It was only a few months ago that residents of Flushing watched in disbelief as federal agents wearing bulletproof vests and carrying submachine guns raided three apartments searching for terror suspect Najibullah Zazi. This week Queens remained at the heart of an ongoing probe as two more residents were arrested.
Adis Medunjanin, 25, and Zarein Ahmedzay, 24, came to the attention of federal agents in September during the investigation which led to a conspiracy indictment against Zazi, according to published reports.
Zazi, a former Queens resident, traveled from Denver to New York allegedly intending to detonate explosive-laden backpacks at mass transit sites and sports venues around the city.
On Thursday, the Joint Terrorism Task Force executed a new search warrant, raiding the apartment of Medunjanin at 29-49 137 St., and seizing his passport. Later that day, he crashed into another car on the Whitestone Bridge and was arrested by FBI agents, according to The New York Times.
Prior to the collision, Medunjanin, allegedly yelled the words “We love death more than you love life! There is only one Allah and Muhammad is his Messenger!” in Arabic to a 911 dispatcher, although that could not be confirmed.
“Due to the sensitivity of the case, we can not formally confirm any of the information you have asked for,” a spokesman for the NYPD, who would not give his name, said on Monday.
One question that remains unanswered is where the chemicals the government says Zazi bought to make a bomb are now. Investigators have not said publicly if they have recovered the substances or are still searching for them.
“Anything that was seized persuant to the search warrant has not been unsealed,” James Margolin, a spokesman for the FBI in New York, said.
Authorities believe Medunjanin may have been trying to kill himself on the bridge, according to published reports. He was taken to a hospital where he was treated for minor bumps and bruises.
Medunjanin, also known as Mohammed, was charged with one count of conspiracy to commit murder in a foreign country” and one count of “receiving military-type training from a foreign terrorist organization.”
An indictment against him alleges that on or about August 28, 2008, he boarded a flight from Newark Liberty International Airport bound for Doha, Qatar and Peshawar, Pakistan where he received training from al-Qaida.
Medunjanin, a United States citizen from Bosnia, attended Queens College and graduated on Sept. 1, 2009 with a bachelor’s degree in economics, according to Phyllis Cohen Stevens, the deputy director of news services at the school. Stevens could not provide further information about the former student.
Medunjanin was arraigned in Brooklyn Federal Court on Saturday and pleaded not guilty to the charges.
The other suspect, Ahmedzay, a cab driver who resides at 41-18 Parsons Blvd., was on duty in Greenwich Village when he was taken in to custody by authorities. He was arraigned on Friday on charges that he made false statements to the FBI last September.
He allegedly told the feds that he had fully disclosed all information regarding locations he visited during a trip to Pakistan last year, when investigators contend, he had not. He also allegedly lied about a discussion he had with another man regarding attending a camp to receive military-type training, according to the court documents.
Ahmedzay also pleaded not guilty to the charges.
All three men, Medunjanin, Ahmedzay and Zazi reportedly attended Flushing High School, but the Department of Education would not confirm that “because that would involve opening up student records, which is not allowed,” said Marge Feinberg, a spokeswoman for the DOE.
Several elected officials did not respond to calls for comment on the case, but two Queens lawmakers offered their thoughts.
“We have to be perfect every time to stop them. They just have to be lucky once to succeed,” said City Councilman Peter Vallone Jr. (D-Astoria) who heads the Council’s Committee on Public Safety. “Just because we caught these three guys, it would be naive to think that there aren’t more.”
Vallone questioned the preparedness of the MTA to handle a transit bombing attack like the one allegedly planned by the three suspects. He criticized the organization for refusing to replace its High Entrance / Exit Turnstiles — revolving door-type subway entrances made of metal bars — calling them “death traps.” HEETs have often been criticized for being inadequate in terror situations where people must enter or exit quickly.
“That is not a fact,” Charles Seaton a spokesman for New York City Transit, said in response to Vallone’s assessment, adding “That’s why the panic bars were installed — to allow adequate exiting from the system in the case of an emergency.”
Beginning in November 2005, NYC Transit began retrofitting gates adjacent to HEETs with alarmed emergency exit push bars throughout the system, something that Vallone advocated strongly for.
Vallone also said that it is more important to eradicate the terrorist threat than to spend time understanding why it exists. “They are driven by a murderous ideology,” he said. “There is no rationalizing what they do. There are terrorists overseas and in our midst and we must never lose sight of that.”
Assemblyman Rory Lancman (D-Fresh Meadows) said he isn’t surprised that such homegrown terrorism has sprouted in the borough. “We have a very diverse population in Queens and overwhelmingly it is a positive experience, but inevitably there will be people who seep into the melting pot that don’t want to tolerate others who are different from themselves,” Lancman said. “It takes a real commitment to tolerate other points of view.”
In an effort to improve the image of Muslims, tarnished by radical Islamist attacks around the world, the Council on American Islamic Relations last month created a 15-second public service announcement entitled “I am Muslim, I am American.” It features a Muslim NYPD sergeant, Little League all-star, human rights activist, doctoral candidate and attorney, and will air in Times Square on the CBS super screen every hour for 18 hours each day through Jan. 16.
“This public service advertisement features ordinary American Muslims whose everyday lives are dedicated to building community and serving country,” CAIR-NY Community Affairs Director Faiza Ali said in a statement. “This initiative is part of our ongoing effort to ensure that a fair and accurate portrayal of Islam and Muslims is presented to the American public.”
Ali did not return a phone call seeking comment on the new arrests.