Najibullah Zazi

Najibullah Zazi is a convicted Islamist extremist, foreign terrorist fighter, and attempted domestic terrorist. Between 2008 and 2009, he and two friends—Adis Medunjanin and Zarein Ahmedzay—traveled to Pakistan and received weapons training in an al-Qaeda training camp there. The three men then returned to the United States and plotted to carry out a coordinated suicide attack on the New York City subway system. Zazi was responsible for gathering bomb-making materials and assembling the explosives.Mosi Secret, “Prison for Father Who Lied About Terror Plot,” New York Times, February 10, 2012, https://www.nytimes.com/2012/02/11/nyregion/mohammed-wali-zazi-sentenced-for-lying-about-subway-bomb-plot.html; “Najibullah Zazi Pleads Guilty to Conspiracy to Use Explosives Against Persons or Property in U.S., Conspiracy to Murder Abroad and Providing Material Support to Al-Qaeda,” U.S. Department of Justice, February 22, 2010, https://www.justice.gov/opa/pr/najibullah-zazi-pleads-guilty-conspiracy-use-explosives-against-persons-or-property-us. On February 22, 2010, he pled guilty to conspiracy to use weapons of mass destruction against persons or property in the United States, conspiracy to commit murder in a foreign country, and providing material support to a terrorist organization.“Najibullah Zazi Pleads Guilty to Conspiracy to Use Explosives Against Persons or Property in U.S., Conspiracy to Murder Abroad and Providing Material Support to Al-Qaeda,” U.S. Department of Justice, February 22, 2010, https://www.justice.gov/opa/pr/najibullah-zazi-pleads-guilty-conspiracy-use-explosives-against-persons-or-property-us.

Zazi was born in Afghanistan and moved to Pakistan with his family at the age of 7. In 1999, he and his family immigrated to the United States and settled in Flushing, a neighborhood in New York City, where he attended high school but did not graduate.“The United States of America vs. Najibullah Zazi – Government’s Proffer And Memorandum Of Law In Support Of Motion For Detention,” U.S. Department of Justice, September 24, 2009, https://www.justice.gov/archive/usao/co/news/2009/September09/Zazi_Detention_Motion.pdf; “United States of America vs. Najibullah Zazi – Transcript of Criminal Cause for Pleading,” United States District Court, Eastern District of New York, February 22, 2010, https://www.cbsnews.com/htdocs/pdf/USvZazi.pdf; Al Baker, “Reasons Unclear for Terrorist Fears,” New York Times, September 17, 2009, https://www.nytimes.com/2009/09/18/nyregion/18terror.html?pagewanted=all. In 2006, Zazi returned to Pakistan and married a woman from Peshawar. He traveled between the United States and Pakistan, where he would visit his wife and children for several weeks each year up until his arrest in 2009.“The United States of America vs. Najibullah Zazi – Government’s Proffer And Memorandum Of Law In Support Of Motion For Detention,” U.S. Department of Justice, September 24, 2009, https://www.justice.gov/archive/usao/co/news/2009/September09/Zazi_Detention_Motion.pdf; David Johnston and Al Baker, “Denver Man Admits to a Possible Al Qaeda Connection, Officials Say,” New York Times, September 18, 2009, https://www.nytimes.com/2009/09/19/nyregion/19terror.html; Al Baker, “Reasons Unclear for Terrorist Fears,” New York Times, September 17, 2009, https://www.nytimes.com/2009/09/18/nyregion/18terror.html?pagewanted=all.

On August 28, 2008, Zazi, Medunjanin, and Ahmedzay traveled from Newark, New Jersey, to Peshawar, Pakistan. Although they initially intended to fight against the U.S. military alongside the Taliban in Afghanistan, the three men were recruited by al-Qaeda shortly after arriving in Peshawar.“Najibullah Zazi Pleads Guilty to Conspiracy to Use Explosives Against Persons or Property in U.S., Conspiracy to Murder Abroad and Providing Material Support to Al-Qaeda,” U.S. Department of Justice, February 22, 2010, https://www.justice.gov/opa/pr/najibullah-zazi-pleads-guilty-conspiracy-use-explosives-against-persons-or-property-us; “The United States of America vs. Najibullah Zazi – Government’s Proffer And Memorandum Of Law In Support Of Motion For Detention,” U.S. Department of Justice, September 24, 2009, https://www.justice.gov/archive/usao/co/news/2009/September09/Zazi_Detention_Motion.pdf; Mosi Secret, “Prison for Father Who Lied About Terror Plot,” New York Times, February 10, 2012, https://www.nytimes.com/2012/02/11/nyregion/mohammed-wali-zazi-sentenced-for-lying-about-subway-bomb-plot.html. They met with al-Qaeda leaders Saleh al-Somali, then-head of al-Qaeda external operations, and Rashid Rauf, a high-ranking al-Qaeda operative, who suggested they return to New York and carry out suicide attacks in the United States.“Al Qaeda Operative Convicted by Jury in One of the Most Serious Terrorist Plots Against America since 9/11,” U.S. Department of Justice, May 1, 2012, https://www.justice.gov/opa/pr/al-qaeda-operative-convicted-jury-one-most-serious-terrorist-plots-against-america-911. According to Zazi’s testimony, the three agreed to do so and subsequently received weapons training in the Waziristan region of Pakistan. Zazi received additional explosives training and took detailed notes for his planned suicide bombing mission. He also discussed potential target locations with al-Qaeda leaders, including the New York City subway system, and provided them with money and computers before he left Pakistan.“Najibullah Zazi Pleads Guilty to Conspiracy to Use Explosives Against Persons or Property in U.S., Conspiracy to Murder Abroad and Providing Material Support to Al-Qaeda,” U.S. Department of Justice, February 22, 2010, https://www.justice.gov/opa/pr/najibullah-zazi-pleads-guilty-conspiracy-use-explosives-against-persons-or-property-us.

On January 15, 2009, Zazi returned to the United States and moved to Aurora, Colorado, where he stayed with family members.“Najibullah Zazi Pleads Guilty to Conspiracy to Use Explosives Against Persons or Property in U.S., Conspiracy to Murder Abroad and Providing Material Support to Al-Qaeda,” U.S. Department of Justice, February 22, 2010, https://www.justice.gov/opa/pr/najibullah-zazi-pleads-guilty-conspiracy-use-explosives-against-persons-or-property-us; “The United States of America vs. Najibullah Zazi – Government’s Proffer And Memorandum Of Law In Support Of Motion For Detention,” U.S. Department of Justice, September 24, 2009, https://www.justice.gov/archive/usao/co/news/2009/September09/Zazi_Detention_Motion.pdf. In June, he started to review his bomb-making notes and conducted more research on where to procure the necessary components.“Najibullah Zazi Pleads Guilty to Conspiracy to Use Explosives Against Persons or Property in U.S., Conspiracy to Murder Abroad and Providing Material Support to Al-Qaeda,” U.S. Department of Justice, February 22, 2010, https://www.justice.gov/opa/pr/najibullah-zazi-pleads-guilty-conspiracy-use-explosives-against-persons-or-property-us; “New York Terror Case – Indictment Announced,” Federal Bureau of Investigation, September 24, 2009, https://archives.fbi.gov/archives/news/stories/2009/september/zazi_092409. Zazi reportedly communicated with al-Qaeda leaders—including Adnan El-Shukrijumah and Saleh al-Somali—about the plot through a Pakistani-based facilitator identified only as “Ahmad,” with whom Zazi exchanged emails.“Al-Qaeda Operative Sentenced to 40 Years in Prison for Role in International Terrorism Plot that Targeted the United States and Europe,” Department of Justice, November 24, 2015, https://www.justice.gov/opa/pr/al-qaeda-operative-sentenced-40-years-prison-role-international-terrorism-plot-targeted. Zazi purchased the items needed to manufacture triacetone triperoxide (TATP) that summer, and constructed the explosives for the detonator components of the bombs.“Najibullah Zazi Pleads Guilty to Conspiracy to Use Explosives Against Persons or Property in U.S., Conspiracy to Murder Abroad and Providing Material Support to Al-Qaeda,” U.S. Department of Justice, February 22, 2010, https://www.justice.gov/opa/pr/najibullah-zazi-pleads-guilty-conspiracy-use-explosives-against-persons-or-property-us; “New York Terror Case – Indictment Announced,” Federal Bureau of Investigation, September 24, 2009, https://archives.fbi.gov/archives/news/stories/2009/september/zazi_092409.

On September 8, Zazi rented a car and drove from Denver to New York City, bringing the bomb-making materials with him. Zazi connected with Medunjanin and Ahmedzay there, where they planned to assemble the remaining components of the bombs and carry out an attack on the Manhattan subway lines a few days later. However, the three men aborted their plan and discarded their explosives after realizing that U.S. law enforcement was investigating Zazi’s activities.“Najibullah Zazi Pleads Guilty to Conspiracy to Use Explosives Against Persons or Property in U.S., Conspiracy to Murder Abroad and Providing Material Support to Al-Qaeda,” U.S. Department of Justice, February 22, 2010, https://www.justice.gov/opa/pr/najibullah-zazi-pleads-guilty-conspiracy-use-explosives-against-persons-or-property-us. Zazi flew back to Denver a few days later and was arrested on September 19.“Najibullah Zazi Pleads Guilty to Conspiracy to Use Explosives Against Persons or Property in U.S., Conspiracy to Murder Abroad and Providing Material Support to Al-Qaeda,” U.S. Department of Justice, February 22, 2010, https://www.justice.gov/opa/pr/najibullah-zazi-pleads-guilty-conspiracy-use-explosives-against-persons-or-property-us; “The United States of America vs. Najibullah Zazi – Government’s Proffer And Memorandum Of Law In Support Of Motion For Detention,” U.S. Department of Justice, September 24, 2009, https://www.justice.gov/archive/usao/co/news/2009/September09/Zazi_Detention_Motion.pdf. When law enforcement searched his computer, they found bomb-making instructions and Internet searches for hydrochloric acid—an ingredient for TATP. Previously, the FBI intercepted e-mail and cell phone messages where Zazi had asked for information about bomb-making ingredients.“New York Terror Case – Indictment Announced,” Federal Bureau of Investigation, September 24, 2009, https://archives.fbi.gov/archives/news/stories/2009/september/zazi_092409.

Zazi pled guilty in February 2010 to conspiracy to use weapons of mass destruction against persons or property in the United States, conspiracy to commit murder in a foreign country, and providing material support to a terrorist organization. He faced a maximum statutory sentence of life in prison for the first two counts of the superseding information and an additional 15 years in prison for the third count.“Najibullah Zazi Pleads Guilty to Conspiracy to Use Explosives Against Persons or Property in U.S., Conspiracy to Murder Abroad and Providing Material Support to Al-Qaeda,” U.S. Department of Justice, February 22, 2010, https://www.justice.gov/opa/pr/najibullah-zazi-pleads-guilty-conspiracy-use-explosives-against-persons-or-property-us. On May 2, 2019, Zazi was sentenced to 10 years in prison.Jonathan Dienst, “Man who plotted to blow up NYC subway may soon walk free,” NBC News, May 2, 2019, https://www.nbcnews.com/politics/justice-department/man-who-plotted-blow-nyc-subway-may-soon-walk-free-n1001101. However, he was reportedly working for the U.S. government as a cooperating witness for the last 10 years.Trevor Aaronson, “The Cooperators: Terrorism Defendants With Concrete Ties to Violent Extremists Leverage Their Connections to Avoid Prison,” The Intercept, April 20, 2017, https://theintercept.com/2017/04/20/terrorism-defendants-with-concrete-ties-to-violent-extremists-leverage-their-connections-to-avoid-prison/; “United States v. Zazi (1:09-cr-00663),” Court Listener, accessed April 17, 2019, https://www.courtlistener.com/docket/4320003/parties/united-states-v-zazi/. As a result, in September 2019, due to Zazi’s cooperation with U.S. investigators, a federal judge said he would not serve any additional prison time and he was soon released.Erica Orden, “Najibullah Zazi, who plotted to bomb the new York Subway, gets a second chance,” CNN, September 28, 2019, https://www.cnn.com/2019/05/01/us/najibullah-zazi-new-york-subway-bomb-plot-sentencing/index.html.

Co-conspirators Ahmedzay and Medunjanin were also apprehended. Ahmedzay pled guilty in April 2010, and was sentenced to 10 years in prison in December 2018. Like Zazi, he is also working as a cooperating witness for the U.S. government.“Al-Qaeda Operative Sentenced to 40 Years in Prison for Role in International Terrorism Plot that Targeted the United States and Europe,” Department of Justice, November 24, 2015, https://www.justice.gov/opa/pr/al-qaeda-operative-sentenced-40-years-prison-role-international-terrorism-plot-targeted; Mikey Light and Larry McShane, “Would-be NYC subway bomber turned "extraordinary" cooperating witness takes step toward freedom,” Daily News, December 14, 2018, https://www.nydailynews.com/new-york/nyc-crime/ny-metro-subway-bomber-sentencing-20181214-story.html. In November 2012, Medunjanin was sentenced to life in prison for multiple terrorism offenses, including his role in plotting to carry out a coordinated suicide attack on the New York City subways. He pled not guilty and denied any involvement throughout his trial.Mosi Secret, “Man Convicted of a Terrorist Plot to Bomb Subways Is Sent to Prison for Life,” New York Times, November 16, 2012, https://www.nytimes.com/2012/11/17/nyregion/adis-medunjanin-convicted-of-subway-bomb-plot-gets-life-sentence.html.

Zazi’s cousin, Amanullah Zazi, also pled guilty in 2010 to facilitating Zazi, Medunjanin, and Ahmedzay’s participation in an al-Qaeda training camp in Pakistan. He also admitted that he had later helped to destroy evidence of Zazi’s bomb-making activities in Denver.“Filed under seal: United States vs. John Doe,” U.S. Department of Justice, January 7, 2010, https://www.investigativeproject.org/documents/case_docs/2085.pdf; “Father of Would-Be Suicide Bomber Convicted of Obstructing Terrorism Investigation,” U.S. Department of Justice, July 22, 2011, https://archives.fbi.gov/archives/newyork/press-releases/2011/father-of-would-be-suicide-bomber-convicted-of-obstructing-terrorism-investigation. In February 2012, Zazi’s father, Mohammed Wali Zazi, was sentenced to four and a half years in prison for impeding an investigation and obstructing justice.Mosi Secret, “Prison for Father Who Lied About Terror Plot,” New York Times, February 10, 2012, https://www.nytimes.com/2012/02/11/nyregion/mohammed-wali-zazi-sentenced-for-lying-about-subway-bomb-plot.html; “Father of Would-Be Suicide Bomber Convicted of Obstructing Terrorism Investigation,” U.S. Department of Justice, July 22, 2011, https://archives.fbi.gov/archives/newyork/press-releases/2011/father-of-would-be-suicide-bomber-convicted-of-obstructing-terrorism-investigation.

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