found no traces of any kinds of chemicals or production of a chemical that were found in his car. No traces were found when they searched his home in Colorado. He may have bought these chemicals from beauty shops to construct these bombs allegedly, but if so, where is it?

TEMPLE-RASTON: Again, there's one more little detail here that his lawyers have been avoiding talking about, which is he bought all these chemicals - and they have him on video surveillance tape actually buying all these chemicals, and then rented a hotel room close to where the Beauty Warehouse where he bought all these chemicals, where he bought them. He rents a hotel room and they found in the hotel room in the - it had a stove and a vent. In the vent, they found traces of acetone, which was one of the chemicals that he needs to essentially boil down and concentrate to make a bomb.

Now, there are two - investigators think have two theories that they are working with right now. One is that the explosives actually were made and they just hadn't been able to find them yet. Or two, that the reason why there was this residue is that he was putting together some sort of device and perhaps exploded it in the Denver desert to make sure it worked.

Also, during that time when he was in the hotel room apparently he was massively texting somebody that they know has links to al-Qaida asking for concentrations and for help on that particular, sort of, mixture. Of course, this is all allegedly. We haven't - this hasn't gone to court yet. And we're not even sure what he's going to plead yet. We'll know that tomorrow. But this is what investigators say they have.

CONAN: The other thing we heard was that this was a plot in connection with the anniversary of 9/11. And indeed, he, after purchasing these chemicals in Colorado, then drove across the country to New York City except nothing went boom.

(Soundbite of laughter)

TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, no, nothing went boom. But there are some other sort of details on the fringes of this, which is why FBI agents tell me that what they're so worried about is what they don't know about. They found somewhere between 9 and 16 backpacks in an apartment where he was staying along with cell phones with those backpacks. And they also…

CONAN: Cell phones, we should note, can be used as detonators.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Well exactly, I always thought - actually one of the things I learned in reporting this is that, you had to actually have service with the cell phone to ring it, to phone it. And, in fact, all you have to do is use to cell phone to essentially set an alarm.


TEMPLE-RASTON: And it buzzes. And it can do the same thing. Someone was talking about this because there's some speculation that this might have had something to do with subway bombing plots. And clearly, those of us who live in New York know, we don't get any sort of service underground. And - no matter, who your carrier is. So, there was a question as to what that was going to be used for and they're speculating that these would've been set as alarms.

But there's something else too that's sort of being lost in all of this. And that is that apparently there's some friends of Mr. Zazi's, Afghan nationals, who are here in Queens who are being watched by both the NYPD and the FBI, who tried to get a giant moving truck on September 9th from a U-Haul franchise here. And they didn't want to pay with credit cards. They wanted to pay cash and ended up leaving without the truck because the person at the U-Haul franchise wouldn't allow them to take the truck without leaving their IDs. And what I'm hearing from FBI officials and law enforcement officials is basically the truck is something that you buy last.


TEMPLE-RASTON: You don't get a truck before you have explosives as a general matter. Now, there are many other explanations for this. Maybe they were moving and they needed the truck. That hasn't been clarified yet or maybe this was a test run for something else. But still, you can't - these are all little details and dots that they're trying to connect and you can't leave them out in the whole narrative.

CONAN: We're talking about the case against Najibullah Zazi, what we know and what we don't, with Dina Temple-Raston, NPR's counterterrorism correspondent with us from our bureau in New York. 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org.

And Tony(ph) is on the line from Flint, Michigan.

TONY (Caller): Hi, there. I was just wondering if the actual production of the bomb itself was an illegal act if he had produced the bomb.

CONAN: Is it illegal, Dina, do you know, to actually manufacture a bomb without the intent to detonate it or place it anywhere?

TEMPLE-RASTON: I'm sorry, I don't know. I know in terms of just sort of material-support charges and things that have to do with terrorism, I'm not sure if just building a bomb is against the law.

TONY: All right, thank you.


CONAN: Thanks for the call, Tony. We'll try to get an answer for you at some other point. Let's go next to Grand Rapids, also in Michigan, and Ramon is on the line.

RAMON (Caller): Hi, thanks for taking my call. I've noticed, I mean with this in the news the last couple weeks, that all the attacks that have been planned, you know, that make the news, have been really, you know, complex, you know, the attacks of 9/11 involving, you know, three planes, and then this attack on a skyscraper, and the federal bombing in Dallas, I believe it was. But we hear on the news of attacks in the Middle East and Iraq and Afghanistan, on marketplaces and mosques and schools and, you know, smaller targets with, you know, single attackers that, you know, kill or injure a few dozen people - that really seem to freeze up, you know, the society in that individual town. And I'm just wondering whether there has been investigations into smaller attacks like that or whether just for some reason…

CONAN: I was going to ask about that myself. I mean, the truck that you mentioned, Dina, suggests one big possible attack. The backpacks, however, suggest a bunch of smaller ones.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Or suggest that you would go onto some sort of transportation hub. And this is one of the theories was, that they would below these up in a tunnel. So you'd have a train that was blown up, and maybe only 20 or 30 people in that particular car would be injured or killed, but you would wreak havoc on the whole city, and if there were simultaneous attacks, all the worse.

CONAN: Like in London back in 7/7/07.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Or Madrid in 2004.

CONAN: 2004, exactly. Ramon, thanks very much for the call.

RAMON: Thank you.

CONAN: But other than the speculation about the transportation system there in New York, were targets identified?

TEMPLE-RASTON: No, they've apparently found schematics for - allegedly schematics for baseball stadiums and some other areas like that in the New York area, but it's super unclear what the targets were.

I have to say that this - they'd been following Zazi for some time, and they'd been listening to his phone calls, they'd been tracking his emails, and they'd been following people he was meeting with, but this wasn't a cooked plot yet.

They were hoping that they could break it up a little bit further down the line, when they knew what the targets might be, when they had identified everyone who was involved, where either they had already made the explosives and knew where they were - or something of that sort.

And this leaves them with so many loose ends that you have the FBI and the New York PD, you know, fanning out all over the country trying to figure out where this stuff might be.

CONAN: We'll follow up on that point in just a minute. Indeed, if there were more than a dozen backpacks that were possibly for use as carrying bombs, then there may be more than a dozen people who were planning to carry them. We'll follow up on that in just a moment. If you'd like to join the conversation, give us a call, 800-989-8255, email is talk@npr.org. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION form NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Of the many alleged terrorist plots broken up since 9/11, FBI officials say the Najibullah Zazi case looks operational, instead of just aspirational. He not only had a recipe for a bomb, he got the materials, as well.

We're talking about the case and what makes it different with NPR counterterrorism correspondent Dina Temple-Raston, and we're taking your questions, 800-989-8255. Email talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our Web site at npr.org and click on TALK OF THE NATION.

And Dina, just before the break, you were talking that this case was not fully cooked, at least from the FBI investigators' point of view or the New York City Police. And there have been other cases that have gone to trial. You think about the case of the men charged with blowing up the Sears Tower in Chicago, the case against the men involved in a plot to kill U.S. soldiers at Fort Dix, where one of the difficulties prosecutors faced was that indeed, these were all broken up early on, and there were no or very few overt acts, as they would say, no actual - the plan was not ready to go into operation.

And you're saying that the authorities in this case wanted this one to run out a little longer, as well?

TEMPLE-RASTON: Yes, I guess I'd make a - I'd distinguish between the Fort Dix case and the Sears Towers case. In the case of the Fort Dix case, the FBI had an informant that was part of that group, and they'd actually bought weapons from the FBI just before they were arrested. And just to remind you, the Fort Dix case was a bunch of Bosnian young men who were here, some legally, some illegally, and they decided as a sort of jihadi project that they would open fire on the military installation at Fort Dix.

They would get in because they used to deliver pizzas there. This is known as the pizza delivery plot, and then open fire on the soldiers, and this would all be for jihad.

The difference between that and the Sears Tower operation, or even these two operations that they talked about last week, was that it didn't go as far. They didn't actually try and secure the weapons, or in the case of this Jordanian or in Dallas or this man in Illinois, Michael Finton - who was a devotee of John Walker Lindh, remember the American Taliban - and was waiting for a return letter from him and decided that if he drove a van full of explosives under a federal building in Springfield, Illinois, that this would be good for jihad.

Well, the van was given to him by FBI agents that he thought were al-Qaida operatives, and he started dialing a cell phone to make the explosion go off, and of course, it was fake explosives, and it didn't.

What we've been seeing in a lot of these terrorism cases is there's sort of a sense of letting them run out much further because there's a feeling that there's more confidence and competence on the part of law enforcement, and they feel they can let these things spin out further so that it's a little bit more of a slam dunk for a jury - that they don't have to connect the dots for the jury, but in fact, the narrative is all there, right down to the acts that maybe didn't work or driving the explosives to the place and then stopping them just before that.

And that's what's really different. And in the case of Zazi, I think that they wanted to get to a point where they knew everybody who was involved to make sure that if there were other people who were trained in explosives, they had them, and if there were explosives there, that they had their hands on all of them. That's what I mean by their wanting to play out much further.

CONAN: Well, we read in the New York Times that, in fact, there is some argument among different intelligence units within the New York City Police Department and that they may have, in their competition with other, tripped over each other's feet.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Yes, it's interesting because the version of the story that I heard is slightly different than the version of the story that the New York Times has put up.

You know, one of the conflicts is supposed to be that there was a New York Police Department informant who had tipped off Zazi that the New York Police Department and the FBI were looking for him. And this made Zazi leave New York early and possibly, you know, abort whatever plot he might have had here or allegedly had here and go back to Denver.

In fact, what I heard was that the problem happened much earlier in the week. When Zazi was driving to New York, the FBI read the NYPD into the case, because it wasn't really a New York case at that time. It was a Denver case. And the intelligence operation of the New York Police Department was a little angry that they were read in so late. They felt that they should be more a part of this because it had a New York component. And so they pulled over Zazi - New York Police Department pulled Zazi over before he ever got to the city.

They pulled him over on the George Washington Bridge and searched his car, and the feeling was that that was a bit of a cowboy maneuver and, in addition to that, had tipped Zazi off that people were watching him. That was the bigger deal, in my understanding, between the two.

That said, since that time, they've been working very well together on this case. I think the seriousness of the case has really focused minds and said look, you know, whatever differences we have, let's get this solved first, particularly since they don't know who else is involved. And they haven't, as far as we know, announced any arrests, additional arrests, beyond Zazi and this imam who tipped him off who's now out on bail and his father, who is also out on bail.

So we've got one guy so far who's behind bars on this, and clearly there are other people involved, and that's what's continuing.

CONAN: Let's get Tom(ph) on the line, Tom calling us from Minneapolis.

TOM (Caller): Yes, thank you. What I'm very happy to see with this, is that Zazi is being handled through the standard criminal justice system, that he hasn't been disappeared and, you know, sent to Guantanamo or some secret base someplace. And I wonder, since he has clear al-Qaida connections and, you know, looks to have actually had some knowledge and expertise compared to some of the other people that have been in the news, you know, who were really amateurs. If we can get some insight into why this is being handled in the normal criminal justice system and not kind of through the military, you know, underground, dark-side stuff. Thank you.

CONAN: All right, Tom, and you don't have to, but we do have to throw in a few allegeds there. This has not been proven yet. He is innocent until proven guilty, but Dina?

TEMPLE-RASTON: Yes, I think this gets back to this idea of connecting the dots. I mean, a lot of the people who are in Guantanamo Bay were turned over, for example, they happened to be in an area between Pakistan and Afghanistan that was a suspicious al-Qaida area. There were bounties for people who were alleged members of al-Qaida, and a lot of people were turned over who, as it turned out, didn't have any ties to al-Qaida whatsoever.

I mean, this is why there used to be 700 people in Guantanamo, and now there are 200 and change, 225 now. And because there is no way to really connect the dots, and a lot of what they have on the guys who are there in Guantanamo is hearsay evidence, it doesn't really fit into our criminal justice system.

The difference is Zazi is - the dots were all collected by our law enforcement, whether it be the FBI or the NYPD. And what you see as you look in the indictment, whether it's alleged and turns out that some of this stuff is true or not true, that's beside the point. What they have in bringing the indictments against him is a reasonably coherent narrative and timeline that allows you to build a case.

I mean, it's not - it's clearly not an airtight case. They clearly would have liked to have spent more time connecting these dots, but the dots that they have at least got them an indictment.

CONAN: There's another distinction, too. I believe Zazi is here legally. So he is what is referred to, I guess, as an American person - not a citizen but a legal resident of the country. I don't believe that category applies to anybody who ever went to Guantanamo.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Right, although we did have two American citizens, didn't we? We had Padilla and somebody else?

CONAN: That were held in a naval facility in the naval brig, but they were not sent to Guantanamo Bay.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Right, but they were under that other system, and they got transferred into this system. And the other sort of interesting little tidbit about Zazi is that according to his lawyer, who I spoke to in the earlier part of last week, he was preparing to apply for a green card here. He was going to be eligible for a green card next month, and he was all set to apply for it.

CONAN: Let's go to Ernie, Ernie calling us from Boston.

ERNIE (Caller): Yes, hi. Thank you for taking the call. I'm just curious, and some of the comments were made were that there seem to be a lot of loose ends still in this case. And I wonder if this case was played out very openly for some reason. It seems like we've been hearing about this for a long time, and this is not typically how investigators conduct their work. There's a lot more done that we don't see.

In this case, there seems to be a lot of loose strings, and might not that have gone better if they had kind of kept their cards closer to their vest?

TEMPLE-RASTON: They didn't have quite - they didn't have a choice, frankly. I mean, there were some raids on some Queens apartments that happened, I mean, last - I guess a week ago Sunday, and that's what broke this all into the open.

But the problem was that they didn't know what they had, and this is what I'm hearing over and over, again from my sources, is that they know he's buying chemicals, and then he jumps into a car and drives cross-country, and it's very close to the 9/11 - the anniversary of 9/11, and at that time, President Obama was scheduled to be in New York, and then there was the U.N. general assembly, and then there was this confluence of events that really worried law enforcement.

TEMPLE-RASTON: And since they didn't know where the explosives might be, and they didn't know what the targets were, and they didn't know who else might be working with Zazi, out of abundance of caution, they decided that's it. You know, we'll close this up and make sure that all the doors are closed so nothing bad can happen. And that was the determination that was made. There was a great argument between the New York Police Department and the FBI over whether or not to actually shut this operation or essentially, you know, run - show all their cards.

CONAN: Because there are still those chemicals out there. And clearly, as you suggested, Dina, there may well be other people out there involved in this.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Indeed. And to be honest, there's a different goal for the FBI and the New York Police Department. The New York Police Department's counterterrorism group basically wants to make sure that nothing happens in New York. And the FBI's main concern is to have sort of a broader scope, that they are protecting the country. They're not as - they're concerned about New York, clearly, but their scope is larger. They're trying to protect the whole country. So, for them, they're worrying about what was going on in Denver, what might have been dropped off between Denver and New York, and New York. And that just creates a little tension between the two groups.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. Ernie, thanks very much for the call.

ERNIE: Thank you. Appreciate it.

CONAN: Another thing that we've read about is that this suspect is almost a nightmare for counterterrorism investigators, someone who is very fluent and fluid in American society, somebody who's able to get a job as a chauffer/driver at an airport in Denver and somebody who's obviously been around the city of New York and very familiar with the English language and American culture, yet also goes to Pakistan. What do we know about Najibullah Zazi?

TEMPLE-RASTON: In terms of his background, he…

CONAN: And his motivation.

TEMPLE-RASTON: …and his motivation, it's unclear what his motivation was. I mean, there's been some speculation from the sources that I've talked to that he was in Pakistan in 2008 when a lot of the predator missile attacks were stepping up. And it's possible that maybe he wasn't radicalized and then something happened to a family member or something happened in his village and he became radicalized there. They are not sure when he decided to be radicalized. He apparently really does have a wife in Peshawar, a 19-year-old cousin of his, and he married her several years ago. And he's been to Pakistan more than once. This is not the first time he's gone to Pakistan. He's been back and forth visiting her. The difference is, this last time he went in the summer of 2008 and he came back in January of 2009, when he left, this was the time that they think he got the explosives training. As far as they know, they don't think he did it before.

So something happened in that intervening time that somehow radicalized Najibullah Zazi. And of course, this chemistry or whatever it is that comes together that radizalizes these people, this is exactly what they're trying to get to the bottom of, that if there's some component that you put together that you can see like a trip wire so that you see this before it happens.

CONAN: We're talking with Dina Temple-Raston about the case of Najibullah Zazi, what we know and what we don't. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And let's see if we can go next to John(ph). John with us from Denver.

JOHN (Caller): Hi. My quick question is, how did he come to the FBI's attention in the first place?

TEMPLE-RASTON: That's a great question and unfortunately not one that I can answer on the air. And let's just say that they had been watching him for a while. And there are some questions as to whether or not he was - they were tipped off by someone as to what he was up to.

JOHN: Okay. Thank you.

CONAN: All right. Thanks for the call, John. Let's see if we can go next to Brenda(ph). Brenda with us from Aiken in South Carolina.

BRENDA (Caller): Thank you. I find it really troubling how all this information is being made public before the man ever comes to trial. And this is happening all the time now with all kinds of cases. And it just seems that there's not even the possibility of putting together a untainted jury anywhere in this country anymore, and especially when there is an alleged terrorism connection. You can just flush those poor souls down the toilet. I'm not saying he's innocent. I'm saying we don't know and there's no way to have a fair trial when all the stuff is put out there for public consumption.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, partially, we're to blame for that because - we as in the media - because we call our sources and try to get to the bottom of this and try and understand whether or not this is not just another one of those plots that perhaps was blown out of proportion, which certainly happened in the early days after 9/11, or whether this was the real thing. So, I am probably partly to blame for the amount of information that's out there.

At the same time, when they do an indictment, they decide in that - in those indicting papers what it is they want to reveal. And sometimes they reveal things so that maybe other people who are involved will slip up or change pattern or do something that will actually ensnare them as well. Sometimes they do this because it's out anyway and they want to show that they - this is a real live case. The Liberty City Six case, you remember, it had to do with some people in Miami who were apparently plotting, I think that was the Sears Tower Plot.

CONAN: Sears Tower case. Yeah.

TEMPLE-RASTON: And all they had was a great intention and some boots, right?

CONAN: Yeah.

TEMPLE-RASTON: They never bought any explosives. They never tried to get explosives. They never tried to get guns. That case went to trial three different times. There were three different mistrials. So - and there was an awful lot of information about that case out there. And the truth is, you need to have a little bit more faith in a jury. And they're going to weigh the evidence and decide no matter how much hype they think is out there, they're going to decide. There was a ton of hype around that Liberty City Six case and it took three trials to finally get these guys convicted.

CONAN: Thanks very much for the call, Brenda.

BRENDA: Thank you.

CONAN: And Dina, we just have a minute left. But the - we know there's a court appearance scheduled for tomorrow in Brooklyn. What happens after that?

TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, that's unclear. I'm not sure if he's going to plead - he's been - it said that he cannot be released on bail. So I think we may have a better idea of what his side of the story will be. The prosecutors may release a little bit more information in what we hear. We're all here in New York kind of waiting for another set of arrests to happen because clearly he didn't do this by himself. And I know from my sources they're following about two dozen people right now. So I imagine that they're not going to be following two dozen people around the clock much longer.

CONAN: Dina Temple-Raston, NPR counterterrorism correspondent with us from our bureau in New York.

Dina, as always. Thanks very much for your time.

TEMPLE-RASTON: You're very welcome. Thanks for having me.

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