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Guilty Plea in Terror Plot Against New York City Subways

Updated: July 22, 2011

Posted: September 25, 2009

An Afghan national who grew up in New York has pleaded guilty to planning a terrorist attack against the New York City subway system.


On February 22, 2010, Najibullah Zazi, 25, pleaded guilty in a New York federal court to conspiracy to use weapons of mass destruction ag­ainst persons or property in the United States, providing material support to Al Qaeda and conspiracy to commit murder in a foreign country.  Zazi, who admitted in court that Al Qaeda trained him for a "martyrdom operation" in New York, faces a maximum sentence of life in prison.


"This was one of the most serious terrorist threats to our nation since September 11th, 2001," Attorney General Eric Holder said following Zazi's guilty plea.  "This attempted attack on our homeland was real, it was in motion, and it would have been deadly."


Zazi admitted that he and others planned in the spring of 2008 to travel to Afghanistan to join the Taliban and fight against American and allied forces.  Months later, the men flew from New York to Peshawar, Pakistan with the intention of crossing the border into Afghanistan.  Court documents have alleged that Zarein Ahmedzay and Adis Medunjanin, both American citizens who reportedly attended high school with Zazi, were among the men who travelled with Zazi to Pakistan.  Ahmedzay has since pleaded guilty to conspiracy to use weapons of mass destruction against persons or property in the U.S., conspiracy to commit murder in a foreign country and providing material support to Al Qaeda for his role in the plot.


While in Pakistan, Zazi and the others were recruited and directed by Adnan El Shukrijumah, a U.S. permanent resident from Saudi Arabia designated as one of the FBI's most wanted terrorists, to conduct a terrorist attack in the U.S.  El Shukrijumah has since been indicted for organizing their terror attack in New York.


Zazi, Ahmedzay and Medunjanin were transported by Al Qaeda to Waziristan, an Al Qaeda and Taliban stronghold which serves as a center for launching attacks against U.S.-led forces in Afghanistan.  According to the Department of Justice, Zazi and the others received weapons training from Al Qaeda in Waziristan, where they began planning potential terrorist attacks that they intended to carry out when they returned to the U.S.  The men also allegedly met with Saleh al-Somali, the head of international operations for Al Qaeda, and Rashid Rauf, an Al Qaeda operative who has been charged in connection to another Al Qaeda plot to blow up seven airplanes flying from Britain to the United States and Canada in 2006. 


While the three Americans had originally planned to fight against U.S.-led forces in Afghanistan, the Al Qaeda leaders explained that they would be more useful if they conducted suicide operations targeting well-known structures in New York to maximize the number of casualties, according to the Department of Justice.  Zazi admitted to the court that he supported Al Qaeda's plan to "sacrifice" himself during an attack in the U.S. in order to "bring attention to what the United States military was doing to civilians in Afghanistan."


According to the Department of Justice, Zazi received additional training from Al Qaeda on constructing explosives and e-mailed himself a summary of the notes he took so he could access the bomb-making instructions when he returned to the U.S.  The notes, according to court documents, contained "formulations and instructions regarding the manufacture and handling of different kinds of explosives." Zazi also discussed with Al Qaeda target locations for potential terrorist attacks in the U.S., including subway trains in New York City, and provided Al Qaeda with money and computers.


After completing his training in Pakistan in January 2009, Zazi returned to the U.S. and moved to Denver, Colorado, where he worked as a shuttle driver at the Denver International Airport. According to the Department of Justice, the three Americans agreed that Zazi would prepare the explosives, that Zazi and Ahmedzay would assemble the explosive devices in New York and that all three of them would conduct the suicide attacks in New York


The following June, Zazi accessed the bomb-making notes, which provided detailed information about Triacetone Triperoxide (TATP), components of the explosives used in the 2005 London transit bombings.  In the summer of 2009, Zazi and at least three others visiting him from New York City reportedly used stolen credit cards to purchase a large amount of hydrogen peroxide and acetone products which are components of TATP from beauty supply stores in the Denver area.   


After buying the products in August 2009, Zazi twice checked into a hotel in Aurora, Colorado.  FBI testing for explosives and chemical residues found traces of acetone in a vent above a kitchen stove in the hotel, suggesting that Zazi used the stove to heat chemicals, as the bomb-making notes instruct.


The following month, Zazi drove a rental car from Aurora to Queens, New York, carrying with him the bomb-making components he had previously purchased in Colorado. On September 10, 2009, Zazi was stopped at a security checkpoint on the George Washington Bridge, where Port Authority Police reportedly searched Zazi's car.


While in New York, Zazi was allegedly tipped off that he was under surveillance by a Queens-based imam who has previously served as government informant.  Although Zazi, Ahmedzay and Medunjanin planned to complete assembly of the bombs in New York and launch an attack on the Manhattan subway lines on September 14th, 15th or 16th, they discarded the explosives and bomb-making components in a New York City apartment when they realized that law enforcement was investigating their activities, according to the Department of Justice.  Zazi, who, along with the others reportedly planned to board the subways at Times Square and Grand Central Station during rush hour with bombs either strapped to their bodies or in their backpacks, flew back to Denver the next day.  


The imam, Ahmad Wais Afzali, 37, a U.S. permanent resident, pleaded guilty on March 4, 2010, to lying to federal authorities about an ongoing terrorism investigation.  Officials claim that after warning Zazi, Afzali lied to authorities about what he said on the phone call with Zazi, which was monitored.  In April 2010, Afzali was sentenced to time served and ordered to leave the U.S. within 90 days.


Zazi's father, Mohammed Zazi, 53, a naturalized U.S. citizen from Afghanistan, was convicted on charges of making false statements to federal agents and destruction of evidence on July 22, 2011. Mohammed Zazi spoke to Afzali on the same day that his son did, but apparently later lied to FBI officials about the conversation, saying that it never happened and that he does not know anyone by Afzali's name. Mohammad Zazi faces up to eight years in prison.


Najibullah Zazi was originally charged in Denver with lying to federal authorities in an ongoing terrorism investigation after his arrest on September 19, 2009.  The government moved to drop the false statements charge on September 24, 2009, when Zazi was indicted in a New York federal court with conspiracy to use weapons of mass destruction against persons or property in the United States.  He pleaded not guilty five days later.


Following his return to Colorado, police raided apartments Zazi visited in Queens during his September trip, including the apartments of Ahmedzay and Medunjanin.  Authorities searching the Queens apartments reportedly seized cell phones and more than a dozen backpacks and discovered Zazi's fingerprints on a scale and batteries, presumably used by Zazi to weigh chemicals for a bomb.  Police also raided Zazi and his father's home in Colorado, and, after the men's arrests, carried out more raids in the Queens homes of Zazi's friends.


During a raid on Zazi's rental car, authorities seized Zazi's laptop, which reportedly showed that he had researched baseball and football stadiums, as well as locations used for Fashion Week in New York.  Two sources familiar with the investigation also reported that Zazi had a video of New York's Grand Central Terminal.  


In addition to Zazi, approximately 20 other American Muslim extremists were arrested or indicted in the U.S. on terror-related charges in 2009

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