Coloradan Zazi's coded e-mail started agencies plan to stop N.Y. subway attack
By Sara Burnett | The Denver Post | October 2, 2011
Jim Davis was in his backyard drinking a beer and grilling burgers for a Labor Day barbecue when his cellphone rang.
On the line was Steve Olson, the assistant special agent in charge of the FBI's Denver office national security branch.
Olson told his boss that authorities monitoring the e-mail of a key al-Qaeda operative in Pakistan had intercepted a chilling message about a potential attack.
Then came the really shocking news: The person who sent the e-mail, Olson said, was here in Aurora.
Over the next few days the scramble to learn just who Najibullah Zazi was and what, if anything, he had planned played out with stunning speed and overwhelming media attention.
Two years ago, the 24-year-old airport shuttle driver was arrested and charged with conspiracy to use weapons of mass destruction and other charges.
Since then, new information from court proceedings and interviews with current and former FBI agents has emerged about Zazi's plan to set off bombs in the New York subway — a plot Justice Department officials have said was the most serious threat against the United States since the 9/11 attacks.
Zazi, Olson said recently, was part of the first operational al-Qaeda cell authorities knew was in the United States post- 9/11. He had direct contact with al-Qaeda leaders so high-ranking that one was killed by CIA drone strikes and another has a $5 million bounty on his head.
Zazi's attack was planned for sometime between Sept. 14 and 16, 2009 — less than 10 days from the time authorities learned of a possible plot — and was connected to another plot in the United Kingdom.
And like the mastermind of 9/11 who crashed the first plane into the World Trade Center, Zazi was trained and willing to die, said Davis, who was special agent in charge for the Denver FBI at the time.
"He looked like the little kid next door," Davis said. "And he was Mohamed Atta."
"Marriage" raised alarm
What the FBI knew about Zazi on the day the call came in from headquarters was basic. He was an Afghan immigrant living legally in the United States. He was married to his cousin, who was in Pakistan, and though he had spent most of his life in New York, he now lived with his parents and other family in an apartment on Smoky Hill Road in Aurora.
They also had three e-mails that Zazi had reportedly sent, in which he asked about "mixtures."
"The marriage is ready flour and oil," one e-mail stated, in part.
It's widely known in intelligence circles that terrorists use the word "marriage" to mean an attack or suicide bombing. To see the words "marriage" and "ready" in such close proximity, the agents knew, was cause for serious alarm.
But they didn't know what Zazi was planning, where he was planning to do it or if the threat was even real.
Early on, Davis called a meeting of his three assistant special agents in charge, the CIA, FBI supervisors and the Denver Joint Terrorism Task Force.
Davis asked them: Is there anyone here who can tell me this is not the real thing?
"I went around the room," Davis recalled. "No one said yes."
Davis closed all 10 of the office's outposts in Colorado and Wyoming and brought those agents to Denver. Agents from other states were flown in to assist the Joint Terrorism Task Force, made up of law enforcement from across the Denver metro area.
All other cases were put on hold, and the command post was opened.
An intelligence analyst at FBI headquarters dubbed it Operation High Rise — "High" for Denver, the Mile High City, and "Rise" because Zazi's e-mails referred to flour, used to bake bread.
Agents soon learned Zazi had rented a suite with a stove at an Aurora motel — the same suite he had rented nine days earlier.
When they tested the vent above the stove, they found traces of chemicals that could be used to make bombs. The chemicals didn't match anything used by the hotel's cleaning staff.
Then on Sept. 8, Zazi rented a car, again setting off alarm bells — why did a guy with access to multiple vehicles through his family's shuttle business need to rent a car?
The following morning, FBI agents followed him as he got on Interstate 70 and headed east, sometimes reaching speeds of 100 mph.
"We had no idea where he was going," Davis recalled. "But we were going to the mattresses."
At the FBI's request, a Colorado State Patrol trooper pulled Zazi's red Chevy Malibu over just east of Limon. When he asked Zazi where he was going, Zazi said he was headed to New York to take care of his coffee cart business.
It was the first time New York had entered the picture.
After the trooper let Zazi go, Zazi continued his cross-country drive, with FBI agents — unbeknown to him — tailing him the entire way.
The problem was that Zazi was rarely stopping, and he was driving fast. The FBI needed to get another tail in place. So back in Denver four agents got on an FBI plane to St. Louis. They rented a car, and using radio communication were able to take over the tail all the way to Ohio. There, agents from another field office took over.
As Zazi arrived in New York, police who had been alerted of the possible threat pulled him over, saying it was a routine stop. Later, police towed his car. On a laptop Zazi had left inside, authorities found bomb-making instructions.
A local imam who had been contacted by New York police soon tipped Zazi that authorities were asking about him. Zazi — who had been staying with a friend — got spooked and flew back to Denver on Sept. 12.
By then the media was camped out in front of Zazi family's apartment.
"For that first week, every day I came in amazed at how fast things were happening," Davis said. "I felt like I was living an episode of (the television show) '24.' "
A few days later Zazi's attorney called the FBI and said Zazi wanted to come in and clear things up.
Authorities were skeptical.
"I would have bet my paycheck he wasn't coming. Why would anybody bring this guy in and let him talk to the FBI?" Olson said.
"To our absolute, complete, surprise, he showed up. Not only that, but he came back for three days."
28 hours of interviews
Special agent Eric Jergenson, a member of the international terrorism squad, was chosen to be the lead interviewer, in part because of a recent success in "flipping" a key person in a different case.
Over the next few days Jergenson, with help from other agents, spent 28 hours interviewing Zazi, who was accompanied by his attorney, Art Folsom.
The interviews started out cordial.
"Zazi clearly didn't know that we knew what we knew," Olson said. "I think he honestly thought he could tell a story and make this whole thing go away."
The agents began by asking Zazi questions they already knew the answers to, and promptly caught Zazi in several lies, Olson said.
Zazi admitted he had traveled to Pakistan and was trained by al-Qaeda, for example. But he denied any plot, and said the bomb-making instructions on his laptop must have been unintentionally downloaded from the Internet.
As the FBI showed more and more of its hand — including showing Zazi one of the nine pages of bomb-making instructions they'd found on his laptop — Zazi's tenor began to change.
Zazi became more concerned about his family, and started asking for a guarantee that they wouldn't be prosecuted for immigration violations if he talked, Olson said.
When the FBI refused, Zazi stopped talking, left the interview and said he wouldn't be coming back.
Throughout those few days, tension grew among the law enforcement working the case as to when they should arrest Zazi.
"It was stressful, and there was a lot of second-guessing," Olson recalled. "If we left him out there one second too long, people are dead. If we arrest him too soon, he may have co-conspirators we don't learn about until it's too late."
But when Zazi announced he wouldn't be cooperating anymore, the decision was made.
On Sept. 19, Zazi was arrested and charged with making false statements.
The FBI, frustrated by the many leaks they believed were coming from the New York Police Department, decided this time to use the media attention to their advantage.
A caravan of police vehicles pulled up in front of the Zazis' apartment with lights and sirens going. In a made-for-TV moment that ran completely counter to the typical low-profile FBI arrest, agents walked Zazi out in front of the media. Though it was cool outside, as they drove away with Zazi in the back seat, agents made sure to leave the windows down so the cameras could capture the scene.
"All those theatrics were done with a purpose in mind," Davis said.
Perhaps it would increase pressure on Zazi; perhaps, if there were any co-conspirators out there, those images would cause them to stop what they had planned.
Less than two weeks after learning the name Najibullah Zazi, agents had him in custody and knew his target had been the New York subway system.
But they still didn't know about his network — or just how big this case was about to get.
A bad chemist
On Sept. 22, Zazi was charged in the Eastern District of New York with more serious terrorism-related charges.
In February 2010, with charges pending in New York against his father as well, Zazi agreed to a plea deal.
By then Zazi was talking again and authorities had gathered other intelligence about the extent of the plot.
Authorities say the plot on the New York subway was organized by three al-Qaeda leaders: Saleh al-Somali, Rashid Rauf and Adnan El Shukrijumah. The men were in charge of the "external operations" program, which is focused on attacks in the United States and other Western countries.
The bomb-making instructions the FBI recovered from Zazi's e-mails showed sophistication. According to the FBI, 30 grams of the substance Zazi wrote about would be enough to blow up a concrete block. Zazi's notes indicate he intended to make up to 10 pounds — enough to blow up subway cars and everyone in them, Olson said.
"These guys were familiar with the New York subway. They knew what trains are most crowded when, and that's what they focused on." Olson added. "It would have been catastrophic."
But he was caught because, starting Aug. 28, 2009, he began trying to make the explosives in the hotel room and failed every time. He frantically e-mailed an al-Qaeda facilitator in Pak istan named Ahmad, and it was those e-mails that the FBI intercepted.
In the end, Zazi's major undoing was that he was either a bad chemist or took poor notes, Olson said.
"Had he gotten it right the first time, he never would have sent the e-mails," he added. "He would have gotten in his car and driven to New York, and we would have been investigating a terrorist attack instead."
A cooperative effort
El Shukrijumah — the man who recruited Zazi — is still at large, and the FBI has a $5 million reward out for him.
Zazi's high school friends from Queens, Zarein Ahmedzay and Adis Medunjanin, who traveled to Pakistan with him to fight alongside the Taliban but were then recruited by al-Qaeda, were also charged with terror-related crimes. Ahmedzay has pleaded guilty, while Medunjanin has said he wants to go to trial.
This past summer Zazi's father, Mohammed Zazi, was convicted of lying to authorities and conspiring to conceal evidence of the plot. He is scheduled to be sentenced in December.
Najibullah Zazi, meanwhile, has a cooperation agreement with prosecutors in New York that states he could face a term of up to life in prison. It also states that he and other unnamed individuals could at some point be placed in the witness security program.
Davis and Olson point to the Zazi case as an example of how things are supposed to work in the post- 9/11 world — with various agencies sharing information and working together.
They also said it's impossible to overplay the impact the investigation had.
"This is exactly what we've been planning for since Sept. 12, 2001 — this very scenario," Olson said. "Had we — all of us — not done our job, a lot of people would have died."
Sara Burnett: 303-954-1661 or email@example.com