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Guilty plea in New York terrorism case

Najibullah Zazi, an Afghan immigrant who had been living in Colorado, tells a judge he was planning a suicide bombing in the city. He says he was angry about casualties in Afghanistan.

February 23, 2010|By Tina Susman and Richard A. Serrano
  • Najibullah Zazi leaves his apartment in Aurora, Colorado in a photo from September 2009.
Najibullah Zazi leaves his apartment in Aurora, Colorado in a photo from… (Ed Andrieski / Associated…)

Reporting from Washington and New York Richard A. Serrano -- An Afghan immigrant admitted to a federal judge Monday that he was so enraged by U.S. military actions in Afghanistan that he attended an Al Qaeda training camp and planned to commit a suicide bombing in New York -- possibly on the subway -- to protest the war.

The plot was thwarted in September after the immigrant, Najibullah Zazi, began to fear that police were trailing him and left the city, but Zazi's chilling statement during a plea hearing in federal court suggested that it came close to fruition.

"The plan was to conduct a martyrdom operation . . . as soon as materials were ready," said Zazi, 25, after he pleaded guilty to three counts that could put him in prison for life.

The charges included conspiracy to use weapons of mass destruction against U.S. targets; conspiracy to commit murder in a foreign country; and providing material support for a foreign terrorism organization -- in this case, Al Qaeda.

Asked by U.S. District Judge Raymond J. Dearie to explain exactly what the martyrdom operation would have entailed, Zazi replied, "To me, it meant I would sacrifice myself to bring attention to what the U.S. military was doing to civilians in Afghanistan."

The purpose, he said, was to "sacrifice my soul for the sake of others."

In Washington, Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr. called the case "one of the most serious threats to our nation since Sept. 11, 2001."

"This attempted attack on our homeland was real, it was in motion, and it would have been deadly," Holder said.

Zazi's guilty plea came five months after his arrest in Denver and suggested he was prepared to provide information on alleged co-conspirators.

"The criminal justice system also contains powerful incentives to induce pleas that yield long sentences and gain intelligence that can be used in the fight against Al Qaeda," Holder said at a news conference.

Zazi's lawyer, William Stampur, refused to comment when asked why his client decided to plead guilty. The Associated Press reported that Zazi was swayed by law enforcement officials' warnings that his mother could face criminal charges related to immigration issues.

The plea agreement was sealed.

Holder used the Zazi case to strengthen his argument -- one embraced by the White House -- that terrorists should be prosecuted in civilian courts in this country.

Holder recently had to reconsider his plan to try the top Sept. 11 plotters, including Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, in New York City because of an outcry by conservatives who say it would be too costly and too dangerous to have such a trial so close to where the attack took place.

"In this case, as it has in so many other cases, the criminal justice system has proved to be an invaluable weapon for disrupting plots and incapacitating terrorists," the attorney general said.

In court, Zazi, who attended high school in Queens, N.Y., spoke lightly accented English as he confessed in a calm and polite demeanor.

He addressed Dearie as "sir" and "your honor" as the judge explained the ramifications of a guilty plea and sought to ensure that Zazi understood the process.

Zazi, whose thick black beard was neatly trimmed and whose hands were uncuffed, spoke in a clear, dispassionate tone.

The transition from airport shuttle driver in Colorado -- the job Zazi had when he was arrested -- to would-be terrorist came in spring and summer 2008, Zazi said in a statement.

According to his account, Zazi and his co-conspirators -- whom authorities have not yet named -- met up in Queens and discussed their opposition to the war in Afghanistan.

In particular, Zazi said, they were bitter over the deaths of civilians in his homeland -- an issue that has become a major concern of U.S. military commanders as they try to win public support from Afghans for major anti-Taliban offensives.

Zazi said he and his co-conspirators decided "to join the Taliban -- to fight alongside the Taliban against the United States."

"We agreed to this plan. I did so because of my feelings about what the U.S. was doing in Afghanistan," he said.

The first step was to travel to Pakistan, which they did in August 2008. But before Zazi could join the Taliban, he was recruited by Al Qaeda and sent to a training camp in Waziristan, near the Afghan border.

While there, Zazi said in court, he took notes on bomb-making instructions and e-mailed them to himself for future reference. He and his trainers discussed locations for future attacks, which included the New York subways.

After he returned to the United States in January 2009, Zazi said, he accessed his e-mailed notes and began researching places to purchase bomb-making supplies.

His research led him to beauty supply stores in the Denver suburb of Aurora, where he stocked up on items such as acetone and hydrogen peroxide. They are among the ingredients used to make triacetone triperoxide, the explosive that Zazi had planned to use in his attack.

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