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The Plot Thins

The most important questions about the Zazi case, answered.

Among those who know me well, few can remember when I covered any subjects other than Al Qaeda and the global jihad. I wrote about Osama Bin Laden when he was "Usama bin Ladin." And so since September 14, all anybody's been asking me are questions about a young Afghan immigrant named Najibullah Zazi and his alleged involvement in the first Al Qaeda cell uncovered in America since the 9/11 attacks. Here are my answers to the four most common questions I've been getting.

 1. Is this just another of the government's over-hyped terror plots? 

U.S. officials whom my colleagues and I at the New York Daily News have interviewed are very consistent about the terrorism case still unfolding in Denver, New York City, and elsewhere. This is "the real deal," they say--and I'm not so skeptical this time. In the Bush years, government types were far too eager to boast about the plots they interrupted. I'll never forget ex-Brooklyn U.S. Attorney Roslynn Mauskopf describing the thwarting of the 2007 JFK Airport plot as preventing "unthinkable" devastation, which other New York City officials privately mocked. Now we look back at Liberty City, Fort Dix, and many other plots as "more aspirational than operational"--the catchphrase coined by FBI Deputy Director John Pistole in a refreshing moment of candor about flimsy, informant-driven terrorism cases.

Not this time, however. The suspects--as many as two-dozen, we hear--were convincingly capable and apparently operational, according to new details of the FBI's spying revealed in court papers last week. A prosecutor on Friday told a judge in Denver that Zazi aimed to attack New York on the eighth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, which Al Qaeda called "Holy Tuesday."

While Attorney General Eric Holder has handled the plot in such a way that would make sleepy Michael Mukasey seem alarmist, one U.S. counterterrorism official kept telling me, "I'm sure you haven't heard anybody say this isn't serious."

2. How does Zazi fit into the history of fanatical Islamic extremism?

The feds haven't showed their entire hand yet--and they're getting dealt some terrifying cards, judging by the sliver of information they've revealed from Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act wiretaps they obtained. We already have plenty of hair-raising details about Zazi. He admitted to the FBI he was trained in "weapons and explosives" by Al Qaeda in Pakistan in the past year. But one of the most intriguing facts to emerge is that he's an Afghan. I polled several top experts on Al Qaeda--The Osama Bin Laden I Know author (and TNR contributor) Peter Bergen and ex-Bush counterterrorism adviser Frances Fragos Townsend--but none could think of any Afghans who held senior leadership roles within Al Qaeda or ever identified as operatives carrying out terror missions outside of South Asia. We may be fighting a war in their backyard but up until now they have not chosen, or been selected, to wage war in ours.

However, Zazi is also a Pashtun tribesman from wartorn Paktia province, which sits on the AfPak border and is controlled by warlord Jalaluddin Haqqani, a principal U.S. adversary in the Afghan war and a close Bin Laden friend and protector. Many of the approximately 70 CIA drone strikes in Pakistan's tribal areas over the past year targeted Haqqani--and some missiles killed the ex-CIA ally's relatives.

The FBI has also said Zazi used several e-mail accounts, intriguingly calling himself "Kado Khan" in one. In 1745, the Pashtun king of Kandahar, Ahmad Shah Durrani (still a famous Pashtun family), discovered a plot to kill him and executed several of the would-be assassins, including a Pashtun named Kado Khan. "Half the kids in this country can't even tell you who George Washington is, but this kid Zazi knows about a killer put to death 264 years ago," marveled one former senior counterterrorism official. To me, it's significant because jihadis view themselves as part of the fabric of a long narrative--the fight for Islam. A notable example I've found is that Al Qaeda figures from Indonesia, Spain, Syria, Pakistan, Palestine, Iraq, and Afghanistan--even one of the Saudi 9/11 hjackers--have adopted the jihad name "Abu Dujana" in honor of a mythical red headbanded warrior who fought at the side of the Prophet Mohamed. The hijackers on United Flight 93 donned red headbands just as he had.

3. Has the FBI foiled the planned attack--whatever it was?

Last Thursday, Eric Holder said, "We believe any imminent threat arising from this case has been disrupted." The Daily News reported early last week that the FBI was convinced agents had "compromised" any plot by Zazi or his alleged goons and a terror attack would be "hard to bring forward." (Though they still couldn't explain what the plot was or identify a target.) What was terrifying was the discovery of a bunch of new backpacks in a Queens apartment during a September 14 raid by the Joint Terrorism Task Force. It conjured images of London and Madrid, of horribly mangled rail cars twisted and shredded from multiple coordinated bomb blasts--Al Qaeda's calling card.

Within a few days, counterterrorism agents got a new lead, and they scrambled to canvass the borough for truck rental shops. Turns out, a group of Afghans had unsuccessfully tried to rent a 26-footer from U-Haul on September 9, the same day Zazi got in his car in Aurora, Colorado, and drove to New York City. What were they going to fill the truck with? It could have just been furniture, but investigators were anxious to find out if it was something more dangerous. One of the men identified by U-Haul workers was Flushing imam Ahmad Wais Afzali, later busted for lying to the feds after he allegedly "tipped off" Zazi that the cops were onto him. Another man fingered in photos the FBI showed the U-Haul workers was Naiz Khan, an Afghan pal who gave Zazi a place to stay in Queens--and the first to tell reporters the night the case broke publicly that the FBI had grilled him about his friend "Najibullah" from Colorado.

One frantic search led to another: The feds began looking for a storage space used as a bomb lab or possibly a hidden cache of nail polish remover and hydrogen peroxide to make TATP explosives. All they found was a model rocketeer's bin in Denver that an ATF bomb dog "alerted" on. Despite evidence on store videos and in receipts that Zazi's crew bought gallons of beauty products to possibly mix chemicals for homemade explosives, the feds have come up empty. As of Friday, they hadn't found any stashes of chemicals.

And yet, last week, my phone rang. It was a source who works in the national security trenches. Others have called with similar inquiries, too.

"Uh, seriously, James," the source whispered, "do you think it's safe for me to go see U2 tomorrow?

I suggested ear plugs. "Don't they search bags at the arena?" I wondered. "You'll be fine. Have fun."

Who could blame him for worrying, though? Since the Zazi case broke in the news, there’s been a daily flurry of joint FBI and Department of Homeland Security bulletins warning the nation's 18,000 police agencies to keep an eye out for suspicious activity in transit systems, sports arenas, and stadiums. In one September 14 FBI-DHS "high priority message," the feds asked local cops to be vigilant about suspicious purchases of hydrogen peroxide, people with "burn marks on their hands," "foul odors," or "dead vegetation."

"A series of unclassified homeland security notes have been produced to assist our partners as they go about their daily duties. They are not intended for the general public or the media," a Homeland Security flack dryly explained. But another fed, reflecting the anger among many I know, fumed, "They're just needlessly scaring the hell out of the public with these stupid bulletins."

4. Did the NYPD blow the FBI's covert probe of Zazi and company?

This is the question I've been asked more than any other, particularly after The New York Times popped a front-pager about the flap between the NYPD and the FBI last week.

As news was breaking about the initial Queens raids, I heard FBI agents griping about how the locals had not only blown the tail, but also called in TV crews when they served search warrants. The feds had wanted to stay on Zazi much longer without his knowledge so they could determine who all his co-conspirators were and what they were planning--though prosecutors now charge the plot was a September 11 anniversary bombing. After discovering him in an electronic intercept, according to our sources, the FBI became so convinced they finally had discovered a real Al Qaeda cell here after eight years of looking that they brought in scores of agents to Denver from around the country. They won approval from a secret court for fistfuls of FISA warrants for searches and electronic eavesdropping. The CIA and NSA were in on the act. The chilling results included Zazi frantically calling evildoers for help refining his recipe for a bomb as he cooked chemicals in a kitchen-equipped Aurora hotel room on September 6 and 7--with "each communication more urgent than the last," court papers said.

But here's where the philosophical difference arose between the FBI and their main rival, NYPD Commissioner Raymond Kelly's massive counterterrorism and intelligence units: When Zazi rented a car on September 9 and drove through the night to Queens, the NYPD decided they needed to put their foot on his neck. So they pulled him over for a random drug search, flashed his picture around Queens, towed his car to covertly mirror his laptop, and asked Imam Afzali, an NYPD snitch, if he knew him. Afzali called Zazi on September 11 and told him the jig was up, and Zazi jetted back to Denver on September 12, apparently destroying his laptop's hard drive, too, the feds have charged. The cops in New York may have blown the surveillance before the FBI was ready to lift the veil, but they "spooked the cell," one source surmised. Nothing blew up on September 11.

On September 16, FBI Director Robert Mueller--without being asked--painted a rosy picture when he told a Senate committee that "New Yorkers are well benefited from the work of the NYPD and Ray Kelly," and things "could not be better" between the city cops and his street agents--who, by the way, deride the feds as "Feebs."

James Gordon Meek covers national security, justice, and terrorism for the New York Daily News in Washington.