Najibullah Zazi, the suspected al-Qaida operative whose visit to New York last week prompted the raids of three Queens apartment buildings, was arrested on Saturday at his Colorado home along with his father Mohammed Wali Zazi. In New York, FBI agents also arrested Ahmad Wais Afzali, an imam from Flushing with alleged connections to the two men.
All three were charged with knowingly and willfully making false statements to the FBI in a matter involving international and domestic terrorism. If convicted they face up to eight years in prison.
According to published reports, the suspects and others may have been attempting to carry out a terrorist plot involving detonating explosive laden backpacks at mass transit systems and sports venues around the city. As a result, the NYPD has beefed up security at hotels, stadiums, entertainment complexes and transit hubs like Grand Central Terminal.
According to the Associated Press, federal counterterrorism officals issued bulletins to police departments advising them to take precautions at such places. The bulletins also said that an al-Qaida training manual suggests “blasting and destroying the places of amusement, immorality and sin … and attacking vital economic centers.”
“The arrests carried out tonight are part of an ongoing and fast-paced investigation,” David Kris, assistant attorney general for national security, said in a statement on Saturday. “It is important to note that we have no specific information regarding the timing, location or target of any planned attack. As always, however, the American people should remain vigilant and report any suspicious activities to their local authorities.”
According to court documents, “The FBI is investigating several individuals in the United States, Pakistan and elsewhere, relating to a plot to detonate improvised explosive devices in the United States.”
Zazi had been under surveillance by the FBI in Colorado and agents followed him to New York because they suspected that he was in town to obtain bomb making equipment.
No weapons or explosives were found during the Queens raids, however, the FBI did confiscate computers, cell phones and backpacks. According to the New York Post, operatives were plotting to fill the backpacks with explosives and detonate them with the intention of killing “as many people as possible.”
The FBI and Department of Homeland Security issued a bulletin on Friday recommending random sweeps of transit systems and advising law enforcement to randomly board and check trains and buses.
The bulletin indicated that bombs made using peroxide are commonly used to blow up mass transit systems. On March 11, 2004 backpack bombs destroyed four trains in Madrid and killed 191 people. On July 7, 2005 a similar style bombing in London killed 52 bus and subway riders.
This is not the first time a terrorist attack allegedly had been planned for the transit systems in New York. In late July, Bryant Neal Vinas, a homegrown terrorist from Long Island and member of al-Qaida, admitted gathering detailed information about the Long Island Rail Road for the purpose of planning a bombing of the system.
According to the Daily News, during his time in New York, Najibullah Zazi and six other men visited a U-Haul dealership in Jamaica, where they attempted to rent a 26-foot-long moving vehicle — the largest one on the lot — but were unsuccessful because they failed to present a valid credit card or the proper identification needed to pay with cash. The men included Naiz Kahn, a man who had allowed Zazi to spend a night at his Flushing apartment when he had visited New York and Ahmad Wais Afzali, the imam who allegedly tipped him off to the FBI tail.
Federal agents are also searching Queens storage facilities for bomb materials because they believe the suspects planned to use the units to mix chemicals to make explosives. The DHS also issued a nationwide bulletin to police precincts asking officers to examine storage facilities.
Federal agents also visited chemical and fertilizer companies to find out if anyone had purchased items in bulk and paid for them in cash.
According to an announcement by the U.S. Department of Justice, on Sept. 11 the FBI confiscated a laptop computer from Zazi’s rental car and found a file containing nine pages of hand-written notes with formulas and instructions on the handling and detonation of explosive devices.
According to court documents, during FBI questioning Zazi denied writing or having knowledge of the bomb-making documents. He claimed he must have accidentally downloaded them as part of a religious book, which he said he later deleted after realizing that it discussed jihad.
ABC News reported that Zazi also had interior maps of several New York sports venues stored on his computer, but it remains unclear if they were the intended sites of possible forthcoming terrorist attacks.
When questioned by the FBI in Denver on Sept. 17 and Sept. 18, Zazi admitted to receiving weapons and explosives training at an al-Qaida facility during a trip to Pakistan in 2008.
During the investigation in New York, the FBI spoke to Afzali, the imam who had been a source in previous investigations, and he identified the suspect from photos they had showed him.
The next day the suspect’s father called Afzali and spoke to him for 20 minutes, after which the elder Zazi advised his son that Afzali would be calling him and that he should speak to him “before anything else.”
According to a goverment transcript of the conversation between Afzali and Najibullah Zazi, Afzali stated: “I was exposed to something yesterday from law enforcement. And they came to ask me about your characters.”
Afzali also allegedly inquired about Zazi’s recent trip to Pakistan, asked him if there was any “evidence in his car,” and warned him, “Listen, our phone call is being monitored.”
However, after interviews with law enforcement officials in New York on Sept. 17, Afzali allegedly lied in a written statement, denying that he had ever told Najibullah Zazi or Mohammed Zazi about the FBI inquiries. He also denied asking Najibullah Zazi about the evidence in his car, or warning him that their conversation was being monitored.
Ron Kuby, Afzali’s attorney, maintained that his client is innocent and has been cooperating with authorities from the beginning. He said that the lying charge was used because investigators had no other feasible charges and indicated that it would be ridiculous for Afzali to lie about conversations that took place between him and Najibullah Zazi after he admitted that he knew the phone call was being monitored.
“Why on earth is the imam going to lie to the FBI about the contents of a conversation that he knows they recorded?” Kuby asked.
According to Kuby, Afzali was doing exactly what the FBI told him to do — finding out as much information about Zazi as he could. The feds, however, contend that he double crossed them and then lied about it.
“We have heightened civil liberties concerns based on the nature of the charges because they were not terror related, but related to false statements,” said Ibrahim Hooper, spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, a Washington-based Muslim civil rights and advocacy group. “If so much evidence exists that they were up to no good, then why aren’t they being charged with terror related offenses?”
In interviews with the FBI in Denver on Sept. 16, Mohammed Zazi allegedly lied and said he hadn’t called anyone in New York other than his son nor had he received any phone calls from New York, but later changed his story and said he had received one phone call informing him that his son had missed his flight. Zazi also denied knowing anyone named Afzali.
Mohammed Zazi may be released on $50,000 bail while his trial is pending, although his movements would be electronically monitored. Najibullah Zazi is being held at the Federal Correctional Institution Englewood in Littleton, Colo. and will remain in custody until at least Thursday, when he is supposed to appear in federal court for a bail hearing. Afzali is in custody at the Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn and is also supposed to appear in federal court on Thursday for a bail hearing.
According to the Daily News, after being questioned extensively by the FBI, Zazi was trying to cut a deal with investigators where he would admit to weapons training but not to trying to injure Americans, although this has not been confirmed by Zazi’s lawyer, Arthur Folsom, who could not be reached for comment.
“Authorities here in New York and in Denver have been consistent in stating that this is an ongoing investigation,” James Margolis, special agent with the FBI in New York said. “If anyone has information relevant to the investigation, they are welcome to call the FBI.”