The guilty plea of New York taxi driver Zarein Ahmedzay on several terrorism charges Friday brings what intelligence officials called the biggest terrorist plot since September 11 one step closer to resolution.
In February, Ahmedzay pleaded not guilty to making false statements, but in a Brooklyn court on Friday, he admitted conspiring to use weapons of mass destruction against targets in the United States.
Ten years ago, Ahmedzay was a school friend of fellow Afghan immigrant Najibullah Zazi. They attended Flushing High School in New York.
Zazi has admitted the conspiracy and in a court appearance in February confessed that he and others planned a series of suicide bomb attacks on the New York subway in September.
The case has shed light on the growing number of “home-grown jihadist” plots. One of the most serious is Chicago, Illinois, resident David Headley, who admitted scouting targets in Mumbai, India, for the November 2008 attacks by Pakistani terrorist group Lashkar e Taiba and plotting to attack the offices of the Danish newspaper that published cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed in 2005.
Then there is the case of “Jihad Jane,” a Pennsylvania woman named Colleen LaRose charged in March with conspiracy to support terrorists and kill a person in a foreign country, after federal investigators intercepted her online communications. She has pleaded not guilty.
The Zazi/Ahmedzay case bears a striking resemblance to that of Bryant Neal Vinas, a young New Yorker who traveled to Pakistan in search of jihad, received training at an al Qaeda camp and took part in attacks on U.S. bases in Afghanistan. He was detained in Peshawar late in 2008 and repatriated to the United States. He then admitted that while in Pakistan, he and al Qaeda members discussed attacking the Long Island Railroad. Vinas is in a New York prison and faces a possible life sentence.
Zazi and Ahmedzay flew to Pakistan in August 2008. Zazi has admitted that they attended al Qaeda training camps, and he was taught how to make explosives. He returned to New York in January 2009, moving to Denver, Colorado, a short time later. But while working as a shuttle driver at the Denver airport, he was also experimenting with bomb-making ingredients.
What triggered federal officials’ interest in Zazi and his associates is not public knowledge. But it seems that Zazi was under surveillance for weeks, if not months, before a high-speed cross-country drive from Denver to New York on September 9, days after he spent time in a Denver-area motel room trying to make the high-explosive TATP.
The indictment against Ahmedzay essentially describes him as a co-conspirator who did “knowingly and intentionally provide material support and resources … to a foreign terrorist organization.”
Another accused co-conspirator, Bosnian-born Adis Medunjanin, has pleaded not guilty to charges of conspiracy to commit murder in a foreign country, providing material support to a foreign terrorist organization - al Qaeda - and receiving military-type training from al Qaeda. He was under surveillance for several months and was arrested after a high-speed car accident in New York in January. His attorney, Robert Gottlieb, said his client had no plans to change his not guilty plea, and the case is expected to go to court. No date has been set for Medunjanin’s trial.
A fourth suspect in the case is in custody in Pakistan, but his name and any charges against him are unknown.
The recent rash of cases involving alleged or admitted “American jihadists” has caused anxiety among U.S. counterterrorism officials. The suspects’ U.S. citizenship or permanent residency makes travel easier, making them very attractive recruits for jihadist groups. And the very different backgrounds of those arrested or convicted in recent months means a profile of the typical homegrown radical is not easy to compile.
But counterterrorism officials have long seen this threat coming. In 2007, the New York Police Department issued a detailed report warning that "homegrown radicalization" was destined to become a major terrorist threat.
And last fall, Mitch Silber, who runs intelligence analysis for the NYPD, said that in the previous year, U.S. authorities had uncovered nine plots in which “home-grown radicalization” played a part. In several instances, people who had traveled abroad to carry out “jihad” had instead refocused their plans on the United States.