Najibullah Zazi. AP photo
Over the weekend, three men were arrested and charged in the ongoing terror probe centered around New York and Colorado. The three men are Najibullah Zazi, 24; his father Mohammed Wali Zazi, 53; and Ahmad Wais Afzali, 37. Though all three were charged with making false statements to authorities, terrorism charges are likely to follow; authorities have said that the false statement charges “are designed to keep them in custody while more serious charges are considered.” At this point, there remain a large number of significant unanswered questions. However, I have spoken with a range of intelligence and law enforcement sources, and they believe that the combination of capabilities, desire to strike, and concrete steps taken likely makes this the most serious terrorist plot on US soil since 9/11. (The 2006 transatlantic air plot was more serious, and would have been devastating to the US, but planning occurred in Britain.) Some key highlights follow.
As I mentioned in my discussion of the Daniel Patrick Boyd case in North Carolina, the issue of when to make an arrest looms large in any terror case. If the government waits too long, the suspects may strike; but if it apprehends suspects in the talking stage of a plot, they “can claim that they were only talking and never had serious intentions.” The Christian Science Monitor has a piece analyzing the issue of when to make an arrest with respect to the Zazi case. Assuming there actually was a plot afoot, it is unclear what stage it was in. There are indications, however, that it may have been far closer to operational than other major terror plots the US has seen in recent years. Authorities with knowledge of the plot told ABC News that it “was a ‘varsity level’ plan similar in scope to the 2005 attacks on London’s subways and buses.”
There are a number of suggestive data points on whether an attack was in the works. The criminal complaint against Najibullah Zazi explains that when authorities searched his car, they found a laptop computer that contained “a jpeg image of nine-pages of handwritten notes . The handwritten notes contain formulations and instructions regarding the manufacture and handling of initiating explosives, main explosives charges, explosives detonators and components of a fuzing system.” Though Zazi initially denied that the notes were his, he allegedly later admitted during interrogation that he had written them, and that he had attended an al Qaeda training camp in Pakistan where he received explosives training. If the account provided in the criminal complaint against Najibullah Zazi is accurate, the idea that he accidentally ended up with the notes on his computer is implausible: the complaint concludes that Zazi had e-mailed the instructions to himself from two separate accounts registered under false names.
A second data point is that Zazi may have done some work selecting targets to strike. ABC News reports: “A computer belonging to Zazi showed he had researched baseball and football stadiums and sites used in the recent Fashion Week event in New York City, law enforcement officials tell ABCNews.com. While officials say they do not know the targets of the alleged plot, the contents of Zazi’s computer are considered a valuable insight into what he might have been planning.”
There are other data points as well. One of these is Zazi’s alleged connections to high levels of al Qaeda. A senior intelligence source with whom I spoke said of Zazi’s primary al Qaeda contact: “This is not somebody you casually meet.” Zazi also appeared to be communicating in code that suggested something big was imminent; ABC News reported that he sent a text message stating: “The wedding cake is ready.” Al Qaeda operatives have frequently used the wedding metaphor for their plots in the past. Then there is the matter of the backpacks that authorities uncovered. The 7/7 attackers in London used backpacks to carry their explosives, and here “[r]aids in New York led to the discovery of 14 new backpacks.”
Was something bigger than an attack using bombs stashed in backpacks planned? CNN reports that earlier this month, a group of Afghan men who have been connected to the alleged plot tried unsuccessfully to rent a U-Haul truck in Queens: “A former counterterrorism official familiar with the investigation said that the group of Afghans tried to rent the truck September 9, but were unsuccessful after three different credit cards they attempted to use were declined. The men, who held driver’s licenses from Florida and Ohio, also were unable to use cash for the rental, the official said.” Think Oklahoma City, or the 1993 World Trade Center attacks — both of which were much more ambitious than 7/7.
One final open question is not just the nature of the plot, but also how many people are at large who may have been involved. It is possible that “eight more people might be involved. Four might have ties to Colorado, the other four to New York.” If so, what will they do now that the plot has begun to unravel?
Ahmad Afzali, the imam of a mosque in Queens, had allegedly worked as a NYPD informant in the past. However, in this case he tipped off Najibullah Zazi that authorities were asking questions about him. The criminal complaint quotes him as telling Zazi:
I want to speak with you about something I want a meeting with you [and others]. You probably know why I’m calling you for this meeting I was exposed to something yesterday from the authorities. And they came to ask me about your characters. They asked me about you guys .
I’m not sure if somebody complained about you. I’m not sure what happened. And I don’t want to know They [the authorities] said, ‘Please, we need to know who they are what they’re all about.’ And I told them that they are innocent, law abiding
At another point, Afzali appears to coach Zazi about what to tell authorities about his time in Pakistan: “You went to visit your wife, right?” When Zazi tells Afzali that he thinks he’s under surveillance and “that the people watching him took his car,” Afzali replies by asking whether there was any “evidence in his car.” Afzali also warns Zazi at one point that their conversation is likely being recorded.
Afzali’s decision to double-cross authorities by warning about their questions and surveillance likely contributed to the decision to move forward with the arrests.
As previously mentioned, all three men were charged with making false statements. Najibullah Zazi is charged with lying to authorities about his handwritten notes detailing bomb-making procedures, claiming that he had never seen the document before and “that if the handwritten notes was found on his computer, he must have unintentionally downloaded it as part of a religious book he had downloaded in August 2009.” Mohammed Zazi is charged with lying to authorities by telling them he did not know Afzali, and claiming that he had not spoken with Afzali in New York while his son was in the city. And Afzali is charged with lying to authorities about tipping off Najibullah Zazi and his father once Najibullah attracted the interest of authorities.
Ibrahim Hooper of the Council on American-Islamic Relations told the New York Times that this case raises civil liberties concerns: “It heightens our concerns about the case because you would expect that if the government’s allegations were based on strong evidence, that there would be charges brought based on terror-related evidence, not making false statements.” This argument is a red herring: as explained earlier, the present set of charges is designed to allow authorities to detain these men while more serious charges are considered. I expect terrorism charges to be brought against Najibullah Zazi; from what my sources tell me, he may not be the only one.
I have written previously about how analysts believe homegrown terrorists pose a particularly great threat. That factor was present in this case, as the New York Times reported: “What has troubled federal prosecutors and the F.B.I. is the belief that Mr. Zazi embodies what concerns them most: a Westernized militant, trained by Al Qaeda in Pakistan, whose experience and legal resident status in the United States give him the freedom to operate freely, yet attract little attention.”
Finally, I should point out that Afzali is being represented by Ron Kuby, William Kunstler’s old law partner. George Packer’s excellent September 2002 New York Times Magazine profile of the Lynne Stewart case featured Kuby displaying second thoughts about defending Islamic extremists:
Even Ron Kuby, a strong defender of Stewart, has rethought many things since Sept. 11. He now regrets having defended El Sayyid A. Nosair, accused of killing the Jewish extremist Meir Kahane. When Sattar, [Omar Abdel Rahman’s] paralegal, was arrested along with Stewart, Kuby was ready to represent him at the bail hearing, until Kuby’s wife said, ”You don’t know what he was doing.” Kuby reached a decision: ”I sure as hell don’t think people who would take my family, put them in purdah and put me up against a wall and shoot me are entitled to my support in that struggle.”
Are those second thoughts now a thing of the distant past?
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