Homegrown Bomb Plot Is Rarity for Open Court

Karen J. Greenberg in The New York Times, April 15, 2012

Media Source

By MOSI SECRET

The three high school classmates from a workaday section of Queens were trained in bomb-making in the tribal areas of Pakistan, where they received their orders directly from senior members of Al Qaeda, prosecutors said. They gathered explosives, chose targets and picked the days in September 2009 when they planned to take their own lives, in three separate bombings in the New York subway system.

The three were arrested before the plot that prosecutors described could be realized. Two of the men, including the organizer, Najibullah Zazi, have pleaded guilty; the third, Adis Medunjanin, is to go on trial on Monday on a host of terrorism charges.

The trial, in Federal District Court in Brooklyn, is likely to be closely watched, not only for revelations regarding a plot that federal officials described as one of the most serious threats to the United States since the Sept. 11 attacks, but for greater insight into how the fight against terrorism is being prosecuted; rarely has a credible homegrown plot gone to trial.

In the years since 2001, there have been hundreds of terrorism cases. Many were built on the work of undercover informers who ensured that the plots, regardless of their plausibility, could never come to fruition. And many more were resolved through guilty pleas, when defendants described their crimes, but only in limited ways.

The trial is expected to feature the testimony of Mr. Medunjanin’s former classmates, Mr. Zazi and Zarein Ahmedzay, who are cooperating with the government, according to prosecutors.

Prosecutors will most likely ask Mr. Zazi and Mr. Ahmedzay to describe in an open courtroom the full narrative of their plot, including their recruitment to terror training camps abroad, the weapons training they received, and their instructions from senior members of Al Qaeda, judging from questions that prosecutors asked others in pretrial evidentiary hearings.

“Compared to other cases, the Zazi plot had more indicators of serious terrorism than almost any case we’ve seen since 9/11, and before that since the first attack on the World Trade Center,” said Karen J. Greenberg, a terrorism expert at Fordham University School of Law.

“The Zazi case is qualitatively different in terms of the nature of the indictment and the details.”

In this case, the details are filled with classified information — Mr. Medunjanin was under surveillance, according to court documents — and the prosecution has withheld much of its evidence from public view. The charging papers, which in most cases provide a basic narrative for the alleged crime, list the counts against the defendant but little additional information about the plot.

Prosecutors said Mr. Medunjanin was arrested on the Whitestone Bridge in January 2010 after deliberately crashing his car into another vehicle, in a failed suicide attack. Moments earlier, he had called 911 and spoken what prosecutors called a common jihadist motto: “We love death more than you love your life,” court documents say.  

Many of the pretrial motions, in which the prosecution and the defense argued over what evidence could be admitted at trial, remain under seal.

But an evidentiary hearing last year yielded clues about what testimony to expect. A federal judge ruled that the government could admit statements that Mr. Medunjanin made after his arrest, over objections from his lawyer, Robert C. Gottlieb, who argued that Mr. Medunjanin had waived his Miranda rights only because the government had denied him access to a lawyer.

In the statements, Mr. Medunjanin told members of the Joint Terrorism Task Force that he saw himself as a prisoner of war who had been caught on the battlefield. He asked if he could be exchanged for a United States soldier captured by the Taliban, law enforcement officials said in the hearing.

Mr. Medunjanin, a naturalized American citizen who was born in Bosnia, also lectured the officials on religion and tried to convert them to Islam, the officials said. They said he admitted to receiving daily religious training in Pakistan and learning how to fire handguns, shoulder-fired weapons and hand grenades in a Qaeda training camp.

Mr. Medunjanin was evasive when it came to talking about the attacks in New York, officials said. He told the officials that he had declined the request of senior members of Al Qaeda to carry out the attack because he did not want to commit suicide.

Mr. Gottlieb said Mr. Medunjanin was not guilty.

During the hearing, an official also mentioned a confidential informer who was with the three men in Pakistan and helped them gain entry to the training camp. It is not clear whether that confidential informant will testify.

Bryant Neal Vinas, a New Yorker who converted to Islam and who has pleaded guilty to receiving training from Al Qaeda after traveling to Pakistan in 2008, is cooperating with the Federal Bureau of Investigation and could also testify in the case, according to prosecutors.

Federal agents were conducting covert surveillance of the mastermind in the plot, Mr. Zazi, before the attacks were to be carried out. But federal officials did not know the full scope of the conspiracy when Mr. Zazi was arrested in September 2009; a Police Department informer had tipped off Mr. Zazi that he was under investigation.

There were divisions between the F.B.I. and the Police Department in the early days of the investigation as a result; federal agents were concerned that the police had exposed the investigation.

Investigators later pieced together the case after a series of raids and arrests.

In August 2008, Mr. Medunjanin traveled with Mr. Zazi and Mr. Ahmedzay from Newark to Peshawar, Pakistan, with the goal of joining the Taliban and fighting against American soldiers in Afghanistan, according to court documents. Unable to reach the fight, the men were instead recruited by two senior Qaeda members. 

“We told these two individuals that we wanted to wage jihad in Afghanistan, but they said that we would be more useful to them and to the jihad if we returned to New York and conducted operations there,” Mr. Ahmedzay said later in court, when he pleaded guilty in April 2010.

Mr. Medunjanin and Mr. Ahmedzay returned to New York from Pakistan. Mr. Zazi moved to Colorado.

Prosecutors say that in August 2009, Mr. Zazi told the group’s Qaeda contact that the suicide plot was operational. Officials said he had spent the summer visiting beauty supply stores in the Denver area and buying gallons of hydrogen peroxide and acetone, which the group planned to use in making bombs. In September, Mr. Zazi drove from Denver to New York with a detonator and his supplies.

Then a police informer, Ahmad Wais Afzali, a Queens imam, told Mr. Zazi that he was being watched by law enforcement, so Mr. Zazi abandoned the plan and returned to Colorado. (Mr. Afzali later pleaded guilty to lying to federal authorities about his role in the incident, and was deported.)

Mr. Zazi’s visit to New York set off government raids on several homes in Queens and Colorado connected to Mr. Zazi, including the homes where Mr. Medunjanin and Mr. Ahmedzay were living with relatives.

Mr. Zazi was arrested in Colorado in September, but months passed before the arrests of Mr. Medunjanin and Mr. Ahmedzay in January 2010. In February 2010, Mr. Zazi pleaded guilty to several terrorism charges, and admitted in court that he had been a part of a “martyrdom operation.” Mr. Ahmedzay pleaded guilty two months later. The men have not yet been sentenced.

Mr. Medunjanin is charged with conspiring to use weapons of mass destruction and commit murder abroad, providing material support to Al Qaeda, and receiving military training from Al Qaeda, among other counts. He faces life in prison if convicted.