Judge Gives Man Who Plotted To Bomb New York Subway A 'Once Unthinkable Second Chance' NPR's Lulu Garcia-Navarro asks George Washington University's Seamus Hughes about a judge's decision to release Najibullah Zazi, who was convicted of plotting an attack on New York City's subway.

Judge Gives Man Who Plotted To Bomb New York Subway A 'Once Unthinkable Second Chance'

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In 2009, Najibullah Zazi pleaded guilty to charges connected to a plan to bomb the New York subway system, a plot that was called one of the most dangerous terrorist conspiracies since the September 11 attacks. Zazi and two other men decided not to go through with the attack after they grew worried that law enforcement was onto them. This past week, a federal judge said that Mr. Zazi is a different person, utterly changed from the one involved in that plot. At his sentencing, the judge said that because of his, quote, "extraordinary cooperation," Zazi would only do the time he'd already served, about 10 years.

So how do you know when a person convicted of terrorism has changed sides? Seamus Hughes, deputy director of George Washington University's Program on Extremism, is with us. Welcome.

SEAMUS HUGHES: Thanks for having me.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Can you tell us a little bit about Zazi's story? How did he come to be involved with al-Qaida?

HUGHES: So him and two of his friends were watching Anwar al-Awlaki videos online. And they decided they were going to go join primarily the Taliban. And they traveled to Pakistan. When they got there, they met a number of different connectors and ended up with - actually, with al-Qaida. And al-Qaida realized the benefit of these three Americans that were there. And they sent them back to commit an attack here.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: There seems to be real agreement between prosecutors and the judge that Zazi is a changed man. What happened?

HUGHES: Yeah, so when Zazi got picked up in the fall of 2009, he immediately started cooperating. And from then on, for the last 10 years or so, he's cooperated against a number of high-profile trials in the U.S. - the third in command in al-Qaida, another American and a British operative. He cooperated with law enforcement over 100 times, did interviews there. They described his cooperation as extraordinary, some of the best they've seen in terrorism trials.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Do we know why?

HUGHES: You know, sometimes when these things happen - and I've interviewed a few individuals who've joined al-Qaida and other groups like this - they have an awakening moment when they're looking, sitting across the table from an FBI agent. It becomes very real to them in a way they hadn't seen before. For Zazi's case, he decided that he made a mistake, and he wanted to rectify that.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: There are three men who were involved in this plot. Two of them cooperated with the government. But the third guy decided to go to trial rather than plead guilty. He's in prison for life now. I don't want to sound cynical, but it does seem like a change of heart is a good legal strategy.

HUGHES: It's a great legal strategy. You know, if Zazi didn't cooperate, he was going to be facing life in jail. The other options is to go to trial. And when you go to trial, universally you end up getting sentenced to a much longer sentence than you would if you cooperated.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Can you compare how we handle a case like this, which has to do with Islamist terrorism, with the domestic terrorism cases we've been hearing about recently? I'm thinking specifically about white supremacists. Does the government deal with them in the same way?

HUGHES: Yeah, in many ways they do in terms of cooperation. They don't in terms of charges. So you can charge an individual with material support to terrorism as it relates to ISIS or al-Qaida. You can't have that same statute when it comes to white supremacy. There isn't a parallel statute. For white supremacists, you know, they do flip a lot of individuals. But it's a different approach.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: In this case, as you mentioned, they were able to put a lot of pressure to bear to get information, the names of people who were involved. Do you think that's happening with investigators who are dealing with the synagogue shooting suspect, for example?

HUGHES: I think, you know, prosecutors, they use the court system to bring justice to victims. But they also use it to figure out if there's a larger network they need to be worried about. You know, was this individual - like the synagogue shooter, was he part of a larger group of individuals they should be worried about? Can you get that person to essentially flip on them? And so I'm sure they're having those conversations. And it's a delicate balancing act.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Seamus Hughes, deputy director of George Washington University's Program on Extremism, thank you so much.

HUGHES: Thank you.

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